Two years after a gunman killed 22 in Nova Scotia, RCMP still under the microscope
By Michael MacDonald in Halifax
Two years after her father was gunned down by a man disguised as a Mountie, Charlene Bagley remains convinced he would be alive today had the Nova Scotia RCMP issued a provincewide alert early in the killer’s rampage.
“He usually would check the news on Facebook,” Bagley said in a recent interview, recalling the morning of April 19, 2020 when her father Tom was murdered. “That was his morning routine. But at that point, they weren’t showing the perpetrator’s face or anything.”
The RCMP’s communication with the public during the gunman’s 13 hours at large has become a focal point for the commission of inquiry investigating the worst mass shooting in modern Canadian history, which claimed 22 lives on April 18-19, 2020.
After almost eight weeks of public hearings, key questions remain about how and when the Mounties shared information, including on the first night when the killer fatally shot 13 people in rural Portapique, N.S., about 50 kilometres south of the Bagley home.
The inquiry has heard that on April 18, 2020, at 11:32 p.m. RCMP used Twitter to advise Portapique residents to lock their doors because police were investigating a “firearms complaint.”
That innocuous statement offered little hint of the unfolding tragedy. By that time, the Mounties at the scene were aware an active shooter had already killed at least two people, wounded another and had set fire to a number of homes.
As well, the suspect had yet to be found, officers were reporting gunfire and explosions, and a series of 911 calls indicated the killer was driving a car that looked like a fully marked RCMP cruiser.
The inquiry has heard that at least two Mounties, Const. Stuart Beselt and Staff Sgt. Al Carroll, had suggested the public should be alerted to what was going on. But that didn’t happen until the next morning.
Beselt, the first officer to arrive at Portapique at 9:25 p.m., delivered the following message on his police radio at 11:16 p.m. as the search continued for the killer: “Is there some kind of emergency broadcast that we can make (to) make people go into their basement and not go outside?”
He was told residents in the area were being called directly. No broadcast was made.
As for Carroll, district commander for Colchester County, he told the inquiry’s investigators that some time before midnight, he advised his colleagues to “get something out there through our media communications … out of H Division (headquarters).”
“They’re our media people,” he recalled saying. “Get in touch with them so they can get something out … by their normal channels,” which included social media. But the RCMP did not send any other messages to the public that night.
Michael Arntfield, a professor and criminologist at Western University in London, Ont., said decision-making within the RCMP can be a slow process, especially when it comes to dealing with the public.
“There are obviously going to be tactical decisions made on the fly … but everything needs to be run up the flagpole and then back down if it involves any public communications,” he said.
“So even for something urgent and imminently dangerous … they cannot unbind themselves from bureaucratic machinations. It’s like analysis paralysis.”
There is evidence, however, the RCMP had reason to be careful about releasing more information to the public, said Christian Leuprecht, a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., who specializes in police and security issues.
Though 911 call-takers had received reports from witnesses about a replica RCMP cruiser, investigators later found three decommissioned police cars that belonged to the killer — two that were burned wrecks near his properties in Portapique and one still intact in Dartmouth, N.S.
At the time, police were unaware the killer had escaped Portapique in a fourth decommissioned cruiser that had been expertly modified to look identical to an RCMP cruiser.
“Ultimately, you need to validate (the witness statements) because if you put out the wrong information, then you’re going make the situation even worse,” Leuprecht said, pointing to the discovery of the three former police cars.
Arntfield, a former police officer, said it’s also important to recognize the RCMP in rural Nova Scotia were facing an unprecedented situation.
“You’ve got a fluid, critical incident,” Arntfield said in an interview. “They’ve had no precedent or training in terms of dealing with this type of scenario.”
Through the night, the police force shared key information about the suspect with its officers through internal messages known as BOLOs, an acronym for “Be On The Lookout.” But the public was kept in the dark.
At 1:09 a.m., officers were warned about an “active shooter incident in progress.” The alert identified the suspect, saying he was armed and dangerous and “associated” with an “old police car” that might have been burned in Portapique. Several similar message were repeated into the small hours of the morning.
The situation changed at 7:22 a.m. when the killer’s spouse emerged from hiding and revealed details about the fourth car and provided a photo of the vehicle. That crucial information was relayed to police at 8:04 a.m. through a BOLO that said the vehicle was loaded with weapons and “could be anywhere in the province.”
By 7:45 a.m., RCMP Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum was tasked with preparing a news release with the help of the RCMP’s media relations department. In a subsequent interview with inquiry investigators, MacCallum said he made it clear the public should be told to “look for this car.”
At 8:02 a.m., almost 10 hours after the shooter killed his first victim, the Mounties issued a tweet declaring an “active shooter situation” in Portapique, the first time the public received such a warning. But it did not mention the suspected getaway car or that the perpetrator could be anywhere in the province.
The RCMP followed up with another tweet at 8:54 a.m. that identified 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman as the suspected gunman. A photo of him accompanied the tweet.
It was around that time that Tom Bagley left for his morning walk on Hunter Road in West Wentworth. Investigators believe the former firefighter was fatally shot by the perpetrator as he approached the burning home of neighbours Sean McLeod and Alanna Jenkins. Police believe McLeod and Jenkins were killed in their house some time between 6:35 a.m. and 9 a.m.
Charlene Bagley said her father would have stayed home had a provincewide warning alerted him to an active shooter in the area.
“I guarantee you, my father would be here today,” she said. “Some guy going around killing people and setting fires; I guess I’d like to know how much more was needed for them to have realized an alert was necessary.”
RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson asked supervisors at 8:44 a.m. if they had considered distributing a media release about the replica cruiser, according to documents released by the inquiry.
Staff Sgt. Bruce Briers, in notes submitted to the inquiry, confirmed that Staff Sgt. Al Carroll — the district commander in Colchester — responded to the request in an email at 9:08 a.m., saying: “Thought was given to give release about vehicle, but decision was made not to.”
Briers, the risk manager at the Operational Communications Centre in Bible Hill, N.S., replied: “Very good. Kind of figured they may not want to release.”
Stevenson died later that morning when the killer crashed his car into her cruiser. Before she was fatally shot, the officer managed to fire a round that hit the suspect on the right side of the head, wounding him, the inquiry heard last week.
It wasn’t until 10:17 a.m. that the RCMP sent a tweet showing a photo of the killer’s car, saying the perpetrator may be wearing an RCMP uniform. That key warning came almost 12 hours after the Mounties were first told about the vehicle, and more than two hours after they received the photo.
As well, the Mounties have faced criticism for using Twitter to issue warnings, considering the social media platform isn’t that popular in rural settings.
“The citizens of Nova Scotia have a right to know if and when they are in danger,” lawyer Jane Lenehan told the inquiry last week. “The perpetrator represented a serious threat to their safety … yet the vast majority of Nova Scotians were oblivious to the seriousness of the threat …. Critical information was withheld.”
Lenehan represents the family of Gina Goulet, the last person murdered by Wortman on April 19, 2020. She said many Nova Scotians would have made different choices about their movements that morning if they knew about the threat the perpetrator posed.
That’s why the RCMP should have distributed provincewide warnings through the Alert Ready system, which sends urgent messages directly to TV screens, radios and wireless devices, she said.
The RCMP have confirmed that when two Mounties fatally shot the killer at a gas station north of Halifax at 11:25 a.m., the police force was in the middle of crafting an Alert Ready message that was never sent.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 18, 2022.
— With files from Michael Tutto
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