Jamie Blair called 911 at 10:01pm on Saturday night, April 18, 2020. She said her husband had been shot and killed.
Colchester RCMP were called out at 10:04. Cst. Stuart Beselt was the first of four Bible Hill RCMP officers who arrived at Portapique at 10:26pm.
As Beselt arrived, he met Andrew MacDonald, who had been wounded in the arm by a man MacDonald said was driving a white police car and whom he identified as “Gabriel.” MacDonald told Beselt that Gabriel lived at the end of the Portapique Beach Road.
Beselt, a 24-year veteran of the force, immediately started down that road on foot, equipped with a rifle and wearing protective gear as dictated by RCMP training for a situation involving “an active shooter posing a threat to others.”
Beselt said he didn’t want to attract the shooter’s attention by driving a police car. Within minutes he was joined by colleagues Cst. Adam Merchant and Cst. Aaron Patton. Cst. Vicki Colford remained at the top of Portapique Beach Road, waiting for an ambulance and working to contain the area.
Over the next two hours, Beselt, Merchant, and Patton found fires burning at the killer’s summer home and warehouse. They responded to multiple calls for assistance from homeowners who heard gunshots from several different locations. Some of those gunshots may have been explosions from the five buildings set on fire by the shooter. In a largely wooded area in total darkness except for the flames, even trained police officers admitted it was difficult to tell the explosions from the gunshots.
The first three officers on the ground believed the gunman was still in their area. At about 10:48, they came upon the bodies of Corrie Ellison and Lisa McCully, across from the burning warehouse at 136 Orchard Beach Drive, where the killer had stored his replica police cars and motorcycles.
At that point, they noticed a flashlight heading south and believed it could be the suspect. There was a short pursuit as the man ran into the woods. Beselt’s team had no way of knowing the flashlight belonged to Clinton Ellison, the older brother searching for the man whose body they had just discovered. As it turned out, each had spooked the other.
The three officers were in regular contact with the Operations Communications Centre (OCC) in Bible Hill.
Just before 11pm they were sent to 135 Ocean Beach Drive to check on four children who had called 911 nearly 45 minutes before. The two Blair boys had hid from the man who killed their parents only an hour earlier. They had run to the McCully house next door as their own home filled with smoke. The two McCully siblings were worried about their mother, who had not returned after going out to check on the fire across the road at the warehouse. The RCMP officers spoke with the children shortly before 11pm and promised to return, which they did a couple of times, but only for a few minutes at a time.
Despite the trauma they had experienced and a major fire burning across the road, the kids were left on their own as the officers continued to be sent to respond to incoming 911 reports of more fires and gunshots.
In one instance, the officers left the kids to look for a man reported “missing” who was in fact Corrie Ellison, whose body they had already found. The three also responded to a call from a family afraid of being burned out and a false alarm from a family who thought the killer was pounding on their door, when it was actually a worried neighbour.
Why no reinforcements?
At this point, it’s worth asking why the senior RCMP managers at the OCC weren’t sending in additional police officers to assist the first three responders, who were working what was clearly a horrific event by 11 o’clock that evening.
A document entitled “First Responders Actions in Portapique,” authored by the Mass Casualty Commission, shows that question came up a number of times and suggests RCMP officers on the ground were unclear about who was in charge.
At 11:20pm. Cst. Chris Grund, who had arrived from Millbrook detachment 20 minutes earlier, radioed the OCC. He asked if he could go into Portapique as part of a second team, now that five additional officers are on site. “Hold off on the second team,” replied Sgt. Andy O’Brien, the operations NCO for the Bible Hill detachment. “I only want one team in there if we can avoid having anyone else in the crossfire.”
At 11:31, the police dog handler from Bible Hill was also told he couldn’t go into the hot zone.
At 11:35, Cst. Bill Neil arrives at Portapique from the Stellarton detachment. At 11:45, Cst. Patton radioed and made it clear they cops on the ground were not happy about leaving the children alone. “With all these fires getting lit, I think we should send a couple of members to go sit with those kids so their house doesn’t get lit while they are sitting in the basement,” said Patton.
Within 18 seconds, Cst Bill Neil, radioed back: “I don’t know who has command.”
“Staff-Sg.t Brian Rehill has command,” replied Staff-Sgt Al Carroll, the district commander for the Colchester RCMP. Rehill is the Risk Manager working out of the Operations Communications Centre in Bible Hill..
“We’ve got five members at the end of Portapique Beach Road,” said Neil. “Give us something to do.”
At 11:47, Rehill said, “If we can, guys, get them out of there if it’s safe to do so and if it’s not, somebody’s got to stay there and protect them.” Rehill then asked if the three children had witnessed the shooting, suggesting he was not up to speed on the eyewitness observations and real-time information the four children had been relaying to 911 since 10:16 that evening.
By 11;49 Neil and Grund were heading down the Portapique Beach Road intent on extracting the children, with or without authorization. At 11:50, the Operational Communications Centre radioed to ask “who is going for the kids?” At 11:51, Staff-Sgt. Andy O’Brien “broadcast instructions for two members to join Neil and Grund headed that way.”
Any read of this document suggests the chain of command was not clear. Instructions were being given to an overwhelmed team of three officers from both Staff-Sgt. Rehill and Sgt. Andy O’Brien. Interviewed by investigators with the MCC, Cst. Bill Neil admits he was feeling frustrated that night:
I was getting pretty pissed off, right? Here we are — we have an active shooter and three or four, I’m not sure, dead. We have an active shooter moving through the community setting fires, flicking explosions…so we really don’t know anything at this point. So I said — a little upset — Fuck this,I’m going to do something. And Grund was like, ‘yes, let’s go do something.’
Grund and Neil met the kids at 135 Orchard Beach Drive at 12:07am, and after making sure they were dressed, Grund drove them out of Portapique in Lisa McCully’s car to the Great Village fire hall. The fire hall was being used as both a comfort centre for evacuated residents and as a command post for the RCMP, which was awaiting the arrival of the Emergency Response Team and the passing of the leadership baton to the Critical Incident Commander.
The fire hall in Great Village is next door to the Wilson’s Gas Stop. Earlier in the night, at 10:51pm, a video camera at the gas station caught a blurry image of what appears to be the killer’s replica police cruiser passing by. The MCC investigators believe that, given the timing, it is “probable” one of three RCMP officers — including Cst. Grund, who was three kilometres west of Great Village at that moment — passed the fake police car on Highway 2 without realizing it, Grund speeding west to Portapique, the killer fleeing east from Portapique.
The 911 call-takers at the Operations Communications Centre (OCC) had been told as early as 10:01pm by Jamie Blair the first name of the killer and that he was driving a fake police car. And soon after, at 10:21pm, the children hiding at the McCully house gave the same information to 911. When Andrew MacDonald ended up at the RCMP road block on Portapique Beach Road, he told police the name of the man he saw in the fake police car, and at 10:30pm there was an exchange between police and the OCC, in which the full name of the killer was provided, as was the fact that he was driving a police car.
But the name of the killer wasn’t released to the public until 8:54am Sunday, and the public wasn’t told he was driving a fake police car until 10:21am Sunday — both times via Twitter.
Between the time he left Portapique and the public was told he was driving a fake police car, the killer killed six more people.
After they brought the kids to the Great Village fire hall, Grund drove the Blair sons and Sgt. Dave Lilley drove the McCully kids to hospital in Truro and stayed with them.
At 2:37am Lilley called Rehill. Rehill asked if the kids happened to know anything about the motive of the shooter.
“According to the kids here, they said, he said, ‘I think Gabriel’s girlfriend broke up with him. So I think he went crazy and started shooting everybody and killing everybody,’” replied Lilly.
“Really?” said Rehill.
“That’s what the little boy said, yeah,” said Lilly.
Out of the mouths of babes. Whose information may have been under-valued or overlooked when it was most needed.
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