Nova Scotia

Families of the N.S. shooting victims got information from social media before RCMP: documents

Relatives of the people killed in the mass shootings across Nova Scotia in April 2020 waited hours — sometimes days — for information about their loved ones, often driving to crime scenes or scouring social media to get their own answers.

Warning: Details in this story are distressing

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)

Relatives of the people killed in the mass shootings across Nova Scotia in April 2020 waited hours — sometimes days — for information about their loved ones, often driving to crime scenes or scouring social media to get their own answers.

Some victims' homes weren't investigated until calls began mounting from family members, while the main RCMP liaison missed a meeting he'd made with one family, and on multiple occasions the proper next of kin weren't notified first.

"I could get no information. So had to learn everything I could over Facebook," Justin Zahl, a grandson of victims John Zahl and Joanne Thomas, told police in an interview after the tragedy.

"I'm just upset that I didn't hear earlier."

The Mass Casualty Commission leading the public inquiry into the mass shootings that unfolded April 18-19, 2020, released documents Monday detailing the ordeals of family members who lost husbands, wives, parents and children during the rampage.

With the sole exception of Const. Heidi Stevenson's family — who praised the RCMP for its "immediate and ongoing" support — families of the 21 other victims said they had to plead with police for information. 

In the case of the Zahl/Thomas family, relatives called 911 and police detachments more than 25 times in 36 hours until receiving confirmation their relatives had been killed.

Justin Zahl, who was adopted by his grandparents and refers to them as his parents, lost touch with the couple late on April 18 and started calling the RCMP and 911 around 8 a.m. AT April 19. Other family members joined in as they sifted through social media posts that included a photo of the Zahl/Thomas home in Portapique burned to the ground.

"All I could see was my parent's car and no house," Zahl said.

John Zahl, left, and Joanne Thomas had moved to the Portapique area in 2017 to spend their retirement, family says. Family members say they repeatedly called 911 and police detachments over 36 hours looking for answers after the mass shootings in April 2020. (Go Fund Me/Gena Lawson)

According to inquiry documents, at one point on April 20, a woman talking to Zahl via FaceTime flagged down an officer holding the scene at Portapique. The woman held up the phone so the officer could speak to him directly. 

Zahl was described in documents as "extremely emotional" after 24 hours of promises from RCMP officers and dispatchers that someone would call him back. The officer radioed up the chain of command and was told no information could be given to Zahl at that time. 

At nearly 2 p.m. that day, the RCMP officer designated to act as the liaison to the families — Const. Wayne (Skipper) Bent — spoke to Zahl and informed him that investigators believed his parents were dead.

Jennifer Zahl Bruland, the oldest of John Zahl's four children from a previous relationship who lived in the United States, also got a call from Bent on April 20. She was not told her father and stepmother were dead but only that there were "a lot of 'scenes' and it was chaotic," according to a summary of Zahl Bruland's meeting with the commission.

The RCMP told Zahl Bruland they were unsure when they could fully process her parents' home because they had a number of others to get to first, which left her feeling that their scene was not important to police.

Mounties didn't have 'any idea' how to handle victims

"Jennifer [Zahl Bruland] was involved in doing a lot of research and investigative work on her parents for the RCMP. No family should be asked to do this," said a summary issued by the Mass Casualty Commission released on Monday.

"It became apparent that the RCMP did not have any idea how to handle the situation or how to talk to victims."

An aerial view of Portapique taken in May 2020. (Mass Casualty Commission)

While Zahl Bruland said Bent seemed like a "genuine person," she doesn't think he should have been the only one assigned to deal with victims' families.

While the major crimes unit discussed adding another liaison to help Bent, he turned down the idea, saying in a commission interview he "was a little selfish" having worked hard to build relationships with people, and wanted the same message going to each family. He did briefly have some support from Cpl. Rodney MacDonald. 

Officers aimed to alert families by end of April 19

One of the team commanders for the Northeast Nova Major Crime Unit working to notify the families, Cpl. Angela McKay, said in a commission interview their goal was to reach one person from each family before they left on April 19, even if they weren't next of kin.

"I think that goal was achieved," McKay said.

The documents show that more than 100 emails from family members of Portapique residents came in between April 19-20 — many not from immediate family members. McKay told the inquiry each one had to be reviewed to determine the person's relation to the victims. 

However, the documents show some families besides the Zahl/Thomases, including the Madsen/Gulenchyns and Bonds, also weren't notified until April 20.

The sons of Joy and Peter Bond also made multiple calls to 911, Truro police and RCMP, pleading for information on their parents who died in their Portapique home late on April 18. The documents show the bodies weren't discovered until late in the afternoon on April 19 — but Cory and Harry Bond weren't told.

After getting multiple emails from dispatch operators about the brothers' inquiries, Bent contacted them around midday on April 20 for a photo of their parents. He reportedly asked them to meet him at the Great Village fire hall for an update. 

The bodies of Peter and Joy Bond were discovered late in the afternoon of April 19, 2020, but their sons weren't told about their parents' deaths until the following day. (Facebook)

A family notification chart prepared by McKay shows Bent informed Harry Bond of his parents' death at around 12:45 p.m., but Bond doesn't recall it that way. He said in a written statement he was given "still no information" after sending a photo of his parents to Bent.

The brothers made their way to the fire hall, but according to the commission's meeting summary with the family, Bent didn't show up. Nor did any other RCMP officer. No one contacted them to say the meeting had been cancelled, relocated, or delayed. 

After waiting more than an hour for Bent, Bond said he and his brother continued to Portapique because they "weren't getting any closer to knowing anything about our parents and the RCMP weren't co-operating."

They arrived at the community around 2 p.m., where police had the entrance blocked off. Bond said officers there asked him for his contact information and his parents' address to help with identification.

Brothers get answers at Portapique

"I cracked. I told them we've been doing that for 24 hours," Bond said. 

Sgt. Bill Raaymakers and two medical examiners came over to talk with the brothers. Raaymakers offered to go to the Bonds' home himself, and confirmed they were dead around 3:30 p.m. after Harry Bond shared a photo with him.

According to the documents, RCMP policies are not explicit about how next of kin should be notified of a loved one's death, but it should happen "as soon as possible." In the case of the mass shootings, officers spoke with families both in person and over the phone to deliver the news.

Victim's son never notified

The adult son of Corrie Ellison, Connor Reeves, never did get confirmation that his father had been killed. It wasn't until months after the rampage that Bent became aware of his existence and realized it was Reeves — not Ellison's father, Richard — who was legal next of kin. 

Reeves wasn't invited to a family meeting with the RCMP. Everything he learned about his father's death was obtained from other sources — mostly his mother, via his uncle Clinton.

Corrie Ellison has been described as a thoughtful and kind friend. His father, Richard Ellison, says he never received formal confirmation from the RCMP that his son had died. (Clinton Ellison/Facebook)

A summary of a commission meeting with Reeves said that he was not "hiding," and while he didn't reach out to the Mounties himself, he was showing up to the memorial walks and marches calling for a public inquiry.

Reeves said he appreciated Bent's followup months after the fact, but is disappointed he wasn't given an opportunity to sit down in person with any RCMP officer.

    Ellison was shot late on April 18 when he went to investigate fires he could see in the community of Portapique where his father lived. His brother Clinton, who had gone with him, hid in the woods from the shooter and was eventually rescued by police.

    When Richard Ellison called 911 to report that one son was missing and the other likely dead, McKay's notes indicate that call, made at 1:38 a.m. on April 19, confirmed Corrie Ellison's next of kin notification had been completed. 

    Richard Ellison said he never got formal confirmation from the RCMP that his son was dead. When media reports emerged after the shootings, Bent wrote in an email to the investigative team that Clinton and his partner were the official contacts for the family.

    "I've been liaising with one family member for each family as the sheer numbers make it insurmountable to speak with each family member," he wrote.

    Policy lacks direction on some situations

    The documents said that RCMP policies don't address what to do when a victim's family members are aware their loved one is deceased, as was the case with the Ellisons and Gina Goulet's family.

    In Goulet's case, her body was found by her son-in-law, David Butler, on April 19 just before noon when he dropped by with Goulet's daughter, Amelia Butler.

    Gina Goulet has been described as a devoted mother, two-time cancer survivor and lover of music and dancing. (Mass Casualty Commission)

    Amelia Butler wasn't given an official next of kin notification. The documents also say that, despite giving at least four different police officers their information, no one called the couple to let them know when Goulet's property was ready to be handed over or offered to do a formal walk-through of the house.

    Dan Jenkins, Alanna Jenkins's father, told the commission an RCMP officer pointed a rifle at him and ordered him to put his hands up when he travelled to Wentworth trying to find out whether his daughter was dead or alive on April 19.

    Soon after 6 p.m. that day, a Mountie called him to say police were still at his daughter's scene and no bodies had been recovered, but police believed both his daughter and her partner, Sean McLeod, were dead. 

    Bent first contacted Jenkins on April 21, and then reached out the same day to officially notify Dale McLeod about his son's death.

    But Taylor Andrews, McLeod's daughter and legal next of kin, wasn't officially notified until April 22.

    Sean McLeod and Alanna Jenkins were father and stepmother to two daughters. (Facebook)

    "Before I was contacted by the RCMP, I was receiving messages and condolences from Dad and Alanna's work colleagues, who had been told that Dad and Alanna were deceased. Somehow, they got this information before I did," Andrews said in a written statement.

    Bent called Andrews on April 22 and although she said he didn't give her an official indication McLeod and Jenkins were dead, she agreed to have Dale McLeod act as the family contact moving forward.

    'Don't make me shoot you'

    Michaella O'Brien, daughter of victim Heather O'Brien, says she was threatened by two increasingly "aggressive" officers as she stood looking at her mother's Jetta on Plains Road in Debert, telling the officers that it was her mother's car. Her father, Andrew O'Brien Sr., asked an officer what would happen if he pushed past the perimeter.

    "Don't make me shoot you, Mr. O'Brien," the officer said, according to O'Brien Sr.

    Heather O'Brien, left, and Kristen Beaton both worked for the Victorian Order of Nurses. (GoFundMe/The Canadian Press/GoFundMe/The Canadian Press)

    When Nick Beaton, husband of victim Kristen Beaton, asked the RCMP officers who came to his home around 6 p.m. on April 19 why the notification had taken so long, he was told that because of the scale of the tragedy, "certain steps" in the notification process had been delayed.

    Beaton told the inquiry that he recalls the first officer said, upon arriving, "you'll be happy to know that you're the first one to be notified."

    Separate policy for informing family of fallen RCMP members 

    According to commission documents, the RCMP has a separate guide for how to handle notifications when one of their own members has been killed in the line of duty, including that as more details become known, critical information must be shared with the family as soon as possible.

    In Stevenson's case, Const. Randy Slawter was assigned to liaise with her family, provide support and represent the RCMP chain of command. There is "no equivalent policy or definition for family liaisons for the deaths of civilians," the commission's document on family notifications said.

    At 1:30 p.m. on April 19, 2020, about three hours after Stevenson's death, Slawter and then assistant commissioner Lee Bergerman notified Stevenson's husband in person at their family home.

    Five months after the mass shootings, Slawter requested a second person to share liaison duties for Stevenson's family. Ron Robinson was assigned to her parents, while Slawter continued to look after her husband and children.

    Const. Heidi Stevenson, who was shot and killed by a gunman on April 19, 2020, poses for an undated official photo. (RCMP/Reuters)

    According to a commission summary of a meeting with Stevenson's family, they said both Slawter and Robinson were genuine and caring, and "often one step ahead of the family in terms of knowing what needs to be done."

    Sean McLeod's brother, Scott McLeod, told reporters at the inquiry Monday that his family had actually requested another liaison officer because they felt Bent wasn't giving them enough information. He said that request was turned down.

    Scott said he understands that Stevenson falls under a different policy, but to have two liaison officers assigned to her family while the other families all shared one suggests the loved ones of police "deserve more" when everyone should get the same treatment. 

    "If you're going to supply additional resources, spread it around a little bit," Scott said. "It just comes across as not a real good visual for the public."

    He suggested one way of avoiding a slew of calls from worried family members would be to provide a dedicated non-emergency line into the operational communications centre.

    That way, Scott said people could know exactly where to call for updates, and even if they had to wait for a while they could eventually speak with someone at the centre who had the latest information.

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