Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

'This is nuts': Truro police call logs show confusion during N.S. shooting rampage

Dispatch call logs from the Truro Police Service obtained by CBC News through access to information give a glimpse into the confusion as RCMP scrambled to track down the suspect travelling through rural communities shooting people between April 18 and 19.

Over the course of 13 hours and 150 km, RCMP remained steps behind gunman

RCMP first warned the suspect should be considered 'armed and dangerous' at 1:07 a.m. AT on April 19 through a Be On the Lookout (BOLO) bulletin. They sent three subsequent updated BOLOs before advising the suspect was in custody at 11:31 a.m. (Photo Illustration/CBC News)

Fifteen minutes before the Nova Scotia gunman was shot dead by police at a gas station in Enfield, N.S., on April 19, Truro police officers descended on a Sobeys grocery store 64 kilometres away.

An RCMP dispatcher had called officers in Truro to report that their suspect — the man responsible for killing 22 people — was spotted at the store on Robie Street.

"He has multiple weapons," the RCMP dispatcher warned Truro police at 11:12 a.m.

The municipal police force quickly asked all units to respond and assist RCMP at the store. At that point, the shooter, Gabriel Wortman, was still believed to be driving a silver Chevy Tracker, as RCMP had advised on Twitter a few minutes previously.

Though the RCMP sent police in Truro updates about their suspect's believed location, the Mounties were often several minutes behind. An earlier version of this graphic indicated the gunman was on Highway 102 when it was, in fact, Highway 2. (CBC News)

Officers from Truro reported back a few minutes later to say that the only thing they found at the Sobeys was an RCMP Emergency Response Team. 

In fact, Wortman was far from Truro, and he was driving one of his victim's cars — a grey Mazda, his third vehicle of the day.

As Wortman travelled through rural communities shooting people while masquerading as a Mountie, the actual RCMP remained a few steps behind.

The confusion and chaos of the manhunt is reflected in records obtained by CBC News through access to information, including call logs from Truro Police Service dispatch.

Police called to lock down hospital

As night turned to day on that Sunday, officers in Truro — the town the gunman would pass through hours later — appeared to know little about the terror the 51-year-old Wortman had caused in Portapique, N.S., about 40 km away. 

The municipal police force was alerted to a shooting not by the RCMP but by the local hospital, which went into lockdown after treating at least one gunshot victim who came in from the county.

Family members of a man who was shot in the arm told the officers stationed outside the hospital's emergency department that the suspect, still on the loose, had been driving what looked like a police cruiser.  

The faces of some of the victims killed by a gunman in Nova Scotia on April 18 and 19. (CBC)

At 12:58 a.m., someone from the RCMP called Truro police and said in addition to a Mercedes, their suspect was "associated to a second vehicle, a white [one], and it's been described as a former police car, with even, like ... a decal on, like a Canada decal." There was no information passed on about the number of people killed at that point.

Ten minutes later, RCMP sent out a Be on the Lookout (BOLO) bulletin, the first of several issued to police agencies across the province, warning Wortman was wanted in an "active shooter incident in progress."  

Seven hours later — and 10 hours after the initial 911 call came in — RCMP confirmed to Truro officers that the shooter was travelling in a replica RCMP cruiser. (They've previously said that investigators learned this information from the gunman's girlfriend once she emerged at daybreak after hiding in the woods overnight.)

(CBC News)

'A community safety issue'

Other than the call to lock down the town and go to the Sobeys, the Truro Police Service did not respond directly to the shootings, which occurred in RCMP jurisdiction in Colchester, Cumberland and Hants counties.

Last week, during the RCMP's first press conference in more than a month, the province's top Mounties stressed that they did communicate with other policing agencies throughout the mass shooting incident.

They have also said that more than 100 RCMP members responded during the hunt, including officers from surrounding counties as well as specialized units, including crisis negotiators, the police dog service and an explosive disposal team. As part of that response, Mounties in New Brunswick were also called in to help.

Police block the highway in Debert, N.S., on April 19, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

As a neighbouring police force, Truro officers were keeping an eye out for the suspect's vehicles. In a recent interview, Truro Police Chief Dave MacNeil said any information about what the gunman was wearing and driving would have been helpful. 

"It's not only an officer safety issue, it's a community safety issue," MacNeil said. "The sooner that information gets out to police and the public in general, the better."

Another 911 call

After reports that 13 people had died in Portapique, N.S., on April 18, RCMP realized the man whom they'd been searching for was on the move, after someone reported a roadside fatality on Highway 4. Lillian Campbell Hyslop, a 65-year-old volunteer, was killed while out for a morning walk. Police now believe she was Wortman's fourth victim that morning. 

An excerpt from a Truro police dispatch on April 19. (CBC News)

At 9:34 a.m., more than 11 hours after the first 911 call, another came in from the Wentworth area. 

Shortly after, someone from the RCMP called to inform the Truro police they believed the highway fatality was connected to the active shooter and that the suspect was heading toward the Truro area. 

WATCH | What we know about how the rampage unfolded:

Based on RCMP reports, audio recordings and interviews, this is what we know about what happened during a gunman's rampage that left 22 victims dead. 7:21

At 10 a.m., the Mounties thought they had Wortman "pinned down in Wentworth," according to an email Chief Supt. Chris Leather sent to Truro's police chief.

At a press conference on June 4, Leather said he sent that email based on information he had at the time — but it actually related to a belief that the suspect was in Glenholme, about 30 km south of the Wentworth area. 

RCMP believed they had Wortman cornered at a property where he'd pounded on the door of an acquaintance while carrying a gun, prompting the occupants of the house, who recognized him, to call 911.

An email exchange between Truro Police Chief Dave MacNeil and RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather (CBC News)

Supt. Darren Campbell, speaking at that same June 4 press conference, said calls came in from Wentworth and Glenholme not long after one another and that an emergency response team went to the large property in Glenholme after hearing from the residents.

One officer passed the gunman on the road. 

"In terms of the timing, it was very, very tight. We were on the line with those individuals at that residence," Campbell said. "We actually missed that gunman by minutes." 

Although additional municipal officers in Truro were poised to help, word that the gunman was 50 km away changed how the force deployed officers, MacNeil said. 

"It sounded like the situation was under control in Wentworth," he said. "If RCMP felt they needed some assistance, then we could've provided an outside perimeter and we definitely would have done that. But we weren't asked to do that at the time and that's why we didn't."  

Far from being stopped at 10 a.m., Wortman was headed toward the Debert area, where he killed Kristen Beaton and Heather O'Brien, two health-care workers travelling in separate vehicles. 

Surveillance photos released by the RCMP at the end of April show that Wortman did, in fact, head toward Truro, where he cruised through downtown streets around 10:16 a.m. in the decommissioned police vehicle he'd outfitted to look like a cruiser. 

Wortman's mock-up police vehicle is seen driving on Esplanade St. in Truro, N.S., on April 19. (RCMP)

Seeing those images two weeks later was the first time Truro police realized the gunman had driven through their town. Knowing how close he had been and seeing people walking on the sidewalk unaware was "very disturbing and upsetting to the community as a whole," MacNeil said. 

"This is where we live, this is where we work, this is where our families are.... and obviously [we were] very thankful that nothing like what happened in Portapique happened in Truro," he said. "It was very unnerving. And a lot of second guessing, I guess — about what could have been different."

Request for roadblocks came too late

MacNeil said they were operating under the information they had at the time, and if RCMP had thought they needed assistance, he believes they would have asked. 

The dispatch logs show it had remained unclear to Truro police what, if anything, they could do to help. Throughout the morning of April 19, they called local businesses to tell them something was happening in the nearby county and sought clarity from RCMP. At one point, they were told the suspect could be heading toward Pictou. 

"My god. This is nuts," one Truro dispatcher said to Const. Jason Reeves as they discussed the prospect of a man disguised as a Mountie possibly heading their way. 

By the time someone from the RCMP asked Truro police to lock down the town and set up roadblocks — at 10:37 a.m. — Wortman was taking a main highway south toward Halifax.

Flowers are in abundance at a makeshift memorial to victims in the small community of Portapique, N.S., on April 26. (Jonathan Villeneuve/Radio-Canada)

Wortman went on to shoot Const. Chad Morrison and kill Const. Heidi Stevenson, Joey Webber and Gina Goulet in Shubenacadie, N.S., bringing the total number of victims to 25 — 22 of whom were dead.

"As things were unfolding, we were giving notice to organizations to lock down, as we were able to get the information," Cpl. Jen Clarke told CBC in May when asked if RCMP felt, in retrospect, that they could have given Truro officers more information. 

"As for learnings from this incident, it will be years trying to determine what, if anything, could ... have been done differently."

'He went through our town'

One scenario has been playing over and over in the mind of Truro Mayor Bill Mills. He can't help but think that things may have turned out differently if the RCMP accepted that offer of help.

'Hindsight being 20/20, you can only ask yourself the question, 'What if?" Mills said. "There may be five people alive today."

Mills, who has five family members in the RCMP, doesn't understand why the Mounties didn't ask police in Truro to block Onslow Road, which could have cut off the route the gunman took to get to more victims.

"That was the route the fellow took to get to Millbrook, Shubenacadie, eventually to Enfield," Mills said.

"And he went through our town. He could have been stopped."

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