Daughter of N.S. mass shooting victim says RCMP didn't let her say goodbye
Warning: details in this story are disturbing
The daughter of one of the victims of Nova Scotia's April 2020 mass shooting says she believes RCMP officers denied her the chance to say goodbye to her mother as she lay dying of multiple gunshot wounds on a rural road.
Heather O'Brien was shot in her vehicle by a stranger disguised as a Mountie in Debert, N.S., on April 19, 2020, the 19th victim of the gunman during his 13-hour rampage.
Her family quickly realized something was terribly wrong because she was on the phone with a friend who heard the nurse and mother of eight scream before the line cut out. Her friend immediately called one of O'Brien's daughters, who thought her mother might have been in a car accident.
Another daughter, Michaella Scott, raced to Plains Road and could see her mother's car against a tree with its doors open. By then, two RCMP officers were at the scene and told her it wasn't safe.
"The more I approached, the more aggressive they had got with me telling me that I couldn't be there and needed to leave the scene immediately, all while having their guns drawn," Scott wrote in a statement to the Mass Casualty Commission that was released Thursday, along with a document summarizing what happened that day on Plains Road.
Const. Ian Fahie was the Mountie who first spoke to Scott. He told the inquiry in an interview later that he told Scott "you need to go. It's not safe for you to be here," so she left.
Unbeknownst to Scott at that time, the officers who arrived 15 minutes after the phone call had discovered O'Brien had suffered multiple gunshot wounds, according to summaries of their statements released by the inquiry.
Thinking she could still be alive, the RCMP officers initially tried to call for an ambulance or a helicopter flight, only to learn the LifeFlight air ambulance would not be flying because of the active shooter situation.
Two paramedic-trained ERT officers who arrived on scene conducted further checks for a pulse. One of the officers told the inquiry in a recorded interview they did not detect one.
Scott returned home briefly but returned after talking to family in hopes of getting answers about why there was a tarp or blanket beside her mother's car. At that point, she said one of the officers apologized, gave her his card and told her they were conducting a homicide investigation.
"The day burns in the back of my head, they took away my right to hold my mother's hand, to say goodbye, to tell her I loved her one last time," she said in her statement.
Fahie told the commission when he spoke to Scott the second time, he could see she was "very upset." He shared information about O'Brien's death with her, based on her knowledge of the car her mom had been driving and he could hear O'Brien's phone ringing when Scott called it.
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, the O'Brien family said it was disappointed with the information presented to the public regarding O'Brien's death.
The family cites disparities in the information from responding officers about the condition of the vehicle, and a report from Fahie that O'Brien had a "weak pulse" and was making "very faint noises" when he arrived on scene.
In an interview with the commission, Cpl. Duane Ivany, one of two ERT officers with paramedic training who arrived on scene after Fahie, said that he and his partner checked for a pulse at O'Brien's neck, armpit and thigh on both sides of her body. They did not find a pulse.
The family also cites information recorded by O'Brien's FitBit after her death. The commission states it is investigating whether those readings can "shed light on the events on Plains Road."
"We are disappointed that the public is not getting this information, and instead being forced to read through thousands of documents to find anything," reads the statement from the O'Brien family.
O'Brien and her Victorian Order of Nurses colleague Kristen Beaton, who was pregnant and working that morning, were both shot in their vehicles along the same stretch of road in Colchester County.
Though they were both aware police had responded to killings the night before about 25 kilometres away in Portapique, N.S., and knew the name of the suspect and what he looked like, they did not know he was driving a mock police cruiser. Their families have been vocal that had the RCMP shared that information with the public earlier, their loved ones would still be alive.
The two women died around 10 a.m. The RCMP sent their first tweet about the replica cruiser, including a photo, at 10:17 a.m., information their loved ones soon saw circulating on social media.
Beaton's husband, Nick, had been in constant communication with her, providing details about the unfolding situation. Some time before 9 a.m., Beaton posted on a Facebook group for home support workers asking people to "please be safe and keep your eyes open."
Nick Beaton last spoke to his wife less than 20 minutes before she was killed. When she stopped answering his texts and calls, he called her workplace, had her declared a missing person and pushed for her cellphone co-ordinates to be tracked by police.
According to inquiry documents released Thursday, RCMP did not provide Beaton's family with her location and turned a family member away at the crime scene.
The documents show what loved ones of Beaton and O'Brien have always known — their deaths were completely random and both cases of unfortunate timing.
Speaking with reporters on Thursday, Nick Beaton said he's still not happy with the information shared by the inquiry and that he's learned nothing new about what happened to his wife on Plains Road.
However, Beaton said he and the other families have always appreciated that the responding RCMP officers did their best in a "chaotic" situation.
"I'm sympathetic to the ones that were working that day," he said. "It's easy to read [the documents] and say 'I'd have done this or I'd have done that.'"
According to the documents, several drivers witnessed various points of the murders after coming upon the same stretch of Plains Road while Kristen Beaton and Heather O'Brien were parked.
Sara Hughes described being "pretty much almost bumper to bumper" with the gunman because he was "pulling in with no blinkers, no nothing."
Hughes said she saw Beaton's Honda CR-V on the side of the road. She told RCMP investigators five days later how the replica police car did not activate its lights to pull over the CR-V. The man with her, Adam Griffiths, said he was a "hundred per cent" certain on this point.
The pair watched the man who appeared to be a police officer stop beside Beaton's vehicle.
"When [the perpetrator] pulled behind, I just remember looking in my rear-view mirror because he just didn't pull in behind her like someone would that was a — a cop, I mean they usually leave a distance and — like this was right up on her."
Hughes said she watched the man walk up to Beaton's window on the driver's side. She told police she didn't see what happened next, since they were still driving.
Inquiry documents reveal another man, Terry Budd, had just finished a 12-hour shift at the nearby hardware store when he heard popping sounds. As he drove along Plains Road, he slowed down and "proceeded to watch a gentleman shoot the windows out of a smaller car," which would have been O'Brien's.
From about 300 metres away, Budd said he then watched a tall man wearing a bright orange or yellow jacket get into an RCMP vehicle and start "booking it" away from him in the opposite direction.
By that time, RCMP officers were in the vicinity. Two members had been driving on the highway toward Wentworth, where a number of victims had been shot earlier that morning, and many more officers including the emergency response team were in nearby Glenholme responding to a sighting of the gunman.
Various crews rushed to Plains Road to find O'Brien and Beaton in their cars.
At 10:09 a.m. an ambulance had been requested, and one left Truro at 10:18 a.m. However, the ambulance turned around after officers on scene confirmed both victims had died.
Inquiry documents state EHS did not appear to have "dispatched a vehicle in response to the RCMP's request for LifeFlight launch," the inquiry documents said.
According to EHS, the air ambulance began preparing to move the landing zone to the Colchester East Hants Health Centre in Truro "as a staging point."
"Due to the significant safety concerns, it was determined that the best course of action would be to hold them at their base in a ready state."
The gunman continued driving through rural communities, killing three more people, including an RCMP officer, before police eventually came upon him at a gas station in Enfield, approximately 50 kilometres outside of Halifax, and killed him on the spot.
Mental health support
Public hearings for the inquiry are now on break until April 11. The inquiry has built in scheduled breaks as part of its trauma-informed approach.
As disturbing details continue to be released from the Mass Casualty Commission, there are various mental health and trauma support services available.
Nova Scotia Health offers online mental health services. The province's toll-free mental health crisis line at 1-888-429-8167, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
People can also call 211 to access mental health support programs.