a fake police car
The fake police car. Photo: Mass Casualty Commission

Why did it take so long for the RCMP to warn the public that the mass murderer was driving a fully marked police cruiser?

That question will be addressed directly by the Mass Casualty Commission (MCC) in a document entitled “RCMP Public Communications April 18-19 2020,” but that document has yet to be released.

However, the issue was touched on briefly in a separate document released today.

“The information available to the Mass Casualty Commission on the consideration of a media release (regarding the perpetrator’s replica RCMP cruiser) by members at the Command Post is at times unclear and in conflict,” reads today’s document. 

That statement is found on page 240 of the 315-page document prepared for the commission that canvasses the decisions made by police managers in Bible Hill and later at the Critical Incident Command Post set up in the fire hall in Great Village, a short distance from Portapique where 13 people were murdered on the night of April 18, 2020. 

Another nine victims were gunned down the following Sunday morning by the same man driving a replica RCMP vehicle. The Examiner refers to the killer as GW.

Nova Scotia RCMP’s chief investigative officer, Chris Leather. Photo: Halifax Examiner.

A passage on page 247 of today’s Command Decisions report notes that “investigation is ongoing into the role of Chief Supt. Chris Leather, as H-Division Criminal Operations officer, in relation to the release of information about the replica police cruiser.”

Readers may remember Leather as the officer who spoke at the first news conference the evening of April 19 following the massacre. He was accompanied by RCMP Assistant Commissioner Lee Bergerman, whose role with respect to the release of information to the public is also being reviewed by the MCC.

At this point it’s not clear what role, if any, Nova Scotia’s two top-ranking senior RCMP officers* may have had when it came to making or possibly interfering with relaying information to the public. 

We do know it was 10:17am on Sunday before the RCMP tweeted the photo of the replica police car to the public, following the random murders of Lillian Campbell, Heather O’Brien, and Kristen Beaton. The killer was driving a replica RCMP car, complete with stripes, decals, and a push bar. 

RCMP Northeast Operations Manager Staff-Sergeant Steve Halliday testified at the Mass Casualty Commission on May 17, 2022

We also know it was before 8am when acting Northeast Operations Manager Staff-Sergeant Steve Halliday tasked his colleague Addie MacCallum to work with RCMP Communications officers to get the photos of the car and the suspect out to the public and to border officials “ASAP.” At 7:45am, MacCallum talked with Communications Officer Lia Scanlan about asking the public to watch for this car and to “call 911 if you see it.”

Just before that, at 7:43am, Leather made a rather cryptic suggestion to Scanlan about the content of the proposed media release. “Specific info that the perp is alive — get to the people in the area. Picture and name — not there right now.”

There was more back and forth between various RCMP officers about whether to publicly release the photograph of the replica car . 

At 8:45am Cst. Heidi Stevenson asked Risk Manager Bruce Briers if the photo could be released publicly. 

Briers checked in with Staff Sergeant Al Carroll who promised to run it up the chain of command. 

Carroll was in his car and not physically present at the Command Post in Great Village. Carroll sent an email to Briers at 9:09am saying the matter has been discussed and a decision has been made not to release the photo of the vehicle at this time.

Carroll later claimed he doesn’t know who or how that decision got made, but he recalled talking to Halliday about it. 

In his interview with MCC investigators, Halliday “absolutely denies” he delayed the flow of any information about the replica vehicle to the public. He repeated that denial in sworn testimony at today’s proceedings of the MCC.

That said, as the Examiner reported on April 27, Halliday was candid about the concerns expressed by police officers who feared the public might call in to report every sighting of a police car. Halliday said he didn’t want to “send the public into a frantic panic and overload our OCC operations,” perhaps jeopardizing the ability of the call-takers at the RCMP Operations Communications Centre (OCC) in Truro to do their jobs collecting and relaying important information.

A photo and description of the killer was tweeted out to the public at 8:54am by the RCMP. The tweet identified GW as the suspect in an active shooting investigation in Portapique. It noted there were several victims and the suspect was considered “armed and dangerous.”

That tweet did not say the suspect “could be anywhere in the province” — information that was sent to police officers almost an hour before. 

Still, the 8:54am tweet was more accurate than the first message tweeted out by the RCMP the previous Saturday night, at 11:32pm.

By then, one RCMP officer on the scene described Portapique as “a war zone” and those in charge of responding to the situation knew at least four people were dead, one had been injured, and six large fires were underway. 

The RCMP’s messaging credibility was strained again on Sunday when a tweet suggested the RCMP were still investigating a shooting in Portapique after earlier RCMP tweets had indicated the suspect had been sighted in both Glenholme and Central Onslow. The final tweets indicating the killer was now “in custody” around 11:4Oam turned out to be police-speak for “dead.”

When did the RCMP decide to warn the public?

Everything changed once Lisa Banfield, the commonlaw spouse of the gunman, emerged from hiding at 6:30am Sunday and told police GW had loaded his replica RCMP cruiser with at least five lethal weapons and was preparing to head to Dartmouth to burn down his denturist business and kill her sister Maureen. 

Until that point, RCMP at the Command Post in Great Village believed they had accounted for all the vehicles owned by the killer. By 7:17am, photos of the replica car and the suspect were provided by Banfield’s family to the Halifax Regional Police, who broadcast them on their own channel.

Halifax Police immediately forwarded both photographs by email to RCMP Staff-Sergeant Addie MacCallum, who was working out of the Command Post in Great Village. He had them by 7:27am. By 8:05am, every RCMP officer and police force in Nova Scotia had access to a photo of that replica police car through a police database called PROS. 

The RCMP also issued a Be On The Lookout (BOLO) describing the car and the suspect (a photo had been uploaded earlier in the morning) warning that the gunman was “armed and dangerous” and arrestable for multiple homicides.

One hour later, at 9:05am, RCMP Communications officer Lia Scanlan asked Cpl. Jennifer Clarke for help preparing a media release about the replica RCMP car. 

Scanlan had been given the green light by MacCallum before 8am but the plan was to issue the tweet with the photo of the suspect first. That tweet went out at 8:54am. 

Clarke started to prepare the tweet and Facebook post with information about the replica police car, including the fake call number. When she couldn’t reach MacCallum at 9:40am to approve the final version, she emailed Halliday. Halliday approved the tweet, including the photograph of the car, for immediate release to the public. That was at 9:45 am, only a few minutes after RCMP learned Lillian Campbell had been shot in Wentworth and the killer was (again) an active threat to the public. 

An RCMP tweet at 10:17am on Sunday, April 19, 2020.

The tweet with the photograph of the replica police cruiser was issued by RCMP at 10:17am and posted to Facebook a couple of minutes later. (The half hour delay is not explained in the Command Decisions report.) The public was told the perpetrator may be driving “what appears to be an RCMP vehicle and may be wearing an RCMP uniform.”

At least one civilian responded at 10:26am saying he had been shown the same replica car by the owner after GW, a denturist, had made him teeth three months earlier.

At 10:36am, the RCMP finally issued the media release that had been a topic of ongoing discussion since 7am. The first line said the RCMP is engaged in an active shooter investigation (true). Information is available on Twitter (true). The third line said the RCMP is currently responding to an active shooter investigation in Portapique (less true). While RCMP are still on the scene in Portapique, by then it was clear the gunman was a fleeing target whose vehicle has been spotted passing though Wentworth as well as Glenholme and Brookfield on the two-lane highway heading south to Halifax.

Today’s document, which canvasses the decisions made over a 13-hour period by RCMP senior managers tasked with locating and stopping the killer, is unable to pinpoint how decisions got made about when to release critical information to the public that might have helped stop the rampage sooner. 

The MCC says its investigation “is ongoing into whether the public release of the replica car information was delayed or denied and by whom and why.” That’s welcome news, especially for families of victims — such as Gina Goulet, Kristen Beaton, and Heather O’Brien — who were aware of the shootings but had no reason to suspect the gunman posed any danger to themselves. 

Roadblocks

The Command Post Decisions document released today does shed some light on the RCMP decision not to set up roadblocks on the four-lane and 2-lane highways between Truro and Halifax after the perpetrator fled two crime scenes in Debert. 

“I argued not to block the roads because I felt we would be putting both our members and a large number of unsuspecting public in harm’s way because he has already demonstrated he is killing people at random,” said Staff-Sergeant Kevin Surrette. 

Surrette arrived from Yarmouth to assist Incident Commanders Jeff West and Dan MacGillivray on Sunday morning. 

“And if we had a lineup of cars two kilometres long on a Sunday morning wondering what the hell was going on, and he decided to drive by and start shooting, like who knew when it would end, right?”

* as originally published this article described Leather as retired; he is not.


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Jennifer Henderson

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

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2 Comments

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  1. The tactical decision on roadblocks…

    A sunday morning during lockdown, I don’t think there would be nearly enough traffic to generate kilometres long lineup. But also, this seems like a tactical situation that someone competent should be able to handle. Like, you don’t have to only station police at the roadblock…

  2. I hope part of the investigation into Leather includes how he stood up at a presser and stated the RCMP did not know anything about a replica cruiser unit GW’s “partner” same out of “hiding” in the woods at 6:30 am Sunday morning. Media reports since, as well as MCC documents, have repeatedly proven the RCMP knew about a replica cruiser before 11am Saturday night and was told about it by one of the victims while she was still alive.

    I hope the MCC also goes into how the 10:17am tweet on Sunday is inaccurate as there were at least TWO differences the RCMP knew about – the car number AND the push bar on the front of GW’s replica cruiser. Again, MCC documents have shown the RCMP was aware of this difference well before that tweet went out and a push bar is a much more blatant difference than a car number.

    There is SO much wrong here ………..