Lillian Hyslop. Photo: Facebook.

Wentworth Valley resident Heather Matthews believes her walking companion might still be alive if the RCMP or Nova Scotia’s Emergency Measures Organization (EMO) had issued a special alert early Sunday morning to stay inside. Instead, she says Wentworth resident Lillian Hyslop — a 60 year old, community-minded person, and parent — was gunned down during her daily walk by a killer who had already taken multiple victims and was the subject of a 10-hour manhunt.

“If there is ever — hopefully never a next time — let people know,” urges Matthews. “There’s so many different reasons why we should be given an alert that could save lives. They give us the Amber alert, we get the COVID-19 alert twice over the Easter weekend?”

Heather Matthews lives above the former Highway 104, known locally as “The Four,” that runs past the Wentworth Ski Hill north toward Oxford. She and her husband David were walking Sunday morning along a forested path parallel to the road when they heard what they described as a single gunshot. Heather estimates the time of the shooting at 9:20-9:30am because she had checked the clock before leaving home.

When the couple returned home, they had a phone call from a neighbour warning them to lock their doors and not go outside because there were reports a gunman was in the area. Heather Matthews immediately called Lillian Hyslop’s mother-in-law to tell her, but it was too late. Lillian had already left for her daily walk. She died near the entrance to the Wentworth Provincial Park.

“I really believe if there had have been an alert sent out, some of these random people that were shot would not have been shot,” Matthews told the Halifax Examiner. “The people he had targeted, that’s one thing. But these people he got just because they were there?”

“The women [employed by the VON] like Kristen Beaton and Heather O’Brien who were out driving. Perhaps if they had been given warning…,” Matthews’ voice trailed off.

There are also questions in the community about whether Tom Bagley, 70, would have died if an alert had been issued over the cellphone network or the radio. Bagley was out for a walk when he saw a house burning on Hunter Road. Two people inside, Corrections Canada managers Sean McLeod and Alanna Jenkins, perished in the blaze. The Wentworth Fire Department was notified about the fire, but firefighters were instructed not to respond because the situation was too dangerous. Bagley didn’t know that. The retired firefighter with the Canadian Armed Forces went to help and was shot and killed by the gunman.

Notification by Twitter

At 9pm on Saturday night, the RCMP communications people were evidently in a good mood. They posted a fun tweet, which in hindsight is eerily sad:

It’s Saturday and our #9PMROUTINE is complete! That means we get to relax for the evening and sleep in tomorrow. 💤 Are you done your #lockup? When you are, share this post! 🔐

— RCMP Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 19, 2020

An hour and a half later, at 10:26pm, RCMP officers “responded to a possible shooting” in Portapique, said RCMP Chief Superintendent Chris Leather at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

At about 11:08 pm, a first responder at Portapique reported that:

So there’s a structure fire. There’s a person down there with a gun. They’re still looking for him. The patient we have got shot by him. He was just down there observing the fire, checking out the fire, so there could be other patients around the fire that could be gone already, but we’re not sure. Police are stationed at the end of the road there on the 2, not letting anybody down any further but it’s very vague what’s going on down there but there is for sure multiple patients down there.

So police knew there were “multiple” people shot and the gunman was on the loose, but at about 11:30pm, the RCMP tweeted only that there was a “firearms complaint” in the Portapique area.

#RCMPNS is responding to a firearms complaint in the #Portapique area. (Portapique Beach Rd, Bay Shore Rd and Five Houses Rd.) The public is asked to avoid the area and stay in their homes with doors locked at this time.

— RCMP Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 19, 2020

Leather said that the search for the gunman continued “into the evening and early morning hours on Sunday. In response to new information indicating the suspect was not in the secure perimeter [around Portapique], at 8:02am on Sunday, the RCMP began providing real-time information on its Nova Scotia RCMP Twitter account.”

But the 8:02am tweet implied only that the shooter was in the Portapique area:

#RCMPNS remains on scene in #Portapique. This is an active
shooter situation. Residents in the area, stay inside your homes & lock your
doors. Call 911 if there is anyone on your property. You may not see the police
but we are there with you #Portapique.

— RCMP Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 19, 2020

The next tweet from the RCMP came at 8:54 AM, and it carried a photo of the suspect along with this message. The only hash-tagged location in the message was Portapique.

Around this time, there was the house fire on Hunter Road in Wentworth, over 40 kilometres from Portapique, where the two corrections officers — Alanna Jenkins and Sean McLeod — lived. Only later, on Monday, would the RCMP add their names to the list of the perpetrator’s victims, along with that of Tom Bagley, the 70-year-old neighbour and retired firefighter who went to the burning house to see if he could help, only to be shot and killed. And Lillian Hyslop was killed while walking along The Four.

At that point, there had been no mention in RCMP tweets that the killer had left Portapique, or of any danger in Wentworth, and yet the RCMP told firefighters not to attend the scene because of the danger of the gunman.

The next tweet came at 10:04am:

#RCMPNS is advising people to avoid Hwy 4 near Hidden Hilltop Campground in #Glenholme. Gabriel Wortman is in the area. Please stay inside your homes and lock your doors. #Portapique

— RCMP Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 19, 2020

The very first reply to that tweet came from “MaritimeGirL” who wrote:

This should be announced on the emergency alert system. People out there driving may have no clue.

At 10:13am Sunday first responders reported two cars in “MVA” (motor vehicle accident) with “possible entrapment” (people trapped in the vehicles) at 1760 Plains Road in Debert:

At 10:15am, said Leather, the Emergency Management Office (EMO) “contacted the RCMP to offer the use of the public emergency alerting system. We were in the process of preparing an alert when the gunman was shot and killed by the RCMP.”

The problem with that explanation is that an hour and 25 minutes elapsed between 10:15 and the time the Twitter account announced that the gunman was “in custody” (curiously, the account did not say the gunman was killed).

During that period, nine more tweets were issued.

Two connected tweets at 10:17am and 10:21am:

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

— RCMP Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 19, 2020

Those tweets elicited an immediate tweeted reply from Joanne Roberge, who tagged Premier Stephen McNeil:

If there was ever a time to send out an emergency sound off alert to everyone’s phone it is now! You sent it out on Easter to have people stay home this is just as serious.

Another two at 10:39am:

Thank you for your understanding as we work to provide the most updated information while addressing public and officer safety. 2/2 #Portapique #CentralOnslow #Debert #Glenholme #Colchester

— RCMP Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 19, 2020

And another one at 11:04am:

Gabriel Wortman, suspect in active shooter investigation, last seen travelling southbound on Hwy #102 from #Brookfield area in what appears to be RCMP vehicle & may be wearing RCMP uniform. Suspect’s car is 28B11, behind rear passenger window. If you see 28B11 call 911.

— RCMP Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 19, 2020

Once again there was an immediate reply from a follower — Levi Marshall — asking for an alert:

Can we get an emergency alert please! Not everyone checks their phones after waking up?

Yet another tweet at 11:06am:

Gabriel Wortman, suspect in active shooter investigation, now believed to be driving small silver Chevrolet SUV. Travelling southbound on Hwy #102 from #Brookfield area If seen, call 911.

— RCMP Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 19, 2020

At that time, Joey Webber was “on a family errand towards Shubenacadie,” Halifax councillor Steve Streatch told the Halifax Examiner. “[Joey’s] father told me this morning that [Joey] came right up around the ramp where the police cars were on fire there. He just left the service station to come up around, and he met the face of evil.”

Joey was killed. The gunman took the silver Chevy Tracker Joey had been driving.

The RCMP tweeted out at 11:24am:

Confirmed suspect vehicle is silver Chevy Tracker. Last seen #Milford. If seen, call 911.

— RCMP Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 19, 2020

Then at 11:35am:

To clarify, the suspect in our active shooter investigation, Gabriel Wortman, is NOT employed by the RCMP but he may be wearing an RCMP uniform. He is considered armed and dangerous. If you see him, do NOT approach and call 911 immediately.

— RCMP Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 19, 2020

And finally, at 11:40am:

Gabriel Wortman, suspect in active shooter investigation, is now in custody. More information will be released when available. Thank you for your cooperation and support. #Colchester

— RCMP Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 19, 2020

Oddly, the final tweet did not mention that the gunman was killed.

How do emergency alerts work?

At today’s daily COVID-19 briefing, Canadian Press reporter Keith Doucette had the following exchange with Premier Stephen McNeil:

Doucette: The US Consulate in Halifax issued an email alert to their citizens on Sunday about an active shooter based on the Nova Scotia RCMP’s Twitter feed. Why was the province waiting for official word from the Mounties before issuing an emergency alert?

McNeil: Well, that’s the protocol in place when it comes to EMO. As you know, the emergency alert, the lead agency is the one who has to put the message together. We would not go by what’s happening by Twitter. We would need the lead agency to actually craft the message so that we could put that out and no message was received even though EMO had reached out a number of times throughout the morning to the RCMP.

Doucette: Why did you have EMO staff in anyway? It appears that you were anticipating that something was needed and then nothing happened. Is that a question for you, that you’re wondering about?

McNeil: That command centre would’ve been going around COVID, so we stood that on early on, EMO put that up. But through a number of things that we were seeing on, or the EMO staff was seeing on Twitter, they called in their support staff around the alert message team and then began to reach out to the RCMP, who would have to craft the message or work with our team to craft that message and no message was received.

This morning, the Emergency Management Office confirmed to the Halifax Examiner that the Provincial Coordination Centre (PCC), from which emergency alerts can be issued, has been staffed seven days a week (but not nights) since the COVID-19 State of Emergency was declared on March 22.

The Halifax Examiner was not provided the opportunity to ask a question at the COVID-19 briefing. But we wanted to follow up the exchange between Doucette and McNeil by asking: What exactly is the emergency alert system for, if not for making the quick decision to alert the public to imminent danger?

McNeil seemed to be describing a complex alert system, such that the PCC first has to be staffed, and then get an “ask” from whatever the lead agency is in the case of an emergency. Then, the lead agency, perhaps in cooperation with the EMO, has to “craft” an alert, and only then can the alert be activated.

Is this bureaucratic system overly complex? What if the emergency happens at night, or otherwise when the PCC isn’t staffed? More to the point, what happens if the emergency the public is to be alerted about has a timeframe shorter than the hour and 25 minutes it took between the EMO asking the RCMP to request an alert and the RCMP crafting it? What if there are only moments to spare, as in the case of a tsunami, or tornado, or missile attack — or, as it turns out, a mass murderer on the loose?

Can the alert system serve to alert anyone to a real impending emergency?

Terry Canning thinks the system can work just fine; it just didn’t this time. Canning was the emergency communications coordinator for the province for 15 years. Before that he was a specialist in multi-agency trunked mobile radio systems. He is now a radio communications consultant.

We contacted Canning to ask about the lack of an emergency alert during Sunday’s murder spree.

“Somebody within the Royal Constabulary fucked up big time,” said Canning in an interview with the Examiner Wednesday evening. “And relying on fucking Twitter of all things.”

Canning said he has no immediate knowledge of events over the weekend, but “in my experience, and I’ve been in the emergency response field for 35 years, you would appoint a public information officer pretty quickly in a situation like that. And one of the first responsibilities of a PIO is to distribute information. Obviously, the most efficient way to do that was through the provincial public alert system, without a doubt.”

Canning said that even when the PCC is closed, an EMO staffer is on call 24 hours a day, “and they have to be within landline or cellphone range during their shift.” They also carry radios.

He couldn’t say for sure if the off-hours staffer can issue an alert without travelling to the PCC, but he thinks it likely.

“I’d be very surprised if they don’t have some means through the internet, obviously, to get on line and issue the alert from wherever they are, but that’s outside my scope of knowledge — I can’t say that categorically, but I’d be very surprised if one of the duty officers couldn’t be able to do that wherever they happen to be, so long as they have internet service.

The Examiner has requested a copy of the procedures and policies for issuing an emergency alert, but as of publication, the EMO has not provided it.

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Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. Kudos to the Examiner team. Your work is extremely important and the quality and depth of your reporting is refreshing. I watched the RCMP inspector Leather and the CBC news interview on the 22nd; and thought is was embarrassingly weak. If that’s the best they can do; don’t bother.

  2. Tim Bousquet and the whole Examiner Team;
    In my view you folks are the last, and finest vestige of accurate, thorough and timely reporting in all of the Maritimes. Thank you for your hard work and dogged efforts, so far on this horrid tragedy. Please continue to find and report the true-details and to speak truth to power in print.
    The Maritimes need you now more than ever.

  3. Trust is what Wortman relied upon here : Nova Scotians trust police in ways that in many other countries people generally do not.
    Equally, if a friend turns up with a gun to go hunting with you, what Nova Scotian first demands that his friend show him his rifle permit ?
    Even if the hunting buddy is a very experience prison guard, someone who has heard every con in the book and then some, like Sean McLeod —- who the G & M describes as a former hunting buddy —— of the non-legal-gun-owning Wortman…

  4. This is an extremely well done piece. Thank you for the great coverage on this tragic matter.

  5. Lots of 20/20 hind sight happening here. I suspect the RCMP erroneously thought at the time that they would stop him any minute so sending out an emergency broadcast could have been a moot point. However, the emergency alert system exist as essentially a social media system on steroids. An initial alert similar to their initial tweet could have been made with the proviso to follow social media for updates. It was not a case of “crafting” a message for the alert system. It should have been a cut and paste from their twitter post.

    1. Truly award-winning work here – yet another example of why the Examiner is so important to journalism in Nova Scotia. And I can imagine the effort involved took its toll on all of you; never easy slogging through the details of a tragedy of this magnitude. Thank you.

  6. Excellent work Tim et al. The revelation that RCMP instructed Wentworth fire department not to respond to the house fire on Sunday morning but provided *no* information to the public at that point that there was any risk to the public in Wentworth (even setting aside whether Twitter is sufficient), is particularly shocking. Question: where did that information come from? It wasn’t obvious to me in the piece, was there a radio transmission to that effect, or did you receive that info from police or fire?

  7. Great reporting!

    The confusion around what was happening is very easy to understand, and it underlines how brave the responders are and how difficult it must have been for dispatchers and others who were dealing with a situation they likely could never imagine would happen.

    It is clear that the emergency alert system should have been used, and given that the RCMP have stated they are very satisfied with how the communications was done the Examiner’s reporting is all the more important. An authority other than the RCMP must call for an investigation of the communications and develop a plan to make sure that mistake never happens again.

    On another note, I am hoping that there is counselling being made available to all those involved with responding to the situation, both directly and indirectly. I would assume so, except this communications fiasco has reminded me not to make assumptions.

  8. There are some many questions. The comment below made by Insp Leather at yesterdays news conference is very concerning.

    “At 10:15am, said Leather, the Emergency Management Office (EMO) “contacted the RCMP to offer the use of the public emergency alerting system.”

    Did they not know the emergency alert system was available to them? Did they think it was the EMO’s responsibility to contact them? The words “to offer the use of ” are despicable public relations weasel words crafted by PR bureaucrats in Ottawa.

    Good work Tim, keep on this story.

  9. This tragedy will have profound political ramifications for McNeil. The initial error on not informing Nova Scotians, above all, rural Nova Scotians without good internet, was the RCMP.

    We Nova Scotians are their indirect employers , McNeil is their direct employer.
    Instead of defending Nova Scotians by demanding more forthright answers from his RCMP employees, he defends their IN-actions by giving off bureaucratic excuses as to why are public servants didn’t react to an emergency situation at. well, emergency speed.

    In a week or three, Tim Houston will be slowly going back and forth across rural ridings from Hants to Antigonish asking these sort of questions – and he will the election !

    Halifax and South West Nova might remain Liberal, but for the rest, McNeil will be toast – unless he starts putting some backbone in his interactions with the NS RCMP brass.

    It is not as if he is interfering in a criminal case being prepared against Wortman – he is simply asking how his/our employees, trained & well paid to act decisively in an emergency, ACTUALLY acted in a real emergency….

  10. My phone (and I assume all others with the feature) has settings for

    Emergency alert
    Extreme alerts
    Severe alerts
    AMBER alerts
    WPAS test alerts
    All of them except “Emergency” can be disabled.

    I have no idea what the criteria are, BUT the recent COVID-19 announcement must have been in the top, “Emergency”, category as it is the only category enabled on my phone and I received it.

    So a notification about staying home is an emergency, but an rampaging gunman is not worthy of that categorisation!
    So awfully sad — Terry Canning is right the system is FUCKED UP BIG TIME! … and MUST BE FIXED!

  11. The RCMP tweet at 8:54AM is not on their twitter account. I don’t remember it from Sunday morning. When did they remove it? Why was it removed? Are they permitted to remove tweets? Wouldn’t it be considered evidence?

    I heard tonight (CTV or CBC news) that the cruisers were set on fire with the oil from the containers Joey Webber (victim) had in his SUV.

    The Millbrook video shows him stopped at 10:55AM. 12min later the RCMP tweet that he’s already got away in the silver SUV (Webber’s). That’s after he drives all the way to Shubenacadie, gets taken out by the other cruiser, murders Stevenson, Webber, and sets the fire. Time line seems off.

    One good thing, the RCMP held back the fire departments that night. They would have been sitting ducks.

  12. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
    Preparation implies spending money.
    What is the point of having a fire and evacuation drill in a tall apartment building at 2 p.m. on a nice sunny day ?
    If you want to know how well prepared you are you have an emergency drill at 2 a.m on a snowy night in early February.
    This incident requires a public inquiry and we should all call our federal and provincial representatives and demand an inquiry; not to lay blame but to find out how to better respond to a major incident.
    And then we can have a public inquiry into why Canada was not properly equipped to deal with a pandemic.