“To me, it was a war zone.”
That’s how Cst. Aaron Patton described Portapique the night of April 18, 2020. Patton was one of the first three police officers to respond to an active shooter in the small community that night.
Patton, Cst. Adam Merchant, and Cst. Stuart Beselt testified today at the Mass Casualty Commission, the public inquiry into the mass murder spree that left 22 people dead over the course of 13 hours.
During the more than 20-minute drive to Portapique, the three had learned that a 911 caller had reported that her husband had been shot on the front deck of their house by a man named Gabe driving an RCMP car, and that the call was abruptly ended. They also learned that a child had called 911 to say both of her parents had been killed by a man Gabriel, who was driving an RCMP car.
Patton checked to see if the RCMP’s Cumberland division had any marked cars in the area; it did not. So the three started thinking the callers may had seen a decommissioned police car bought at auction, or perhaps just any white Ford Taurus, or even some other white car.
Still en route to Portapique, Beselt, the shift supervisor at the RCMP’s Bible Hill detachment, wondered if he was dealing with an “MHA” — a Mental Health Act call. He explained to commission lawyer Roger Burrill that for every 100 calls where someone says they’re being attacked, only one is an actual attack. In fact, just before the Portapique call, Patton was responding to a mental health situation.
Beselt was first to arrive on Portapique Beach Road, followed by Merchant and then Patton, each driving their own vehicles. Beselt was immediately met on the road by Andrew MacDonald, who was driving the other direction in a white car. Beselt jumped out of his car and pulled his weapon, but recognized MacDonald. MacDonald told Beselt he had been shot. Beselt then was certain it was not a mental health call: he had an active shooter.
Just then a second white car was coming up the road, and again Beselt drew his weapon, but the occupants were a family, sticking their hands out the windows of the car. The driver, David Faulkner, told Beselt he had just passed an RCMP car sitting at the corner of Portapique Beach Road and Orchard Beach Drive.
Beselt and Merchant left their vehicles at the top of Portapique Beach Road and entered Portapique on foot, as their training had taught them. The Moncton shootings had taught police that a vehicle can act as “a billboard” for an active shooter.
“It’s a lot safer being on foot,” said Merchant. “Imagine being in a gunfight with all that gear in a car.”
“You’re not safe in your car,” agreed Beselt.
Patton stayed to attend to MacDonald’s gunshot wound. He tore the sleeve of MacDonald’s shirt, and a bullet fell out. Patton put the bullet in his pocket. But while MacDonald had been shot, he wasn’t then bleeding. Still, Andrew MacDonald and his wife Kate MacDonald were “hysterical,” and couldn’t say what happened. Patton told them 911 callers had mentioned “Gabe,” and Andrew MacDonald then could relay the full name of the shooter and that he owned a denturist shop in Dartmouth.
By that time, a fourth RCMP officer, Cst. Vick Colford, had arrived on the road. Patton left the MacDonalds with Colford, and followed Beselt and Merchant down the road, also on foot.
Fire, explosions, gunfire
Many of the details of the three constables’ journey that night are covered in the “First Responders Actions in Portapique” document prepared by commission staff. All three agreed that that document is factually correct.
What that document doesn’t fully convey, however, is the level of chaos and confusion the three confronted.
The constables headed south on Portapique Beach Road because even though the 911 calls came from Orchard Beach Drive, they saw fire and heard gunshots straight ahead, and their training was that in an active shooter situation, their priority is to stop the shooter. “The main goal is not to get to the people who have been shot, but to get to the people who might be shot,” explained Beselt.
They came upon the killer’s “cottage,” in flames. There was a white Taurus in front of it. They continued south, around a bend in the road, and could see two houses farther down the road — these were the Thomas/Zahl home and the Griffon home. Neither was on fire, and nothing seemed amiss, but by this time they saw smoke and heard explosions to the east, so decided to cut through the woods in that direction.
They testified today that there were many fires — structure fires, but also grass fires moving towards occupied houses — and that the fires were exploding propane barbecue tanks and vehicle gas tanks. When the killer’s warehouse was burning, Beselt said there were “heavy explosions”; he didn’t know it at the time, but the warehouse contained as many as 30 motorbikes, each with its own gas tank. On top of those explosions, the three heard gunshots, seemingly in all directions. They couldn’t distinguish between the explosions and gunshots, but there was “a percussion” to the bangs, said Patton, as if it were someone shooting a gun.
Throughout the night, the three constables were confused as to where they were, and so would from time to time huddle around their personal smartphones, checking Google Maps to understand the lay of the land.
As they emerged from the woods at the warehouse, the fire was so bright it “was like daylight,” said Patton. They realized they were right across the road from 135 Orchard Beach Drive, the McCully house, where four children were on the phone with a 911 operator. They headed towards the house, but first came upon a body in the road. It was Corrie Ellison, shot dead.
The children told the 911 operator that they heard someone banging on the door. The three constables went to the house; there was no one else there, so they told the children to get in the basement. And, to their training, the three constables left them to look for the shooter.
“It was a super hard decision,” said Beselt. “It would’ve been easy to stay to protect the kids, but if you think he was killing someone down the road… he could’ve killed the entire subdivision.”
“Nobody wanted to leave the kids,” said Merchant. “We’re dads.”
But they didn’t get far when the 911 operator reported that the kids heard footsteps on the ceiling above their basement hiding place. The constables returned to the McCully house, and again found no one.
Beselt said today he later realized the explosions from the warehouse were causing concussions all around the McCully house, and the kids mistook the sound for the killer.
They constables again left the children in the house to pursue the killer.
They got as far as the fence in front of the house when they saw a flashlight coming up the road to their left.
“Is there anybody else here with us?” asked Patton on his radio. “We got movement with a flashlight.”
Getting no response, 11 seconds later Beselt repeated the question: “Is there anybody else in here with us?” Another 21 seconds went by without a response, and Beselt demanded: “If there’s anybody else in here with us, identify yourself right fucking now!”
No other officer was nearby.
“We may have the suspect,” radioed Beselt.
“We 100% thought it was the active shooter,” said Beselt.
They didn’t realize it, but the flashlight coming their way was not held by the killer, but rather by Clinton Ellison, who was out searching for his brother Corrie.
Beselt said he intended to let the person with the flashlight get closer, and then when the person got close enough, demand they stop. “My line in the sand is say, ‘stop police’… if he runs, I’ll shoot because he could kill more people.”
But Ellison turned his flashlight off and ran into the woods. The constables didn’t know where he was.
Patton said today that as he was the farthest south on the road, he told the others he’d turn on his flashlight to see if they could see the shooter. Instead, the light shone on the body of Lisa McCully, who had also been shot dead.
With the discovery of the second body, stopping the killer became even more urgent, so the constables attempted to enter the woods in pursuit. “We got about two steps into the woods, and it was completely dark. I said, ‘this is suicide,’” explained Beselt. Not pursing him into the woods was “self-preservation.”
That’s a decision Beselt regretted the next day, when he learned that the killer had gone on to murder so many other people.
“I was distraught that I hadn’t taken a shot, because I could’ve prevented all that came after,” he said. “But then I learned it was the wrong guy… I made the right decision.”
Children get rescued
Then there was a 911 call from Faris Lane, at the very southern end of Portapique Beach Road. There was an unknown person in the yard of the house. The three constables cut back through the woods to attend.
On their way, they passed the Thomas/Zahl home, which was then on fire. It occurred to Beselt that the killer may have been setting houses on fire in order to draw residents out, and then shoot them.
Back at the top of Portapique Beach Road, Cst. Bill Neil and Cst. Chris Grund decided to enter the community on foot in order to protect the children. It was Patton’s idea to use Lisa McCully’s car to drive them to safety. Neil and Grund bundled the children up to load the car, when the youngest saw Lisa McCully’s body, still lying on the ground. “Is that my mother?” he asked.
Grund drove the children away, but Neil stayed at the house.
Meanwhile, Beselt, Merchant, and Patton were knocking on doors and getting people to get in their cars and leave the community. They only got to a few houses before they decided to head back to the McCully house to join Neil. They stayed there for the next hour and a half, until they too were extracted.
But just before they left, at 2:18am, the RCMP’s Emergency Response Team vehicle was using its speaker to call out into the woods the woods for Clinton Ellison to come out. Both Clinton Ellison and the four constables in the McCully house heard a single gunshot in the woods. They assumed the killer had shot himself dead.
It’s not known what the gunshot was related to.
Through the course of their testimony, Beselt, Merchant, and Patton were repeatedly asked why a second group of officers couldn’t go in to rescue the children earlier. Each time they explained that the fear was a “blue on blue” shooting — the cops couldn’t be aware of each other’s location, and so might mistake one another for the killer.
That’s because they did not have any GPS equipment on them; they could neither broadcast their position nor know where other officers were on the ground. Beselt thought that maybe their personal smartphones could serve that purpose, but he didn’t know how to do so.
But under cross-examination by lawyer Rob Pineo, a remarkable new fact emerged: the three constables’ radios were indeed equipped with GPS capability, but it had not been activated.
None of the three knew their radios had such capability.
It’s not clear why that training hadn’t provided, or what it would take to activate the radio GPS and use it in such circumstances.
Subscribe to the Halifax Examiner
We have many other subscription options available, or drop us a donation. Thanks!
There was a time when smaller communities had RCMP detachments, staffed with people who got to know the residents and the lay of the land. I’ve been told services were centralized, like schools and hospitals, for the sake of efficiency… something to think about.