Through the mass murders of April 18/19, 2020, there was a series of miscommunications and mixed messages between the RCMP and the Truro Police Service such that the killer was able to slowly drive right through the centre of Truro without being noticed or confronted by Truro police.
As the killer wasn’t stopped in Truro, he continued on to Shubenacadie, where he shot and injured Cst. Chad Morris and murdered Cst. Heidi Stevenson, Joey Webber, and Gina Goulet.
“She laughed at me”
On April 18, 2020, the Truro Police Service was operating with just three officers on duty — Sgt. Richard Hickox was in command, overseeing Cst. Kelly Quinn and Cst. Michael Young. Hickox later explained that the department had a skeleton crew of cops on the street because it was trying to avoid COVID, and the COVID lockdowns meant that there wasn’t much going on in any event — the bars were closed, and the town was eerily quiet for a Saturday night.
As the evening progressed, the three officers were getting a sense that something big was going down. An off-duty dispatcher called one of the constables to say there were social media posts about “something happening out in the county,” said Hickox. And sometime after 10pm, Cst. Quinn was patrolling on Robie Street when she saw two RCMP cruisers going “at a very high rate of speed, lights, sirens… they were flying, she’s never seen a car go that fast before.”
The Portapique mayhem started at about 10pm on Saturday. The terrible extent of those incidents wouldn’t be understood until well into the next day, but at 11:27pm Saturday, one victim — Andrew MacDonald — arrived by ambulance at the Colchester East Hants Health Centre (CEHHC) in Truro. MacDonald had been shot, but survived.
At midnight, Erica Lockhat, a nurse at the hospital, called Candace Chornoby at the Truro Police Service dispatch centre to say that the ambulance driver had told her to expect more victims, and that the hospital was under lockdown. “The gunman isn’t captured,” said Lockhat; “they’re rogue.”
That was the first Truro police knew about Portapique. The RCMP had not contacted Truro police directly.
At 12:04am, Hickox had Chornoby dispatch Cst. Young to the hospital, and Young arrived there at 12:06. Young stayed with his police cruiser, guarding the front of the hospital until the end of his shift at 7am.
Also, at 12:05, Hickox wanted to know the extent of the potential threat to the hospital, so called the RCMP Operations Control Centre (OCC, the dispatch centre), and asked to speak with the RCMP risk manager, Staff Sergeant Brian Rehill. The call is recorded in the 911 logs, as follows:
RCMP: RCMP Bonjour
Hickox: Hi, it’s Truro Police
Hickox: Am I able to talk to the Risk Manager?
RCMP: OK, just hold on
Hickox: alright thanks.
That exchange angered him, Hickox later told investigators with the Mass Casualty Commission. “When I called the dispatcher, as soon as I asked to speak with the risk manager, [she] laughed at me and I was kind of taken aback a little bit by that,” said Hickox. “So I responded by laughing back, but it wasn’t in a funny way, it was more like, ‘No, haha, I’m trying to find some information here’ … I … was taken aback when she laughed at me.”
Hickox wasn’t able to speak with Rehill, but the unnamed dispatcher did transfer him to the call-taker supervisor, Donnalee Williston. He asked Williston to notify the Truro Police when the suspect was captured to that the lockdown at the hospital could be ended.
Hickox was clearly annoyed about not being kept in the loop by the RCMP. He explained to Mass Casualty Commission investigators that had he known the severity of the situation in Portapique, he could have had 10 additional officers to respond, all with carbines and body armour.
“We certainly could have provided some assistance… You know, we’re not in Halifax, we’re not in Fredericton. We have people here locally that would come out, and that probably knew the area.”
Hickox never did speak with Rehill through the morning. During his shift, which ended at 6am, all further communications between the RCMP and Truro police went through their respective dispatch centres.
Even those communications were scant.
At 12:55, OCC dispatcher Jen MacCallum called Chornoby to say that a BOLO (be on the look out for) was about to be issued and provided the content of the BOLO — the suspect’s name, his date of birth, the fact that he “is very familiar with guns,” and that he may be driving a white Mercedes (the car Lisa Banfield typically drove). On Hickox’s direction, she texted the constables with that information.
Three minutes later, MacCallum called back to say the suspect might be associated with a second vehicle — a “former police car” or “an old police car.” At 1:07 the BOLO was issued, stating in part that the suspected was associated with a white Mercedes and an “old white police car (may be burned at scene).”
At 1:15am, Hickox called in Detective/Constable Karen Harling to help with the coverage at the hospital. Hickox kept Young at the hospital permanently, and had the other officers patrol around town but also stop by the hospital frequently.
There were no further details about Portapique provided by the RCMP to Truro police, but sometime around 2:30, Hickox happened upon an RCMP SUV driven by Cst. Ian Fahie and Cst. Devonna Coleman.
Fahie and Coleman were assigned to the RCMP’s Antigonish detachment, but because all the Bible Hill RCMP officers were responding to Portapique, Fahie and Coleman were called into cover the non-Portapique calls coming to Bible Hill. However, the pair was locked out of the Bible Hill detachment building, so they instead decided to go to the OCC, which was then in downtown Truro, but as they were not familiar with Truro, they got lost.
Hickox escorted Fahie and Coleman to the OCC, and Fahie told him what he knew about Portapique — that there were “four or five casualties” and “the shooter was still on the loose.”
At the hospital, Andrew MacDonald’s wife Kate showed up, as did Andrew MacDonald’s parents. Young wouldn’t let them in the hospital, but he did learn a bit more about what was going on in Portapique — that Andrew MacDonald had been shot while investigating a fire and, as Hickox understood it, “there was what appeared to be an unmarked police vehicle in this area.”
Then, the adult brother of the two Blair children who had evacuated from Portapique and taken to the hospital showed up, and told Young that their parents had been killed. The brother was allowed in the hospital.
At 4:12am, MacCallum, at the OCC, called back Chornoby at Truro dispatch to say that another BOLO was about to be issued, updating the suspect’s possible vehicles to include a white F-150. Two minutes later, she called again to add a black Jeep to the list. “So all three vehicles associated to him,” said MacCallum. The BOLO was issued at 4:24, listing the Mercedes, the F-150, and the Jeep; the “old white police car” was not listed.
By 5am, Andrew MacDonald and the Blair children had left the hospital, but uncertain what was going on in Portapique, Hickox kept Young assigned to the hospital.
Hickox ended his shift at 6:30am, went home and went to bed.
“My wife actually woke me up at 10:30 that morning and said, ‘There’s something seriously going on here. There’s somebody on the move and he’s shooting people.’ So I didn’t feel very good.”
Shift change at the Truro Police Service started at 5:30am. Cpl. Ed Cormier replaced Hickox as the commander in charge, and Hickox briefed Cormier on what he knew, including the descriptions of the Mercedes, F-150, and Jeep, but from their notes, it doesn’t appear that the two discussed an “old white police car.”
Additionally, Cst. Jason Reeves and Cst. Thomas Widden started their shifts, with Csts. Quinn and Harling going home. Cst. Daniel Taylor was called in at 6am, and he replaced Young at the hospital at about 7am. There was also a shift change at the Truro dispatch centre, with Brittanee Steeves replacing Chornoby.
At 8:03, Cormier called the OCC to ask for an update about Portapique; the call-taker said someone would call him back. Four minutes later, the RCMP issued a BOLO reading in part “SOC [subject of concern] IS POTENTIALLY USING FULLY MARKED FORD TAURUS CAR NUMBER 28B11 AND COULD BE ANYWHERE IN THE PROVINCE.”
At 8:13, RCMP Cst. Trevor Arsenault arrived at the hospital with Lisa Banfield.
Meanwhile, Truro Police Chief David MacNeil was at home. Sometime during this period, Deputy Chief Robert Hearn texted MacNeil to say something was happening in Portapique and it was “on social media.” That’s the first MacNeil had learned of it.
At 8:41, Steeves, the dispatcher, radioed for officers to call her for an updated BOLO (it appears there was a fear the killer had access to a police radio). Cormier called and Steeves repeated the information in the earlier BOLO, adding “So basically he is in a marked police car.”
While Steeves and Cormier were on the phone, RCMP Risk Manager Staff Sergeant Bruce Briers (who had relieved Rehill) called the Truro dispatch, and the call was forwarded to Cormier. Brier told Cormier everything he knew about the fake police car, and added that “we believe there’s more than seven people dead.”
“We don’t know if he’s in the area or if he’s gone,” said Briers. Briers suggested that the lockdown at the hospital be continued, and that Truro cops should wear their hard body armour, “because [Truro cops] could come across [the killer] or that vehicle.” After he hung up, Briers emailed Cormier a phot of the fake police car.
At 8:51, Cormier radioed for Csts. Whidden and Reeves to meet him at the hospital (Cst. Taylor was already there). Cormier briefed the officers on all the updated information, and then forwarded a photo of the fake car to Deputy Chief Hearn.
That is, by 9am, the entire active Truro police force knew that the killer was driving a fake police car and knew that he may not be in Portapique. So what went wrong?
Killer on the move
At 9:43, OCC dispatcher Brittany Oulten called Truro dispatcher Brittanee Steeves, relating the murder of Lillian Campbell:
Uh, Highway 4 in Wentworth, that’s Cumberland County. So we have what sounds to be a sudden death. It came in via 911 probably about nine minutes now. The complainant is MaryAnn Jay and she is reporting that her neighbour, a female Lillian in her 50s, was found dead on the side of the road… the complainant thinks that the person has either been shot or hit by a car, so it’s unsure, but she is deceased. The complainant did hear a loud bang and she believes she saw an RCMP vehicle, so that’s a concern because our guy from last night is believed to be driving [such a car]… And the vehicle, I’m calling because it did leave heading towards Truro.
At 9:45, Steeves radioed for officers to call in with an update, and Cpl. Cormier and Cst. Taylor phoned jointly. Said Steeves, in part:
OK, the time delay of nine minutes and the call came in at 9:42, a woman found another deceased woman laying on the side of the road, and they saw an RCMP cruiser in the area.
Steeves did not say the police car was heading towards Truro.
On the same call, Taylor offered up some misinformation:
Taylor: I was just talking to the Mounties. They think they got him, they got a fully marked cruiser up on Highway 4 by Wentworth, and a deceased driver, so maybe he shot himself?
Cormier: No, they got a deceased lady, according to Brittanee.
Taylor: Well, in the Mountie there just told me that they think they may have got him. They found a marked cruiser on Highway 4 near Wentworth and the driver was deceased, is what he told me. So fuck, it could be a real Mountie, but I don’t know.
Cormier: We’ll treat it as though he is still on the loose.
Frustratingly, in their questioning of Taylor, Mass Casualty Commission investigators didn’t drill down into how he obtained the false information that the killer was dead.
At 9:48, Steeves called Cormier back to say “I forgot the most important part — the RCMP cruiser is heading towards Truro.”
At 9:50, Truro Police Chief David MacNeil emailed RCMP Chief Superintendent Chris Leather, cc’ing Assistant Superintendent Lee Bergerman, offering to help: “If Colchester needs any support from Truro Police Service today let me know.” (Recall that Hickox said he could summon as many as 10 carbine-armed officers.)
At 9:53, Cormier texted Deputy Chief Hearn:
Cormier: Dead woman found along route 4 Wentworth, Mountie car seen in the area. Believed to be heading toward Truro.
Hearn: K ur people r ready?
Cormier: We’re ready!!
Hearn: K, the insp is coming to assist you guys
At that moment, Cormier and Taylor were at the hospital, Reeves was across the street at the Rath Eastlink Community Centre, and Whidden was on Highway 236, heading east towards Highway 102.
At 10:00, MacNeil heard back from Leather: “Thanks, Dave. It sounds like we may have the suspect pinned down in Wentworth.” Leather appears to have been referring to the Emergency Response Team’s movement at the Fisher residence in Glenholme.
The killer drives through Truro
We can’t know what the various players were thinking.
Taylor later said that while he was at the hospital, he was contemplating what he would do if an RCMP cruiser pulled up — how would he know if it were a real or a fake cop? But Taylor also conveyed the misinformation that the killer was dead.
Cormier rejected Taylor’s misinformation, and said his officers were prepared to confront the killer. But Cormier seems to have had a narrow understanding of the threat, concentrating his officers at the hospital, and not about town generally.
It’s unknown if Chief MacNeil had conveyed Leather’s suggestion that the killer was “pinned down” in Wentworth, but MacNeil remained at home.
Certainly, neither the OCC, Leather, nor anyone else at the RCMP conveyed any great sense of urgency to the Truro Police.
We now know that the killer drove the fake police car through the main streets of Bible Hill and Truro from 10:11am to 10:20. His vehicle was captured on video at the follwing times and sites:
10:07 — Onslow Belmont Fire Hall
10:11 — on Highway 4, just east of Highway 104 (Patterson Sales)
10:15 — Century Honda on Main Street
10:15 — Walker and Queen Streets (Wilson Gas)
10:16 — Walker and Prince Streets (Dairy Queen)
10:17 — Esplanade Street and Inglish Place (Jimolly’s Bakery)
10:19 — 36 Arthur Street (Nova Scotia Community College)
10:19 — Arther Street and Highway 2 (Best Western)
Throughout the nine minutes it took the killer to traverse Bible Hill and Truro, Taylor remained at the hospital, and Whidden was at the Truro Police Station.
At 10:11, Cormier was at the hospital, but he soon left to head to the police station, where he arrived at about 10:15 — the killer travelled on Esplanade Street a block from the police station just two minutes later.
At 10:11, Reeves was patrolling near Victoria Park. He then headed north on Highway 2, which was the killer’s imminent path. But at 10:16, Reeves turned left on McClures Mill Road to head to the hospital, missing the killer by about three minutes.
At 10:21:53, after the killer had driven through Truro, Britany Oulter at the OCC called Brittanee Steeves at Truro dispatch to inform her of the Plains Road murders and to suggest that the killer may be heading to Truro.
The tweet with the photo of the fake police car went out at 10:21am. Just four minutes later, at 10:25, a OCC dispatcher, Megan Blanchard called a family member, worried about her father. “He probably should not be driving anywhere near Colchester or Cumberland at the moment,” said Blanchard.
As with Cst. Nick Dorrington, who called his wife to warn her that the killer was on the loose, Blanchard is in no way at fault for the failure of issuing an emergency alert, and her concern for her family is understandable.
But RCMP employees with direct knowledge of the threat warning their loved ones personally is in stark contrast to the failure to meaningfully warn the public generally.
Consider Joey Webber. When he woke up that Sunday morning, he and his wife discussed Portapique, but judged the community was too far distant to be of any threat to them. By 10am, when Webber left his home to get fuel oil, the RCMP had known for two hours that the killer could be driving a fake police car and could be anywhere in the province. Webber left his home with his phone and arrived at the Esso at 10:37. By that time, the RCMP tweet showing the killer’s fake car had gone out, but Webber was driving, and doesn’t appear to have had a Twitter account in any event. Had an emergency alert gone out, he perhaps would have been aware of the danger and avoided the peril that loomed before him. Instead, when he approached the Shubenacadie cloverleaf at 10:53 and saw two police cars on fire, he got out to help. That selfless act cost him his life.
Blanchard’s call to her family was interrupted by a call from an off-duty Truro cop, Cst. Scott Milvary.
“I live out here in Masstown,” said Milvary. “I was on my way home; I passed a marked RCMP unit in Onslow… probably 10 minutes ago.”
As with Webber, if Milvary had been told about the fake police car earlier, the subsequent events could possibly have been avoided.
False alarm at Sobeys
At 10:37, OCC dispatcher Kristen Baglee called Brittanee Steeves at Truro Dispatch to say that the RCMP risk manager, Staff Seargent Bruce Briers, wanted Truro Police to “lock down” Truro. Steeves transferred the call to Cormier.
“We’ve had multiple shooting complaints really recently,” said Baglee. “Kind of Highway 4, Debert. He’s working in that area it seems.”
“When you say ‘shut down,” what do you mean?” asked Cormier. “Maybe you can do some road blocks on the main,” offered Baglee.
While Cormier was on the phone with Baglee, Truro Police Inspector Darrin Smith radioed to all Truro police officers, telling them to tell anyone they saw walking around to go home. “Tell them there’s an emergency going on, it’s not safe to be outside,” said Smith. “All units just advise everybody they see to go home. Right now.”
Smith later told Mass Casualty Commission investigators that the suggestion to “shut down” or “lock down” Truro seemed like a panicked response, just tossed out to do something. “What do you mean lock down the town?” said Smith. “Where? Like where do they suspect the guy is? Are we talking about controlling the access points down on Main Street, coming in from Bible Hill to Walker Street? Are we talking about controlling the highway up there? Are we talking about up by the hospital? Are we talking about the power centre?”
Three more on-call officers were brought in, and Smith told the dispatcher to call businesses that might be open to tell them to lock down their stores. Walmart was called at 11:02, and was locked down. As Smith considered putting a road block near the hospital, word arrived that the killer had been spotted in Milford, 45 kilometres to the south, so no road blocks were established.
But the warnings to businesses added an element of confusion. The Sobeys in Lower Truro locked down, and the employees were sent to a back room. This frightened one 17-year-old who worked there; he called his mother, and his mother then called 911 at 11:10.
“My son is working at the Sobeys on Robie Street and he’s telling me that that guy that’s shoot, shooter is there,” the woman told the call-taker. “He says they’re all the back, in a back room, but he knows that the shooter’s there… he just told me, he just said that there was a shooter there that wa—, was, wants to kill people…. He’s, he’s seventeen, and I don’t, he’s not communicating very well.”
This frightened response from a frightened boy translated into an unfortunate misdirection by police. Baglee, the OCC dispatcher, called Steeves, the Truro dispatcher. “Last known the suspect is in Sobeys in Lower Truro on Robie Street,” said Baglee. “Um., he, he has multiple weapons.”
The mother never said the person her son was cowering from had “multiple weapons,” and it’s unclear how Baglee obtained that information.
In any event, with the exception of Whidden, who stayed at the hospital, all Truro cops descended on the Sobeys, as did the RCMP Emergency Alert Team from New Brunswick, which was in the area. Moreover, RCMP officers in pursuit of the killer in the Elmsdale area were confused by the sighting reported in Truro. Some thought it was a mistaken report about the killer being at the Elmsdale Sobeys, and so went there.
In the end, the false Sobeys report was caused by a kind of telephone game, frightened teenager to scared mother to confused dispatcher to jittery cops, each adding a layer of confusion and misinformation that resulted in an overwhelming armed police response to an imagined shooter. Thankfully, no one was mistakenly shot by police at either Sobeys, and the killer didn’t kill anyone else during the confusion.
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Shitty maps seem to be a trend here.
The Bible Hill RCMP detachment could literally be on that map, as it at the extreme east side of Highway 4, as shown. And the Millbrook detachment is on the #2, south of the end of the map, perhaps 1KM but before any significant way off the #4; GW would have literally driven by the station.
No, able to drive through the town is not a good look for TPS. But GW literally drove by one RCMP station and was within 2km of another.
I didn’t even know about the Sobeys false alarm until now. I’m still perplexed by all of this, especially the RCMP’s comms to neighbouring agencies. Also who the hell answers a request to speak with a Risk management officer with a laugh in any circumstance?
Thanks for your (and the Examiner’s) continued reporting Tim.
There is so much happening here.
I find it hard just to visualize where everyone is and when. One almost feels like the need of an animated map with the location of all actors backed up by audio of what was being said and a voice-over explaining the significance. The chaos is unbelievable. I would not have liked to have been a cop trying to make sense of this as it unfolded.
Thanks for following it so closely Tim.
The long-standing arrogance of the RCMP towards what they consider as amateur police agencies (I have heard senior RCMP actually use that term) obviously cost lives in this case. I believe it is time that the RCMP get out of any community response based policing.