Two years ago last April, health care workers Heather O’Brien and Kristen Beaton were killed in their cars on the Plains Road near Debert by a gunman posing as a police officer driving a look-a-like RCMP cruiser. Their murders took place just before 10am on Sunday April 19.
According to a document released today by the Mass Casualty Commission (MCC), both women had been following RCMP posts on social media about an active shooter situation in nearby Portapique.
Heather O’Brien had even forwarded a co-worker a photograph of the suspect the RCMP had tweeted and posted to Facebook shortly before 9am.
The tweet at 8:54am read:
51-year-old [killer’s name] is the suspect in our active shooter investigation in #Portapique. There are several victims. He is considered armed and dangerous. If you see him, call 911. DO NOT approach. He’s described as a white man, bald, 6’2-6’3, green eyes. (photo attached)
What neither woman knew (nor victims Tom Bagley and Lillian Campbell, who were gunned down while out walking in Wentworth earlier the same morning) was that the killer was driving a fake police car tricked out to look like a real RCMP vehicle. Had they known that, would they have stayed home? Why wasn’t that information conveyed to the public at the same time as the identity of the suspect who had murdered multiple people the night before and whose whereabouts were still unknown to police?
The document released today, entitled “RCMP Public Communications,” attempts to answer that question but falls short.
Over the next two days, the MCC will hear from two communications officers with the RCMP about the pressure they faced to get accurate messages out to the public, as well as from an RCMP employee who was contacted by the provincial Emergency Management Office (EMO) late Sunday morning with an offer to send out a public alert through cellphones. That prospect emerged only an hour before the manhunt ended when police shot the suspect, so it may have come too late to have made any difference.
But why the RCMP didn’t release a photograph of the car the killer was travelling in is worth trying to unravel.
The RCMP Public Communications document makes clear that by 7:30am on Sunday, an hour after the killer’s common-law spouse Lisa Banfield emerged from the woods, Banfield’s family had provided Halifax police with a photo of the killer and a photo of the replica police car he was believed to be driving. That photo was immediately forwarded to the RCMP.
By 7:55 am, RCMP Sgt. Steve Halliday had confirmed the car was not one of the burned out Ford Tauruses found in Portapique, and Halliday had directed Staff-Sergeant Addie MacCallum to work with the RCMP’s director of strategic communications, Lia Scanlan, to get a message out to the public “ASAP.”
The Public Communications document notes that Scanlan had been briefed earlier that morning by Halliday about the shootings and six known victims in Portapique.
Scanlan had also had a discussion at 7:43am with Chief Supt. Chris Leather, who was the Criminal Operations Officer in charge of the provincial RCMP. Leather’s jot notes show they discussed the active shooter incident, that a tweet should go out to the public conveying information the shooter is still alive but not issue the photograph or name of the gunman — “not there right now,” reads Leather’s notes.
That direction appeared to change after a subsequent discussion Scanlan had with Halliday around 8am, when Halliday discussed the need to release the photos and a carefully worded message about the suspect and the fake police vehicle without creating “a frantic panic” among citizens who might overwhelm the 911 system at a time when it was most critical.
Scanlan’s notes show she appears to have gotten back to Leather: “advised Chris of approach and that public safety trumps all else. He agreed.”
Although Halliday had been given the authority by Jeff West, the Critical Incident Commander, to manage communications with the public, Halliday relied on MacCallum to be Scanlan’s direct contact in the field.
It was MacCallum who emailed Scanlan the photograph of the suspect at 8:02am. It’s unclear if Scanlan received the photograph of the police car — she claimed she doesn’t recall — which may explain why the vehicle wasn’t mentioned in the first tweet Scanlan prepared and sent out at 8:54am.
(Tweets also have a limited number of characters, which may have been a reason for separating the messages. Scanlan had worked as the RCMP’s Communications coordinator during the Moncton police shootings in 2014, where Twitter was an effective tool to reach the public in an urban area, but cellphone coverage in rural Nova Scotia in 2020 was much more limited.)
After Halliday ordered him to check in with Communications, MacCallum did send both the photo of the suspect and the photo of the replica car between 8:30 and 8:45am. MacCallum stayed on the phone with Scanlan while she asked someone else to crop Lisa Banfield out of the photograph so only the suspect’s face was displayed.
Scanlan described how emotional she felt after reading the details of the description for MacCallum’s approval. “Okay, I’m hitting Send. I’m hitting Send. That was a big moment for me. It was an odd feeling …to know you have information that is going to change a lot of people’s lives.”
How true and how tragic.
The RCMP Public Information document does not indicate whether Scanlan was asked why it took another hour and 21 minutes — until 10:17 am — to issue a second tweet warning the public the killer was driving a fake RCMP vehicle.
#Colchester. [killer’s name] may be driving what appears to be an RCMP vehicle & may be wearing an RCMP uniform. There’s 1 difference btwn his car & our RCMP vehicles: the car #. The suspect’s car is 28B11, behind rear passenger window. If you see 28B11, call 911 immediately. (image of replica police vehicle attached to post)
We do know Scanlan called her colleague Cpl. Jennifer Clarke at 9:04am and asked her to assemble the photo of the police car and get the warning message tweeted out.
We also know that at approximately the same time, Risk Manager Bruce Briers was asking District Commander Al Carroll if the command post planned to issue a general media release to watch for the killer’s replica vehicle. (The RCMP has a prepared list of contacts for newspapers, radio, and TV stations it can use to send a bulk email).
Carroll emailed Briers to tell him it had been discussed and the decision was not to do so at this time. Carroll claimed he doesn’t know who made that decision, but he talked to Halliday about it.
Halliday told the MCC that Carroll’s recollection is “inaccurate” and that he (Halliday) had never attempted to delay the flow of information.
A read of the entire RCMP Public Information document suggests Halliday continued to check in with Communications to find out why information was slow to be released. The MCC document states:
Whether or not there was a decision made by the Command Post to delay the release of information about the replica police cruiser, it appears that preparations for such a release were underway shortly before 9am on April 20.
The document appears to be referencing the direction provided by Halliday as early as 8am to Scanlan at Strategic Communications.
At 9:40am, Clarke had the police car tweet ready to send and needed approval from an RCMP officer. Clarke was unable to reach MacCallum, who had responded to the shooting in Wentworth.
At 9:45, Clarke emailed the tweet to Halliday, who approvesdit immediately and at 9:49 it was good to go.
But the tweet didn’t go out until 10:17 — 28 minutes later — after Kristen Beaton and Heather O’Brien had been shot on the Plains Road.
There is no explanation in the document for that time lapse. But it’s worth noting that at 9:49 — just as the tweet about the car had been approved by Halliday — 911 received a terrified call from the Fisher residence in Glenholme, where the killer was literally banging on the door.
Suddenly, the Command Post knew the whereabouts of the man they had been chasing. Several vehicles with Emergency Response Team officers, as well as detectives, were dispatched to Glenholme from Portapique.
Maybe someone at the command post thought they had the suspect cornered and decided to hold off alerting the public about the car because they believed he was about to be captured? Whatever the reason — which is still unknown — the killer eluded police and continued to kill more people.
It was after the bodies of O’Brien and Beaton were found that Halliday contacted Communications and ordered the tweet be sent that he had earlier approved.
The tweet went out at 10:17, followed by a Facebook post a few minutes later. At 10:36, the RCMP emailed a news release to media outlets across the province. Unfortunately, the release contained misleading information suggesting the killer was still in Portapique when he was clearly on the move through Wentworth and Debert ,and would go on to claim three more lives in Shubenacadie, including a police officer, a father, and a denturist.
The 10:36am email on Sunday to media read:
RCMP Engaged in Active Shooter Investigation: Information Available on Twitter April 19,2020, Portapique Nova Scotia…RCMP is currently responding to an active shooter investigation in Portapique. Residents or the area are asked to remain inside their homes and lock their doors.
No public alert
Much has already been written about why the RCMP didn’t issue a noisy Public Alert over cellphones and radio to warn the public the killer was on the run in a replica police vehicle. The short answer, as evidenced by statements from countless RCMP personnel in decision-making roles, is those in charge were unaware of its existence.
“It wasn’t a tool in our tool box,” said Critical Incident Commander Jeff West.
The “Alert Ready” system was operated by the provincial Emergency Management Office, which had for years tried unsuccessfully to interest the RCMP and municipal police forces to use it for more than Amber Alerts involving lost or kidnapped children.
In 2016, the RCMP and other forces turned down an offer to learn to operate the system and said it would continue to make requests through EMO on a case-by-case basis.
The reality, according to Inspector Dustine Rodier, who was in charge of the RCMP’s Emergency Management unit created following the Swiss Air disaster, was that the two positions in that unit had been vacant for a couple of years prior to Glenn Mason’s appointment in January 2020.
Rodier had attended meetings with EMO occasionally, but her main focus was on establishing a new 911 Operations Communications Centre in Dartmouth to replace the one in Truro the Inspector supervised.
Although Glenn Mason’s job description was vague, he was the designated contact with EMO who had enjoyed participating in mock emergency exercises before COVID and whose role between January and April 2020 involved a daily teleconference with EMO.
On Sunday, April 19 2020, managers with EMO heard about multiple shootings in Portapique and called in staff and set up their Alert Ready system in anticipation of a call from the RCMP, should they want to issue a public message.
When that call didn’t come, an EMO official reached out to Glenn Mason, who was the RCMP’s Emergency Management civilian employee.
At about 10:20am, Mason became the go-between for EMO officials trying to reach an RCMP officer to see if they wanted help to issue a public alert.
Although Emergency Management was part of Inspector Rodier’s file, she declined to take calls from both Glenn Mason and EMO manager Michael Bennett. Rodier said that was because she was on a phone line with Supt. Darren Campbell and Chief Supt. Chris Leather, who were all occupied monitoring the ongoing pursuit of the suspect.
Sometime after 11am — one estimate puts it at 11:17am — Risk Manager Steve Ettinger managed to get Rodier’s attention to authorize the sending of an Alert, but EMO required that the message be drafted by the RCMP.
Rodier shouted across the room to Ettinger to have Strategic Communications handle the messaging, but that instruction appears to have got lost in the shuffle between Ettinger, Glenn Mason, and the EMO’s Michael Bennett.
By 11:25 it became a moot point when the 13-hour manhunt ended with the gunman being killed by police at a gas station in Enfield.
Not surprisingly, the failure to communicate created some bad press for the RCMP the next week.
“And Tuesday morning the headline read ‘RCMP DID NOT CONTACT EMO REGARDING AN AMBER ALERT”, Glenn Mason told an interviewer with the Mass Casualty Commission. “And that was a prick move that you can put in your report.”
The Mass Casualty Commission also interviewed Paul Mason, the top official with EMO for the province. “I mean I understand it must have been extremely busy, so I’m not trying to be critical. But we couldn’t get hold of anybody to decide whether or not to issue an Alert. That’s what happened.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Glenn Mason has a different view. “The reality of it is by the time Michael Bennett called me, it was all over anyway.”
A few months after the murders, the RCMP signed up for training on Alert Ready and were handed the capability to send out their own alerts without relying on EMO.
Alert Ready has been used several times by police since — including during a prison escape in northern Nova Scotia and during a suspected shooting incident in Tantallon shortly after Portapique, when so many people called 911 that the system crashed.