Nova Scotia

Witnesses saw a poorly lit cruiser the night N.S. gunman hid in industrial park

A public inquiry's investigation into the six overnight hours the gunman who killed 22 people spent in an industrial park has revealed little beyond that five people later reported seeing what looked like an unusual police cruiser. 

5 people reported seeing what appeared to be an RCMP cruiser in Great Village, Debert

Surveillance video from Dave’s Service Centre on Plains Road in Debert taken at 11:09 p.m. on April 18, 2020 shows what the inquiry believes is the gunman's mock cruiser. (Mass Casualty Commission)

A public inquiry's investigation into the six overnight hours the Nova Scotia gunman who killed 22 people spent in an industrial park has revealed little beyond that five people later reported seeing what looked like an unusual police cruiser. 

After killing 13 neighbours in Portapique, N.S., on April 18, 2020, Gabriel Wortman drove about 30 kilometres to the rural community of Debert, N.S., before leaving at dawn and killing nine more people, including a pregnant woman and an RCMP officer. 

The shooting and arson rampage injured a handful of others, destroyed several buildings and shook people in surrounding communities, through which the gunman drove nearly 200 kilometres before being shot and killed by police at a gas station in Enfield, N.S. 

On April 28, 2020, the RCMP released surveillance camera images of the gunman's replica cruiser entering an industrial park in Debert around 11:12 p.m. Saturday and leaving around 5:43 a.m. on Sunday. In a press conference at the time, police didn't provide any details about what he did there. 

The owner of a welding shop located at 123 Ventura Dr. told CBC at the time that he decided to look around his property after recognizing the gunman's name and discovered numerous items around a lane behind his shop, including an empty gun holster, leather RCMP boots and an empty box of shells and cartridges. 

Brian MacDonald said over the past decade he had worked on repairs for the shooter's fleet of motorcycles and a backhoe. After finding the items, he called RCMP. 

WATCH | A Debert man 'had a feeling' N.S. gunman stayed on his property. He was right: 

A Debert man 'had a feeling' N.S. gunman stayed on his property — he was right

3 years ago
Duration 2:13
Brian MacDonald of Debert, N.S., had a feeling the gunman in Nova Scotia’s mass shooting had been on his property.

Wednesday morning the Mass Casualty Commission, the joint federal and provincial inquiry examining the shootings, released a 31-page document summarizing the evidence collected from the gunman's time on Ventura Drive. It includes surveillance video from several businesses, including a gas station he's believed to have passed in Great Village, N.S., as well as witness statements.

The records do little to illuminate what the gunman did overnight or why he was there. Some insight comes from the statements of two minors, who are not named in the commission's report, who were hanging out listening to music near a football field off Ventura Drive when they saw what appeared to be a police cruiser driving in circles within the business park around midnight. 

"There was some things off, and he just wasn't acting like a police officer," one of the boys later told police, describing how the driver stopped frequently and appeared to be "scoping out" the area.

In April 2020, RCMP left various orange ribbons around a Debert property after the owner, who had previously done work for the gunman, reported finding police gear and an empty ammunition package. (Preston Mulligan/CBC)

The witness said he saw the vehicle drive toward the Debert Diefenbunker, a Cold War-era underground bunker which the gunman reportedly drove by earlier in the day as well, according to a statement his spouse gave to police.

"He was driving really, really slow, so it was really weird," the boy said. 

He also described what appeared to be a black push bar on the front of the vehicle. 

Roger Burrill, senior counsel for the commission, presented the report Wednesday and said in April 2020 the Nova Scotia RCMP only had four vehicles with push bars. Three were SUVs and one was a Taurus based in Kingston, N.S., in the Annapolis Valley.

Young people worried about getting in trouble

The second boy, who also spoke to police in early May 2020, said he and his friend ran away because they were worried about getting in trouble for violating the provincial COVID-19 lockdown. 

The stepfather of one of the boys also later told RCMP investigators that before he went to bed around 1 a.m. he saw what appeared to be a police cruiser parked on Plains Road near Ventura Drive about 30 metres from his deck. 

The gunman returned to Plains Road the following morning and killed Heather O'Brien and Kristen Beaton, who were both strangers and in their vehicles. Shortly after their deaths on April 19, RCMP finally tweeted publicly at 10:17 a.m. that their suspect was in what looked like a replica cruiser. 

Brian MacDonald discovered items later confirmed to have been left by the gunman behind his welding shop in Debert, N.S., including RCMP-issue boots from the gunman's uncle and a holster. (Mass Casualty Commission)

The sightings around Ventura Drive weren't the only time that April night people spotted a cruiser that was unusual enough to stand out.

A woman who lived on Station Road in Great Village, which is off of Highway 2, told RCMP that after seeing several cruisers heading toward Portapique, she found it strange to see one heading in the opposite direction. 

She estimated that happened at 11:15 p.m. but wasn't entirely sure. In her April 30 statement, she recalled asking her boyfriend why a marked cop car would be returning without its running lights — it didn't appear to have its headlights or taillights lit, beyond daytime running lights. 

2 cruisers with patrol lights headed south

Another person who lived on Station Road later reported that between seeing two cruisers heading with flashing lights driving quickly toward Portapique, he saw a third vehicle, which looked like a police car, driving about 70 kilometres an hour in the opposite direction. He said the northbound vehicle appeared to have regular headlights as well as a lightbar on its roof.

The commission analyzed the GPS vehicles of RCMP vehicles and determined two were driving south by the man's home between 10:40 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.

Handwritten notes prepared by the two officers, Const. Marc Blinn and Const. Paul Cheeseman, make no mention of passing the replica cruiser. It's unclear from the commission documents whether anyone asked them about this specifically. 

Questions about RCMP collection of evidence 

Lawyers for some of the people killed told the commission Wednesday they're interested in learning more about the technical process the RCMP used to obtain and verify the accuracy of surveillance videos and to established the timeline. 

Linda Hupman, who represents the families of Lillian Campbell, Jolene Oliver and Emily and Aaron Tuck, said that could involve calling as a witness an RCMP officer who canvassed locations for surveillance videos, or a technical witness. 

"We think that this is essential because many people have questions, our clients, the families, the public in general," she said. "The movements of the perpetrator throughout the course of this event is very important."

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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