The Onslow Belmont Fire Hall.
The Onslow Belmont Fire Hall. Photo: Jennifer Henderson Credit: Jennifer Henderson

Cst. Terry Brown and Cst. David Melanson were the Mounties who fired five shots at a man standing next to a parked police vehicle outside the Onslow Fire Hall at 10:21 am Sunday, April 19, 2020.

Their names are included in the notes from two senior RCMP officers entered as exhibits at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry.

The officers — who had been notified the killer had taken another victim in Wentworth and was spotted wearing a reflective vest driving a lookalike police car — believed the man outside the fire hall to be the killer. 

The two police officers jumped out of their unmarked vehicle — a Nissan Altima — and began firing their rifles. Fortunately, no one was injured. The target of the shooting and the three volunteer firefighters inside were terrified. The fire truck and fire hall were damaged by bullets and shrapnel. 

Notes from Staff-Sergeant Steve Halliday describe what happened as “a case of mistaken identity.”

The man wearing the reflective vest was in fact an EMO (Emergency Measures Organization) official who was talking to a parked RCMP officer about using the fire hall as a comfort centre for families disrupted by the violence. 

A year ago today, a report from the Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) that investigated the shoot up described what it learned (“SO2” and “SO1” are short-hand terms for “Subject Officers,” while “AP1” and “AP2” are code for “Affected Parties” — the EMO official, AP2, and the parked police officer, AP1):

 SO2, who was driving the vehicle, stopped in the middle of the road and tried several times to advise other officers of what they were seeing by using the mobile radio in the vehicle. SO2 could not get through because the radio “bonged.” Both SO1 and SO2 got out of their vehicle with their rifles. SO2 tried again to advise other officers of what they were seeing, this time by using a portable radio, but still could not get through because again the radio “bonged.”

SO1 yelled to AP2 “police” and “show your hands.” AP2 did not show his hands but rather ducked behind the marked police car then popped up and ran toward the fire hall entrance. The SOs fired their weapons. SO1 fired four shots and SO2 fired one shot. Neither AP2 who had run into the fire hall nor AP1 who, unbeknownst to the SOs, was sitting in the police vehicle, were struck by the shots.

Colchester RCMP District Commander Al Carroll’s handwritten notes show that at about 1030am, he heard a radio transmission of “a blue on blue” situation but he he did not know where it was or which officers were involved. Shortly thereafter his notes show: 

Received a call from Cst Terry Brown who advised of discharging his weapon. Confirmed with him that nobody had been injured. So this situation was dynamic. I did not get into details with him and advised we would deal with this later. Was unaware at the time that a civilian had been involved.

Brown and Melanson were specialized GIS (General Investigation Section) officers Carroll had called in from Bible Hill just before 3am Sunday. Carroll asked them to check if there was video available from cameras on the 102 or 104 highways.

Following the murder of Lillian Campbell at approximately 9:30 on the Wentworth Road, Brown and Melanson were re-assigned to assist with the pursuit of the killer who would claim several other victims on his drive south toward Dartmouth. 

Brown and Melanson were the same two officers who spoke with Lisa Banfield before the ambulance left Great Village and learned from her the killer was driving a fourth replica police car loaded with guns similar to what the military use. 

Two tweets. The first: "#Colchester: Gabriel Wortman may be driving what appears to be an RCMP vehicle & may be wearing an RCMP uniform. There's 1 difference btwn his car and our RCMP vehicles: the car #. The suspect's car is 28B11, behind rear passenger window. If you see 28B11 call 911 immediately." The second: "Gabriel Wortman is currently in the #CentralOnslow #Debert area in a vehicle that may resemble what appears to be an RCMP vehicle & may be wearing what appears to be an RCMP uniform. Please stay inside and avoid the area. #RCMPNS"

At 10:17am, just four minutes before Brown and Melanson drew their weapons, a tweet had gone out to officers and the public warning them to be on the lookout for a suspect driving a replica police vehicle. 

The SIRT investigation cleared the RCMP officers and found no criminal charges were warranted because the officers had “lawful reason” to believe they had come upon the killer. 

Bullet holes in the Onslow Belmont Fire Hall.
Bullet holes in the Onslow Belmont Fire Hall. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

The officers had twice attempted to make radio contact before drawing their weapons is a relevant fact. The SIRT investigation went to some trouble to confirm that the reason the GIS officers did not get the information they needed to prevent the incident was that there was so much activity over the airwaves. 

“The sole reason why SO2 was unable to transmit what they were seeing was because there was no available talk path due to the heavy volume of radio traffic,” reads the SIRT decision of March 2, 2021. The SIRT report provides insight into what was happening with police communications during the manhunt for the killer. It states:

“Bonging out” or being “bonged out” can mean one of two things: either the radio is in a poor coverage area and cannot communicate with the radio Tower or the radio Tower is at capacity and does not have an available talk path. Portable radios are equipped with an Emergency Request to Talk (ERTT) button . If the button is activated the request to talk is recorded as a track with no audio. SO1 and SO2 made a total of 70 radio transmissions, all on the Colchester radio channel, from the time of their first transmission at 5:11 a.m. to 10:21 a.m. when they fired their weapons. 36 of these radio transmissions were recorded and transcribed as having no audio”.

The SIRT report says there were more than 5000 radio transmissions made over the Colchester radio channel during the 13 hours of the manhunt. But as this story unfolds through the presentation of documents and testimony, what the public may want to know is whether there was adequate communication among RCMP officers that could have helped prevent some of the later deaths. 

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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