Highlights of this article:
• two hours before she was killed, Cst. Heidi Stevenson suggested that the public should be alerted about the fake police car, but her suggestion was disregarded;
• moments after the shooting at the Onslow Fire Hall, communication problems nearly led to another “blue-on-blue” shooting in Brookfield;
• an unlikely and terrible sequence of events underlaid the mistaken communication between Cst. Chad Morrison and Stevenson that preceded Stevenson’s encounter with the killer;
• Stevenson engaged in a gun battle with the killer, firing off 14 rounds and injuring him; that injury later helped police at the Enfield Big Stop identify the killer;
• Joe Webber was executed in horrific fashion;
• twenty-seven civilians witnessed events at the Shubenacadie interchange;
• despite processing the crime scene for nearly 12 hours, police investigators missed a crucial piece of evidence that was later discovered and mishandled by a civilian.
This article includes graphic details.
At around 6:30am on Sunday morning, April 19, 2020, Cst. Heidi Stevenson headed to work at the RCMP’s Enfield detachment. She quickly learned of the events in Portapique the night before, but there were scant details.
Stevenson was the most senior officer on duty at the detachment, so therefore the acting non-commissioned officer — she was in charge and directed the other officers at work that day.
At 7:00am, a BOLO — Be on the lookout — was issued for the killer. The BOLO said he may be driving a black Jeep, or a white Ford Taurus, or a white Mercedes.
“[T]he incident is in the Portapique area,” read the BOLO. “soc [subject of concern] is believed to be armed and is arrestable for the incident in progress.”
At 8:04am, another BOLO was issued, saying that the killer was “potentially using fully marked Ford Taurus car number 28b11 and could be anywhere in the province.”
At 8:19am, Stevenson called the dispatch centre. “We’re just trying to fill in a few gaps on the BOLOs and so forth,” said Stevenson. “Is it a decommissioned PC, or is it a full, an active PC? Does he have access to radios or light bar?”
Stevenson’s call was transferred to dispatcher Lisa Stewart. “It definitely has a light bar,” said Stewart.
Stevenson, still perplexed, asked “so it’s not even an H-Div car?” referring to the RCMP’s Halifax division, which covers all of Nova Scotia.
Stewart and Stevenson wrangled with a new-to-them software program over which Stewart was trying to send a photo of the car. Finally, Stewart sent a “web view” of the photo.
“Unbelievable, this car,” said Stewart.
Stevenson was heard on the tape relating what she had learned to people in her office: “Taurus, flat light bar, they don’t know (indiscernible) so we don’t know what might be on, so like with the radio, they can’t activate anything. So it may have radio, it may not, and he may not know how to use it.”
Stevenson was still confused. “How do we know if there’s not a stolen vehicle?”
“And if it’s not, where did he get all the decals?” responded Stewart. “I guess you can make decals, right?”
“But can you just go out and buy a light bar?” asked Stevenson.
“On the web,” said Stewart.
“So you can get away with killing eight people,” said Stevenson. “All those poor kids with no parents anymore.”
Later, at 8:44am, Stevenson had this exchange with Stewart:
STEVENSON: Has there been discussion about a media release in regard to that vehicle? Just for the public to be on the lookout for that and to also be aware that he may — it — we don’t know if a uniform or access to anything else but just ah, keep an eye out for that car.
SEWART: Um, sorry, I ver— I missed the very first part of what you said.
STEVENSON: Just asking about a media release in regard to that PC.
“10-4” means “affirmative.”
At 9:00:57am, Staff Sergeant Bruce Briers, the risk manager at the Operational Control Centre (OCC) in Truro, called Staff Sergeant Allan Carroll. The pair had this exchange:
BRIERS: Listen I um, came from one of the members out in eh, Enfield, I don’t know if there’s any consideration about doing a media release about this vehicle, potentially out on the go, so that.
BRIERS: Like uh…
CARROLL: We’re uh, it’s been discussed here uh, I think they’re looking at it.
BRIERS: Okay um.
CARROLL: I’ll run it by later, later on, I uh (INDISCERNIBLE) wherever bring it up (INDISCERNIBLE)
At 9:08am, Carroll sent an email to Briers: “Thought was given to give release about vehicle, but decision was made not to.”
“Very good,” Briers responded at 9:15am. “Kind of figured they may not want to release.”
At about the same time that Stevenson suggested a media release be issued about the fake police car, fire fighter Tom Bagley went out for his morning walk on Hunter Road; a bit down the road, he saw the Jenkins/McLeod house on fire, with what he thought was an RCMP car nearby, so went in to help.
Just after 9am, some 15 minutes after Stevenson suggested the media release, Lillian Campbell set out for her morning walk in Wentworth, and was gunned down by the killer in the fake police car.
And about an hour after Stevenson made the suggestion, Heather O’Brien decided to go bring her daughters coffee and Kristen Beaton was moving between the houses of clients. Both women knew about the Portapique murders the night before, but no one told them the killer had escaped that community and could be anywhere in the province driving a fake police car. At around 10am, both were murdered on Plains Road.
Stevenson deployed the Enfield RCMP officers at each of the road crossings over the Shubenacadie River into East Hants County, and by 10:27am, all were in place:
• Cst. Austin Comeau was farthest north, near Maitland at Highway 236 and Philips Road.
• Stevenson and Cst. Chris Gibson took up positions on Highway 102 in an emergency turn-around spot just north of Exit 10 and before the river.
• Cst. Chad Morrison was on Highway 2, just north of the river and the intersection of Gays River Road (the eastern leg of Highway 224).
• Cst. Stephanie LeBlanc and Cst. Kari Pettinger, both with the RCMP’s Indian Brook detachment, were together in LeBlanc’s vehicle in a southerly fallback position, just south of Exit 9 on Highway 102.
The RCMP detachments in each county typically use a separate channel. Officers can switch back and forth between the channels, but in general, officers with the Enfield detachment use the East Hants channel. But as the Portapique murders happened in Colchester Country, throughout the morning many officers across the province were listening to one channel on the car radio and the other on the portable radio they wear. Gibson was listening to East Hants on the car radio and Colchester on his portable.
Gibson arrived at the Highway 102 turn-around before Stevenson. He was listening to the Colchester radio channel as 911 calls were coming in about more people being shot. “A short time after this, the risk manager [Briers] asked that anybody not in Colchester County to switch off the talk group as to not cause problems with the radio. “Cst. Gibson switched back to East Hants and maintained his position,” wrote Gibson, referring to himself in the third person in a report written after-the-fact.
After the murders of Campbell, Beaton, and O’Brien, RCMP brass appear to have realized they needed all the help they could get. Finally, at 10:17am, the RCMP did what Stevenson had suggested an hour and a half earlier and tweeted out a photo of the fake police car and alerted the public that a killer was on the loose. And at 10:39am, Briers, the risk manager at the OCC, used the East Hants channel to ask that two carbine-trained Enfield officers head to Colchester County.
Stevenson wasn’t carbine-trained, but Comeau and Gibson were, so Stevenson quickly decided to have Comeau and Gibson leave their positions and meet up in Brookfield.
And, Stevenson decided the others would shuffle around a bit: Morrison would stay where he was on Highway 2; Stevenson would move to Maitland to take Comeau’s position; and LeBlanc and Pettinger would take move north to fill in Stevenson’s spot.
At 10:41:15am, Stevenson left the turn-around and headed south towards Exit 10. Ten seconds later, Gibson left heading north towards Brookfield.
A near blue-on-blue shooting
Earlier in the day, Cst. Nick Dorrington called his wife, Dawn Dorrington. Dawn remembered the call being at about 9:45 or 10am.
Nick had had an interaction with the killer in February 2020*, issuing him a speeding ticket on Portapique Beach Road. Nick called Dawn to tell her the killer was “on the loose,” and she should hide in the basement and not answer the door.
“I had an instinct to call my friend Lynn, who lives on the number 2 highway in Brookfield, just to have someone to talk to,” said Dawn. Dawn gave Lynn MacKeigan the “heads-up,” told her to stay inside.
“She was standing in front of her picture window, I said maybe that’s not the best place to stand, and she said, ‘um, should there be an RCMP vehicle that just drove past my house?’”
Dawn put Lynn on speaker phone and texted Nick at 10:39am. “Tell her to call me right away,” Nick texted back.
Nick Dorrington relayed what he learned from Lynn on the Colchester channel:
10:41:34am — DORRINGTON: Dispatch. Bravo-09. Do we have any members in Brookfield area?
10:42:04am — DORRINGTON (no audio)
10:42:45am — DISPATCH: Portable-09, go.
10:42:56am — DORRINGTON: Bravo-09, is looking for confirmation if we have any marked units in Brookfield right now. I have information that a marked unit has just passed through Brookfield.
10:44:02:amDISPATCH: Yeah, between — we just had a call from Brookfield heading towards Stewiacke for a vehicle with Bravo-11 on it. Unconfirmed what the first three are. Copy?
Gibson, heading north on Highway 102 towards Brookfield and into Colchester County in his RCMP cruiser, turned his radio back to the Colchester channel but seems to have done so after the exchange between Dorrington and Dispatch.
Gibson got off at Exit 12, the Brookfield exit, and headed east on Highway 289 towards Highway 2. Just then, “there was a commotion on the radio and confusion as voices were heard but, you could not hear what was happening,” wrote Gibson. “A short time after this dispatch advised of another 911 call reporting a shooting in the Onslow area. A member then came over the air and advised that it was them and everything was fine. However, due to the report of shots being fired, Cst. Gibson began to head north on the #2 highway through Brookfield towards Hilden.”
Had Gibson been on the Colchester radio channel earlier, he would have known that the fake police car had already passed through Brookfield on Highway 2 heading south. But because he hadn’t heard that radio exchange with Dorrington, he assumed the shots fired at the Onslow Fire Hall were somehow related to the killer, so he headed north on Highway 2, thinking he’d intercept the killer, but instead he was going in the opposite direction and moving farther away from the killer.
That mistake, and the fact that the was so much radio traffic that the system was overwhelmed, nearly led to yet another “blue-on-blue” shooting.
Gibson’s report continued, and he continued to refer to himself in the third person:
While traveling Northbound, Cst. Gibson could see a fully marked RCMP police car in the distance traveling southbound. Cst. Gibson tried repeatedly to get out on the radio to have this vehicle identify itself but kept getting “bonged” out and could not get through. As the RCMP car got closer, Cst. Gibson slowed down and upholstered his pistol in the event he had to shoot from the vehicle. Cst. Gibson also slowed down and noticed the approaching RCMP did the same. As Cst. Gibson got closer to the unknown vehicle, the unmarked RCMP police car from Milbrook detachment could be seen traveling south with its emergency equipment on. Cst. Gibson tried to get out on the radio again but couldn’t. However, Sgt. [Darren] Bernard could be heard on the radio asking for the RCMP vehicle northbound to identify itself. Cst. Gibson was finally able to get out on the radio just as he was passing the first approaching RCMP vehicle and given [sic] his name and vehicle call sign.
Gibson had been aiming his gun at Cst. Jared Daley from the Millbrook detachment.
As Gibson moved to turn around and follow Bernard and Daley south, Cst. Chad Morrison came on the radio to say he had been shot.
The shooting of Chad Morrison
After Stevenson left the turn-around on Highway 102, she stopped for two minutes at Exit 10. Dorrington was on the radio saying a fully marked police car was on Highway 2 heading south from Brookfield — that is, heading towards Morrison’s position on Highway 2 and Gays River Road.
The exchange between Dorrington and Dispatch ended at 10:44:02am; it caused Stevenson to rethink her plan to head to Maitland.
At 10:44:31am, Stevenson radioed: “Chad, if there’s anything to that last one, I’m gonna make my way to your position.”
At 10:44:47am, she left Exit 10 and headed south on Highway 215, towards Shubenacadie.
Morrison was at that time stopped in his marked SUV on the east side of Highway 2, facing north, just south of Gays River Road. He understood that the killer was in a fully marked RCMP cruiser, travelling south towards him on Highway 2.
“I thought at that time he was up around Brookfield,” said Morrison in an interview two days later. “Like, there was a lot of Brookfield talk um, and so, that’s what I was thinking. I think at that time, which wasn’t far, not far from me, but it was um, on the other side of Stewiacke, up close, you know, closer like, in between Stewiacke and Truro, whereas I was um, you know, ten minutes south of Stewiacke.”
Morrison texted his wife and told her to stay inside and “tell everybody else we know to stay in the house.”
Morrison saw a police cruiser “a couple of hundred metres back” travelling south on Highway 2 in his direction.
At 10:48:24 he radioed over the East Hants channel: “Who’s approaching 224 and 2 there now?”
“That’s me,” responded Stevenson.
This was a tragic misunderstanding. Highways 2 and 224 intersect at two points. To the south, they join at a cloverleaf interchange in Shubenacadie, and they become one roadway as they cross the river. Then, just north of the river, the two highways split again: Highway 2 continues north, but Highway 224 goes to the east on Gays River Road. Stevenson was approaching the southerly 224/2 intersection via Highway 215, but Morrison was at the northerly 224/2 intersection at Gays River Road.
How is it that Morrison thought Stevenson was coming from the north?
“I had thought that she had been like on the 102, maybe at Exit 10, like, that’s where she had been previously,” he said. “If she was, she wasn’t going to be coming to me in the direction that this guy was coming to me at… that’s my problem is I wasn’t aware enough about what was going on, right, so I um, didn’t, I don’t think I really had in my mind, um, even a premise of how she was going to be approaching me, but when I saw that car coming and when I checked with, over the air she said ‘that’s me,’ it didn’t, it didn’t ah, raise any bells. Um, now if she had been like, as soon as you cross the Colchester line, like from East Hants on the 102 Highway, um, the next exit would be Stewiacke, in which case you would take Stewiacke, go over to Highway 2 and come down. So that would have been a very logical way for her to get to me, so it wasn’t that out of the ordinary.”
Anticipating Stevenson, Morrison moved forward, turned right onto the Gays River Road, went about 50 metres up the road, made a U-turn and stopped in the traffic lane 20 or 30 metres before the stop sign at the intersection with Highway 2.
A “handful” of vehicles passed him on the road, scooting around Morrison’s SUV. “Vehicles are coming in and out of the 224, and up and down Highway 2,” said Morrison. “I recall one specific person that came out of the 224 highway and he was turning left to go south on the 2, and he was kind of like looking at me like, ‘can I go there?’ and I was waving yeah, yeah, go ahead, go ahead.”
But the police car approaching him wasn’t Stevenson. It was the killer. The fake police car turned left, slowly, and came parallel to Morrison.
Morrison noted the black push bar in the front of the car but didn’t have time to process the incongruity of it. He knew something was wrong, and put it together when he saw the killer.
“He had a very neutral face,” said Morrison. “He wasn’t smiling when he came up, but he didn’t have a menace look… it’s kind of weird to try and explain his face but he almost looked like he had a melancholy look on his face, like a sad look on his face, as we was pulling up to me and then, I think, as, maybe as soon as he got to me, that’s when like, he kind of got a little bit of grit on his face, because he’s taking action, there was a little bit of you know, like, urgency on his face um, when he put the gun out the window and started shooting.”
When Morrison was struck, his SUV was still in gear, his foot on the brake. He immediately “floored it,” and turned left onto Highway 2, the turn made so fast that he fishtailed, hitting one guard rail and then the other before straightening out. He crossed the bridge and turned right onto the ramp into Shubenacadie, then left at the end of the ramp onto Highway 2. He was driving to the EHS Paramedic Base in Milford. He didn’t see the killer behind him, nor Stevenson in front of him.
The murders of Heidi Stevenson and Joe Webber
Just as Morrison was turning onto the southbound ramp of the intersection, Heidi Stevenson turned onto the northbound ramp. Had she been seconds earlier, she would have seen Morrison barrelling down Highway 2 across the bridge and perhaps been better prepared for her encounter with the killer. Seconds later, she would have missed the killer entirely.
But as she approached the top of the ramp, the killer, travelling southbound on Highway 2, saw Stevenson and veered his vehicle head-on into hers. The cars struck at 10:49:35am.
“The vehicles came to rest almost perpendicular to one another after the collision,” reads the Mass Casualty Commission’s “foundational document” on events in Shubenacadie. “The nose of Cst. Stevenson’s vehicle faced approximately north, into the guardrail by the ramp yield sign. The rear of the perpetrator’s vehicle was positioned close to the passenger-side door of Cst. Stevenson’s vehicle, while the nose of the perpetrator’s vehicle faced approximately southeast, down the cloverleaf ramp.”
It’s not clear or intuitive how the two cars ended up in this position. The collision reconstruction report hasn’t yet been made public. But the position is consistent with eyewitness accounts, and with photos and video taken by several of those witnesses.
Five seconds after the collision, at 10:49:40am, Stevenson’s radio was activated, but no audio was transmitted. At 10:49:59, the radio was activated again and the sound of gunfire transmitted. At 10:50:04, more gunfire. The radio was activated one last time at 10:52:57, but no audio was transmitted.
Stevenson was shot “multiple times,” but managed to fire 14 rounds before she died. “It appears plausible that a wound on the upper right side of the perpetrator’s head was caused by bullet fragments shot from Cst. Stevenson’s firearm,” reads the foundational document. The open wound later drew Cst. Craig Hubley’s attention to the killer at the Enfield Big Stop, where Hubley shot him dead.
There were as many as 27 civilian witnesses to events at the cloverleaf interchange — some who drove upon the scene, some living in or visiting neighbouring houses. As with any group of witnesses, the details of their reports don’t entirely align with one another, but their overall story is consistent.
For example, some witnesses saw Stevenson get out of the car and fire towards the killer from the side of the vehicle. Some thought Stevenson rolled out of the car onto the ground. Another thought the killer removed her from the car. One thought Stevenson was in a sitting position, leaning against the car seat through the open door. Either way, all witnesses agree that she ended up on the ground next to the car, and the killer slowly walked up to her, shot her at close range, and reached down to take things from her. He was later found with Stevenson’s revolver and two of her magazines.
Then Joe Webber drove up.
Webber’s partner, Shanda MacLeod, woke up that Sunday morning in their Wyses Corner home, tended to their kids, and went to check Facebook. “It’s my newspaper,” she later explained. Her cousin had messaged Shanda to tell her about the terrible events in Portapique the night before. “Well that’s crazy,” she said.
Shanda went to rouse Joe. “We ran out of furnace oil, are you going to go for furnace oil?” she asked him.
“Yep, I’m getting up,” responded Joe.
“Where’s Portapique?” Shanda asked him.
“I think it’s past Truro, Debert area or something,” said Joe.
“Well, there’s some crazy person out there shooting people, burning things down,” said Shanda.
“Well, that’s crazy,” said Joe. “That kind of stuff doesn’t happen here.”
The couple started their day. “We didn’t know we were in any danger or anything,” said Shanda.
Webber made the trip for furnace oil often, driving his SUV, a silver Ford Escape, the same route every time: heading through Vinegar Hill to the the Esso Milford Wilson’s, then returning home by driving through the Shubenacadie interchange, to Gays River Road and back to Wyses Corner.
(Witnesses variously thought Webber’s vehicle was a Ford Explorer, a Chevy Tracker, or a Jeep Liberty. One thought it was green, another grey. From one witness’s account, police incorrectly identified it as a silver Chevy Tracker.)
Witnesses said Webber arrived at the interchange ramp just seconds after the exchange of gunfire between Stevenson and the killer. Webber saw the two crashed vehicles, pulled over, and got out of the SUV to help.
“He got out of the SUV and he went over to buddy, and buddy got him to go into the back seat of the cruiser that’s facing down the ramp, which was the one apparently he was driving,” said Gerald Whitman, who lived just to the north of the interchange and watched event unfold from his upstairs window.
“After he got him in there, he reached back in and you could hear the gun firing again,” continued Whitman. “I don’t know if he shot him in on the back seat but then the next thing he did was he opened up the trunk, he set the car on fire and then he jumped in the eh, grey SUV, the, I got pictures of it there, the Ford Explorer, and I told the guy on 911 that he was… heading out the 224 towards the Milford sand, salt shed.”
Other witnesses saw the killer shoot Webber, and then take weapons out of the front seat of the fake police car and put them in Webber’s vehicle. The killer then opened the trunk of the fake police car, and set fire to what looked like a piece of cardboard, which he placed in the trunk, and the car started to catch fire.
The killer got in Webber’s car and drove away.
The fire caused “substantial damage to Joseph Webber’s remains,” notes the commission’s foundational document.
Crime scene investigators were at the ramp all afternoon Sunday, and Stevenson’s body was taken to the medical examiner’s office. It wasn’t until into the night, however, that the two cars were towed away.
The fake RCMP car was towed from the scene to the RCMP’s Bible Hill detachment, where the medical examiner removed Webber’s remains. Stevenson’s cruiser was towed to RCMP H-division headquarters in Halifax.
The next day, on the evening of Monday, April 20, Eric and Rosalie, one of the couples who lived near the scene and had witnessed Stevenson’s and Webber’s murders, took their dog for a walk, and headed towards the ramp.
“There was flowers and wreaths and everything all over there, you know, they had signs up over there and everything,” recalled Eric on Tuesday, April 21. “I was just along the shoulder of the road. There was a bunch of car parts like melted off of the car, like metal rods…there was a cap off one the rear ends, and I was just kind of like going along and there was a little pile of ashes there and I just kind of gave it a kick and I could see these handcuffs laying there.”
“Look what I found,” Eric said to Rosalie.
Eric thought the cuffs were about in the position where the “lower” car had been — that is, the fake police car just down the ramp. He thought maybe they had fallen out of the car when it was being towed away — they were blackened and charred from the fire, and could have easily been missed when the cars were removed in the dark Sunday night.
“Look, those people were over there at that crime scene from when it happened until like midnight when they moved the cars,” said Rosalie. “Everybody’s tired. You know, things can get missed.”
“We just didn’t want to leave them there,” explained Rosalie.
Eric agreed that he should let the RCMP know about the handcuffs, so he took them home and cleaned them up.
“I just put some WD-40 on them and took the wire brush and cleaned them off,” said Eric.
When Lisa Banfield came out of the woods that Sunday morning, she described the killer trying to handcuff her. He had put one cuff around one of Banfield’s wrist, but she managed to twist away before he could place the other cuff on. He threw her in the back of the fake police car, but she said, she managed to pull the cuff off her wrist before escaping the car.
More than a year later, on May 27, 2021, the Mass Casualty Commission’s lead investigator, Joel Kulmatycki, wondered whether the handcuffs had ever been found, so he contacted RCMP Chief Superintendent John O’Brien. The next day, O’Brien forwarded Kulmatycki an email from Cpl. Jerry Rose-Berthiaume, the primary police investigator of the mass murderers.
In the email, Rose-Berthiaume mischaracterized the discovery of the handcuffs by omitting Eric Fisher’s role in possibly destroying evidence, and further by implying that there was an uninterrupted chain of custody for the cuffs. Wrote Rose-Berthiaume:
Handcuffs were located by FIS [Forensic Identification Section] at the Clover Leaf Circle scene neat the fake police vehicle that [GW] was driving. These handcuffs did not belong to Cst. Stevenson and were badly burnt from the fire. These handcuffs were sent to the lab for DNA testing with negative results.
The exhibit number is PE446.
No handcuffs were recovered in Portapique. Lisa Banfield indicated in her statement that she was able to pull the handcuffs of her wrist while in the back of the fake police car. Based on where these handcuffs were located investigators believe that the handcuffs seized at the Clover leaf Circle scene may have come from the fake police vehicle driven by [GW]. Investigators can not determine if these were the handcuffs that Lisa Banfield had on that night although the circumstances suggest that they be. [sic]
*as originally published, the date of the ticket was incorrect.