Nova Scotia

Mounties who killed N.S. gunman testify they were looking for someone 'vindictive' and 'evil'

Constables Ben MacLeod and Craig Hubley, who opened fire on the gunman at a gas station in Enfield, N.S., testified Thursday at the public inquiry examining the events of April 18-19, 2020.

Warning: This story contains disturbing details

RCMP Const. Craig Hubley, left, and Const. Ben MacLeod appear at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the April 2020 mass murders in rural Nova Scotia. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Const. Craig Hubley knew he was dealing with a different kind of threat when in Portapique, N.S., he saw Jamie and Greg Blair's little dog, its hind end mangled by a rifle's bullet.

The RCMP dog handler realized the gunman he sought was the type of person so intent on causing harm that he would shoot a family pet that weighed no more than 20 pounds.

"That animal for me was poignant because I've been to other murder scenes, crimes of passion, but never where someone would vent rage like that," Hubley testified Thursday at a public inquiry in Halifax examining the April 2020 mass shootings.

"I believed he was extremely dangerous."

The Blairs were among the 13 people murdered in the rural subdivision. The couple's two young sons had witnessed their parents die and managed to escape. When police arrived at the scene on the morning of April 19, 2020, they found the Blairs' miniature pinscher wounded and waiting on the step where one of its owners had been killed hours earlier.

Hubley and other RCMP officers were assessing the carnage during a "lull" as they evacuated homes and looked for signs of the killer. 

The gunman was shot by police near a gas station in Enfield, N.S. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Const. Ben MacLeod, a member of the RCMP's tactical team, said the scene — which included two bodies on the side of a road — didn't compare to any murder or sudden death he'd ever attended. 

"Vindictiveness is a good word and evil is a good word.… To do that was evil," he said.

MacLeod had his own realization about the man who caused the horror when he picked up Lisa Banfield, the gunman's spouse, after she appeared at a neighbour's around dawn. 

Experience had many officers positing that the gunman had killed himself in the woods, MacLeod said, but their perspective shifted when they saw the man's partner, who was "distraught" and nervous to be exposed as she got into a police vehicle. 

"To see she was still so scared that he was searching for her kind of clicked and made us think — made myself think too — that he was still out there ready to finish," MacLeod testified. 

WATCH | RCMP officers describe confrontation with Nova Scotia gunman: 

RCMP officer recounts facing N.S. mass shooter before opening fire

6 months ago
Duration 2:16
WARNING: This video contains distressing details | In a public inquiry on the Nova Scotia mass shooting, Cst. Craig Hubley testified he immediately recognized the gunman during a chance encounter at a gas station. Hubley stated he opened fire when he saw the killer raise his arm with a pistol in hand.

Hours later, Hubley and MacLeod faced the killer at a gas pump in Enfield, N.S., and recounted together in a witness panel the seconds that prompted them to fire 23 bullets, killing Gabriel Wortman.

By that point, he'd been on the loose for more than 13 hours, travelled nearly 200 kilometres and had killed 22 people, among them many strangers, including a pregnant woman and an RCMP officer, Const. Heidi Stevenson. Through much of the rampage, he was driving a decommissioned cruiser he'd outfitted to be identical to a real one. 

Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19. 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)

MacLeod also reflected on the attention the incident has brought to him and Hubley for killing the gunman, and the toll the past two years have taken on their fellow first responders. 

"We've all struggled. We saw a lot that night. Every one of us just wanted to find him, we were doing everything we could to find him that night," he said. 

"It's been two years of grieving with Nova Scotians, with families of victims who are here. We lost one of our own, too, with Heidi. Life will never be the same for us either." 

'Urgency was indescribable'

The search to track down the gunman became a race on April 19 when 911 calls came in about a new shooting in the Wentworth area, more than 20 kilometres north of the Portapique area. 

Hubley and MacLeod took off and were soon diverted to a property in Glenholme, N.S., where a couple called for help after seeing the gunman pull into their driveway

"Knowing what had happened in Portapique, knowing that he was potentially there in Glenholme, the sense of urgency was indescribable," said Hubley. 

He and MacLeod ended up together in the back of the emergency response team's tactical vehicle as it approached the home. Hubley said his focus was on keeping his German shepherd calm and assessing on his phone the layout of the property, which was wooded and scattered with heavy equipment — which he viewed as places to hide. 

'Close but not close enough'

Before he and his dog started looking for the suspect's track, the RCMP dispatcher's voice came on the radio, informing them of new shootings on Plains Road in Debert, N.S., where the gunman had shot Kristen Beaton and Heather O'Brien less than 10 kilometres away. 

"I remember feeling a little defeated that he had found two more victims when it seemed like we were seconds behind him," Hubley said. 

At that point, Hubley and MacLeod took off together in a Suburban — MacLeod providing cover and Hubley behind the wheel. He estimated they travelled "as fast as that truck would go" at around 180 kilometres per hour for most of the next hour. 

They didn't stay long in Debert, where other members were on scene. Hubley said there was "just a feeling" the gunman had moved on and would be headed toward a more populated area. Before long, there was a sighting on a secondary highway in the Brookfield area — closer to Halifax — and the officers tore up the main highway to the city, trying to determine the best place to get ahead of the gunman.

Surveillance footage from the Elmsdale Petro-Canada shows the gunman at the gas pump opposite emergency response team members around 11:16 a.m. AT on April 19, 2020. (Mass Casualty Commission)

All the while, they were monitoring police radio communications, trying to alert officers in Halifax and strategize the best exit, they said. MacLeod said it wasn't unusual in their jobs to have to process a lot of information at once.

Included in the updates coming on the radio was that two members were hit — Const. Chad Morrison, who was injured and survived, and Stevenson, who they later learned died after a gunfight in Shubenacadie. 

When they exited the main highway farther north from that scene, they came upon other RCMP officers who had set up a roadblock. They decided to keep heading toward the city, this time on the secondary highway, looping around the nearby Enfield RCMP detachment as a precaution given they knew the shooter was by then targeting Mounties.

But a problem was brewing. They were burning through gas and Hubley said he knew if they were going to be called to respond in the Halifax area, where he normally was based, they needed to be prepared. 

MacLeod appears at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

They pulled into the Irving Big Stop to gas up twice, stopping to ensure that members of Halifax Regional Police's tactical team, who were parked at the site, knew the suspect had last been seen in a silver SUV. They soon left for nearby Elmsdale to follow up on a report of a sighting at a Sobeys in Truro that proved unfounded. 

When they returned to the gas station, the goal was to fill up — but they said their task was always to find the killer. 

"We're used to [having a feeling], as police officers using intuition, call it what you want. [We were] having that discussion, we think he's close to us, let's stay in this area and stay mobile trying to find him," said MacLeod.   

On Wednesday, the public inquiry heard the gunman had first pulled up at a Petro-Canada in Elmsdale, near Enfield, at a pump opposite other members of the RCMP's emergency response team. He left before they recognized them, the inquiry heard. 

Hubley and MacLeod said they were not aware of that, had no knowledge the gunman was at the Big Stop when they pulled in, and that they had no instructions to execute the suspect. 

But they knew he could be in the area and MacLeod planned to watch Hubley's back at the pump. 

Within seconds, they were firing. 

Hubley shot the gunman as he sat in victim Gina Goulet's stolen Mazda at 11:25 a.m. AT on April 19, 2020, at the Enfield Irving Big Stop. (Mass Casualty Commission )

On exiting his vehicle, Hubley said he checked the position of his pistol on his thigh, as was routine, and noticed the man sitting in a grey hatchback at an adjacent pump. 

"He was wearing a white T-shirt and he looked very sweaty, very run down. I think I've used 'animal' to describe him. Whether he had just lost a fight or finished a big one, is how he looked," Hubley said. 

"He was breathing heavy, there was a bump on his head. There was blood coming from it. And what struck me the most in that quarter of a second was that he had a wound that he wasn't addressing." 

He said the man's appearance was so concerning that he started to draw his gun and realized it was the gunman and called out to MacLeod, who was already on his way out of the Suburban. 

Police respond to the gas station in Enfield, N.S., on Sunday, April 19, 2020. (Tim Krochak/The Canadian Press)

Hubley said he'd spent time studying photos of the gunman pinned up at the makeshift command post in Great Village, N.S., at the beginning of his shift and recognized him in the car.

"When I yelled, 'Benny, it's him!' he looked at me and I was already 100 per cent certain that it was him," he said, adding that he started firing when he saw the gunman "make a jerking motion" and his right arm rose with a black and silver pistol in it. 

"I believed he was going to shoot me," Hubley said, adding that he fired until the gunman "wasn't in a position to shoot back," knowing from training that in order to stop a threat, multiple rounds were required.

Mountie describes how he recognized N.S. gunman

6 months ago
Duration 1:23
Warning: This story contains disturbing details

Meanwhile, MacLeod had moved ahead of their vehicle and started firing when he saw the gunman raise a pistol toward his right temple. 

"This isn't the movies.… That's not cause to stop shooting to see if he's a threat toward us or him," MacLeod testified. "If I was to wait for him to turn the pistol on me at that point before I fired, he would undoubtedly have the drop on us."

He said he only learned the gunman did fire months later from the Serious Incident Response Team investigation. On Wednesday, Nova Scotia's chief medical examiner testified the self-inflicted wound was not the gunman's immediate cause of death

Analysis later determined Hubley fired 12 rounds and MacLeod fired 11. Both men testified there was nothing they would have done differently.

Mountie reflects on life since the shootings

6 months ago
Duration 1:50
Warning: This story contains disturbing details.

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

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