Lawyers representing the families of victims of the mass murders of April 18/19, 2020 want 18 police officers to testify at the public inquiry into their actions during and after the murders.

Thursday morning, Nasha Nijhawan, lawyer with the National Police Federation, the union representing 10 of the lower level officers, asked that the Mass Casualty Commission (MCC) accept a report from Nicholas Carleton. Carleton is a University of Regina prof who studies trauma in first responders, including police officers.

Carleton’s report would be used to support Nijhawan’s argument that none of the officers should testify at all, as it would be re-traumatizing for them, and the mandate of the MCC is to conduct a “trauma informed” inquiry.

But before Carleton’s report could be accepted, the commissioners had to accept him as a “expert” witness. Certifying a witness as an expert is common in court — unlike other witnesses, certified experts are allowed to express opinions related to their expertise. Most times, defence lawyers simply accept the qualifications of the expert; sometimes the certification of expertise is contested, but I’ve never seen an expert fail to be certified.

The MCC commissioners, however, declined to accept Carleton’s report, in effect rejecting Nijhawan’s attempt to have Carleton certified as an expert. The commissioner’s decision came after a blistering cross-examination of Carleton, primarily by Rob Pineo, the lawyer representing a large group of the victims’ families.

Pineo pointed out that Carleton has received over $11 million from Public Safety Canada and other federal agencies, mostly for research involving the RCMP, including an active $16,000 contract funded directly by the RCMP. The potential conflict of interest is obvious.

Moreover, Carleton has not treated any of the 18 officers, and in fact never met any of them, so it was a stretch for him to claim any particular insight into the possible trauma any one of them would particularly experience by testifying.

Still, even though Nijhawan failed to get a blanket exemption for the 18 officers from testifying, the lawyers representing the families had to make a case before the commissions for each of the 18 to testify. The families’ lawyers argued their cases for eight of the officers Thursday, and the lawyers for the National Police Federation (Nijhawan), the federal crown lawyer representing the RCMP (Lori Ward), and even the commission’s own lawyer (Jennifer Cox) made counter-arguments.

The remaining 10 potential RCMP witnesses will be discussed Monday.

From the arguments made Thursday, here’s a synopsis of some of what the families want the officers to testify about.

Did the killer leave Portapique at 10:45pm?

A still from a video taken at 10:51pm, April 18, 2020, from the Wilson’s Gas Stop in Great Village

The MCC’s lawyers have presented a timeline that suggests the killer left Portapique via the ‘blueberry field road” and Brown Loop at about 10:45pm Saturday. Part of the evidence to support that timeline is a grainy video of what appears to be an RCMP cruiser passing Wilson’s gas station in Great Village at 10:51pm.

One problem with that assumption is that just at that moment, Cst. Chris Grund was en route to Portapique, heading west on Highway 2 between Portapique and Great Village. That means, if that really was the killer’s car passing Wilson’s, Grund must have passed him on the two-lane Highway 2 — a car that looked like an RCMP car, travelling over 100 kph in the opposite direction. And yet in interviews, Grund said he saw no such car.

The families want to put Grund on the stand to question him about that, to drill down into whether there was any way he could have simply missed seeing the killer’s car.

The families’ lawyers indicated that they don’t believe it is the killer’s car in the Wilson’s video, which if so would undermine the entire timeline. They didn’t say as much, but I got the sense that they think the killer was in Portapique much later than 10:45, perhaps many hours later.

If the killer did not pass Grund in the minutes after 10:45, then it’s possible he killed many of his victims in Portapique — particularly Joy and Peter Bond and Emily Tuck, Aaron Tuck, and Jolene Oliver on Cobequid Court, and possibly Joanne Thomas and John Zahl on Portapique Beach Road — after 10:45.

And, possibly, it means that delay in setting up an RCMP “containment point” on Brown Loop (it wasn’t established until 5am Sunday) gave the killer plenty of time to escape Portapique.

The Portapique Beach Road roadblock

An aerial view of Portapique, annotated
Map produced by Mass Casualty Commission intelligence analyst Brian Corbett

The first four officers to arrive at Portapique Saturday night were Cst. Stuart Beselt (10:25:57), Cst. Adam Merchant (10:28:53), Cst. Aaron Patton (10:28:57), and Cst. Vicki Colford (10:32:16).

Beselt, Merchant and Patton formed an IARD (Immediate Action Rapid Deployment) team and moved on foot into the community (see below). But Colford, who had no IARD training, stayed near, but not at, the top of Portapique Beach Road to create a roadblock, or containment point.

The families’ lawyers said they want to know more about why Colford chose the spot she chose for the roadblock, and not further up, at the intersection of the road with Highway 2. The lawyers didn’t express why this was important to them, but they clearly had something in mind.

Decision to go in on foot

Beselt came across Andrew and Kate MacDonald driving north on Portapique Beach Road. Andrew MacDonald had been shot, and told Beselt that he was shot by someone driving a white car.

Beselt later told investigators that he formed the IARD team and went into Portapique on foot because the Moncton shootings had taught the RCMP not to be in their vehicles, as their cars become “a billboard” for an active shooter.

Yet MacDonald had just told Beselt that the active shooter was himself in a vehicle and was driving around shooting people around the community. So why didn’t Beselt and the others also drive?

Why didn’t the IARD team first go to Orchard Beach Drive?

The path of the IARD team entering Portapique (in yellow). Map: MCC / Brian Corbett

The first 911 call from Portapique was from Jamie Blair at 10:01; she reported that her husband had been shot while on the front deck, and two or three minutes into the call, the call-taker heard Jamie Blair get shot before her phone went dead. The Blairs lived at 123 Orchard Beach Drive.

The Blairs’ two children soon left their house and went next door to 136 Orchard Beach Drive, which was Lisa McCully’s house. McCully had left the house to investigate the fire at the killer’s warehouse across the road, but her two children remained in the house and were joined by the two Blair children. The kids called 911 at 10:16.

Both those 911 calls came in before Beselt arrived in Portapique, and while he was en route to Portapique he was given at least some of the details of the calls, most notably that there were people killed and the calls came from the two houses Orchard Beach Drive.

But when Beselt and Merchant went into Portapique, they went straight south on Portapique Beach Road rather than turning left (east) onto Orchard Beach Drive. They were soon joined by Patton, who likewise went south on Portapique Beach Road.

Why didn’t the three go directly to the site of the 911 calls?

Lawyer Michael Scott put the question more directly: had the IARD team turned left and gone directly to the Blair house, might it had been possible to save Greg Blair’s life?

Thomas/Zahl house

The families also want to ask Beselt and the other two IARD team members if they saw the Thomas/Zahl house at 293 Portapique Road on fire, and if so, when.

It’s evident that the families suspect Joanne Thomas and John Zahl were killed much later than the MCC’s timeline suggests.

The lawyers didn’t say this, but my sense is that the families think the timeline shoehorns in the Thomas/Zahl murders at an early time, coupling those murders with the killer’s perhaps unlikely drive through the woods back to the warehouse.

Placing the Thomas/Zahl murders at an early time allows the commission’s lawyers to time the killer’s exit from Portapique at 10:45. But if they were killed later in the night, then the killer’s exit would have to be much later as well.

Cobequid Court

No one knows when the residents of Cobequid Court were killed.

And their bodies weren’t discovered until 3pm on Sunday, 17 hours after the killing began.

The families want to question the three officers who were at the scene when the bodies were discovered.

Interaction with the children

The lawyers for the families raised two issues related to the RCMP’s interaction with the four children.

The first is around what training the officers had related to dealing with children in an active shooter situation.

The second issue is what conversations Cst. Cris Grund and Sgt. Dave Lilly had with the children, as the two officers were with them immediately after they were rescued from Portapique.

In particular, at 2:37am Sunday, Lilly called Sgt. Brian Rehill. Rehill asked him if the children had told Lilly about any motive for the killer. Lilly responded:

…  according to the kids here… they said ‘I think Gabriel’s girlfriend broke up with him’.. and said, ‘I think he went crazy and started shooting everybody and killing everybody’

This was the first time anyone suggested a motive for the murder spree. But which kid said that, and where did the child get the notion that that’s what happened?

The lawyers would like to ask Lilly about that.

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Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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