Nova Scotia

Mountie in charge of early N.S. mass shooting response hopes testimony offers families some peace

Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill, who was in charge of the police response after 911 calls came in from Portapique, N.S., hopes his testimony provides some answers for families on a day when some people who lost loved ones took to the streets again in protest. 

Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill, risk manager in RCMP dispatch centre, was in charge for the first 3 hours

RCMP Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill testifies before the Mass Casualty Commission via a pre-taped interview with commission lawyers on May 30, 2022. (CBC)

The RCMP officer who was in charge of the police response during the first hours after 911 calls came in from Portapique, N.S., hopes his testimony provides some answers for families even as some people who lost loved ones took to the streets again in protest. 

Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill offered families his condolences in Truro, N.S., Monday, saying he thinks about the mass shooting that killed 22 people constantly, struggles to sleep and is tormented by nightmares when he does. 

"I'm in a grocery store, it's on my mind. I'm walking down the street, it's on my mind. It never leaves me and I'm sure they're the same way if not worse," he said in a closing statement. "I just hope I did something here today positive that can help these people, the families, maybe find another ... bit of peace. "

Rehill also said he hopes analyzing the police response leads to discussion of ways to improve RCMP operations — from clearly assigning duties between officers handling any major emergency to providing around-the-clock air support. 

"This has obviously exposed issues that need to be addressed," Rehill testified. 

On April 18, 2020, Rehill was the risk manager overseeing the RCMP's dispatch centre. He has been on sick leave since September 2020. After reviewing private health information, the Mass Casualty Commission allowed him to testify in a pre-recorded session and only answer questions posed by a lawyer for the inquiry. 

The commission's decision that Rehill would not face any direct questioning from lawyers representing families prompted an outcry from some of those family members and their supporters, who said submitting questions to lawyers for the inquiry wasn't sufficient.

Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19, 2020. Top row from left: Gina Goulet, Dawn Gulenchyn, Jolene Oliver, Frank Gulenchyn, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins. Second row: John Zahl, Lisa McCully, Joey Webber, Heidi Stevenson, Heather O'Brien and Jamie Blair. Third row from top: Kristen Beaton, Lillian Campbell, Joanne Thomas, Peter Bond, Tom Bagley and Greg Blair. Bottom row: Emily Tuck, Joy Bond, Corrie Ellison and Aaron Tuck. (CBC)

Outside the commission office in Truro, not far from the hotel where Rehill was testifying, more than 40 people waved signs and walked along the roadway.

"Our counsel not being able to ask questions that we need answers to? Not okay," Charlene Bagley, whose father Tom Bagley was killed in the mass shooting, told reporters Monday.

"I never thought we'd be fighting two years later for answers, but here we are."

Over the past two weeks, several other high-ranking Mounties who held leadership roles during the April 18-19 rampage have testified.

Commission counsel Roger Burrill's questions to Rehill covered familiar territory: his role trying to seal off exits to Portapique, how he processed information about the gunman having what looked like a police car, and the division of responsibility between commanding officers.

Rehill, who has been with the RCMP for more than 30 years, was the person in charge of the police response from 10 p.m. until shortly after 1 a.m. when Staff Sgt. Jeff West took over as critical incident commander. 

His role in the first hour included trying to call Jamie Blair's cell phone after the line dropped on her 911 call; speaking to Kate MacDonald, whose husband was injured after the gunman shot at their car; and talking to Richard Ellison, whose son Corrie was killed and whose other son Clinton was hiding in the woods. 

All the while, Rehill was fielding phone calls from other senior officers, monitoring radio communications from the officers on the ground, assigning tasks to dispatchers and using multiple mapping programs to get a sense of the area, which he admitted "was a lot" to process.   

'Truly believed' only 1 exit

Police believe the gunman escaped from Portapique on a private road along a blueberry field about 20 minutes after the first officers arrived at the entrance to the rural subdivision.

But Rehill, echoing testimony from Staff Sgt. Al Carroll last week, said he never heard a constable mention on the radio that she'd been told there could be a back way out of the community. 

Rehill said after reviewing the RCMP's mapping software and Google maps, he thought officers were stationed at the only possible exit for a vehicle. 

An aerial map of Portapique from May 2020 with street names added by the Mass Casualty Commission. (Mass Casualty Commission)

He also explained he'd assigned Const. Chris Grund, who arrived at the main entrance of Portapique Beach Road as backup, to be stationed farther east on a section of Highway 2 that wasn't sealed off until much later. He said they both could have followed up to confirm his placement. 

"I didn't think it was a huge concern because I truly believed that you couldn't get out anyway. If he [the gunman] is going to make a run out of the community, he's going to come out this way, and we're going to need several members there," Rehill said. 

He also said he positioned officers farther west of Portapique Beach Road, on the other side of a river, because it wasn't clear from maps if it was a brook or terrain that would be passable by car or all-terrain vehicles. 

'Real team effort' among senior officers 

It was a "real team effort" to try to position officers around the entrance to Portapique and block off routes the gunman's car could take, Rehill testified. 

Burrill asked if it was a problem that senior officers were responding to the front-line Mounties who called in looking for direction. The inquiry's lawyer posed a question he's asked other witnesses — whether as was suggested by one of the first officers on scene that there was "too many cooks in the kitchen."

Rehill said he appreciated that senior officers like Carroll, the district commander, and Sgt. Andy O'Brien, who is scheduled to testify Tuesday, were involved and wasn't concerned there was any duplication. 

He said there were times, such as when he was tied up on the phone asking Cpl. Lisa Croteau about sending out a tweet notifying the public, that other senior officers were responding to questions posed. 

"In an occurrence of this magnitude, I'm more than happy to take the help," said Rehill. 

The chain of command came up again when Burrill asked if it would've been possible for Rehill to request an emergency alert. 

Doing so wasn't part of a risk manager's responsibility and he was managing many other things, Rehill testified, adding that he thought Supt. Darren Campbell and ultimately Chief Supt. Chris Leather, the second in command in the province, would make that call. 

Didn't realize kids were alone 

Rehill said he also trusted Const. Stuart Beselt, the leader of the team of three officers on foot in Portapique, N.S., to make sound decisions and wasn't directing their every move.

He testified that he did not give direction on whether the team should tell residents to shelter in place or leave their homes. 

But he also did not initially realize they had left four children, whose parents were murdered, in a basement. About 20 minutes after O'Brien suggested holding off sending in a second team to get them — an exchange that happened when Rehill was on the phone — Rehill approved the request.

One of his longtime tenets was not to "create another emergency within an emergency" and he said it was important there was no risk the kids would be ambushed so he was "constantly balancing options."

"That's why I say, if it's safe to do so, if you guys are confident you can get them out safely, then by all means do it," he testified.

Dispute over passing along information

A point of contention for families has been why police waited so long to communicate to the public that the gunman was driving a replica police cruiser, given that eyewitnesses told police about it early on. 

When Kate MacDonald spoke to Rehill around 10:30 p.m. she mentioned the man who shot her husband was driving a police car with stripes, though she didn't see any roof lights.

Earlier this month, both West and Staff Sgt. Steve Halliday testified he didn't learn about Andrew MacDonald until early on April 19th. Halliday said he found out after debriefing around 3:30 a.m. with the first officers in the community and West said he heard about three hours after that. 

A photo of the gunman's decommissioned 2017 Ford Taurus that he made into a replica cruiser, and used during the N.S. mass shootings across April 18-19, 2022. (Mass Casualty Commission)

But Rehill said Monday he was confident he told Halliday about the MacDonalds when he first called him about a situation in Portpaique, given he'd just gotten off the phone with Kate. 

"I know that's what prompted my call," he said, adding that hearing of another instance of a police car being involved was "very alarming."

Because he called from a cell phone, it wasn't recorded. 

Victims' families, community members and supporters protest outside the Mass Casualty Commission's office in Truro on May 30, 2022. (Haley Ryan/CBC)

Earlier in the day, most drivers honked and waved as they passed by the protest on Esplanade Street in Truro.

Bagley said the larger turnout for the event was "encouraging" to see after a similar protest outside the inquiry hearings last week.

Even though the officers' pre-taped testimony is going ahead this week, Bagley said she still had hope the commission would "do what's right" and allow family lawyers to eventually directly ask questions of Rehill and O'Brien.

"If I had to get up on the stand, I would. Wouldn't want to, but I would. So I feel that anybody else should be able to do that as well," Bagley said.

WATCH: Families boycott N.S. shooting inquiry

Families of N.S. shooting victims boycott public inquiry

2 months ago
Duration 2:00
Several families of the victims in the April 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting will boycott the public inquiry, protesting a decision to allow two key Mounties to avoid testifying in person over concerns of reliving trauma.

Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade chief Greg Muise joined the protest Monday, because he said he doesn't like the way the commission has treated the victims' families, and people like himself who were involved in other traumatizing events during the search for the gunman. 

Muise was inside the fire hall when RCMP officers opened fire on a civilian the morning of April 19.

"If we can't get questions asked, then the inquiry is a farce. The families are fed up, we're fed up," said Muise. "It seems everything's RCMP. It has nothing to do with the families, or the people that was involved."

Muise said while he understands everyone involved in the mass shooting deals with lasting trauma, himself included, he felt it was important to take the stand and face questions from both family and commission lawyers.

He said RCMP officers are trained and paid to testify about difficult subjects and felt Rehill and O'Brien are not taking responsibility for their actions by not being cross-examined.

Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade chief Greg Muise attended the protest against the Mass Casualty Inquiry in Truro on May 30, 2022. (CBC)

The commission lawyers in the past have not asked hard questions, or pointed to various documents to ask witnesses about discrepancies, Muise said. He added he also hasn't seen them pressing officers more when they testify they can't recall key details.

"I remember back two years ago what happened to me, and I don't think that'd ever leave me. It's going to stay with me for the rest of my life," Muise said.

Rehill's testimony was under embargo until he finished for the day around 5 p.m. Burrill posed questions suggested by lawyers for participants that did not boycott proceedings and the three commissioners had the chance to ask him questions directly via Zoom. 

'We are just regular people'

In his closing remarks, he asked families and Nova Scotians to remember that the first responders were just human and that it's been "very tough" to deal with the trauma. 

"We are just regular people going to work to support our families," he said.

"Everybody that night and the following day had their heart and soul into this. They were doing their best.... When you dissect it, it looks like 'you could've done better here' and we're not denying that. Despite us all doing our best, there's certainly ways we can improve." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC in Halifax. Over the past 13 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

With files from Haley Ryan

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