Nova Scotia

Police returned vehicle with human remains inside, families of N.S. shooting victims allege

Two families of the victims of the Nova Scotia mass shooting are launching a proposed class-action lawsuit against the RCMP that questions not just how the force handled the rampage, but its actions in the weeks that followed.

Tyler Blair, Andrew O'Brien leading proposed class action against RCMP, provincial government

A memorial to the mass shooting victims at the top of Portapique Beach Road in Portapique, N.S., on April 21. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Two families of victims of the Nova Scotia mass shooting are launching a proposed class-action lawsuit against the RCMP that questions not just how the force handled the rampage, but its actions in the weeks that followed. 

The lawsuit covers a range of criticisms previously raised about the tragedy, including police communication. But it also questions staffing levels, notification of families and alleges a vehicle seized as evidence was later released to a family with human remains still inside.

The province of Nova Scotia is also named as an intended defendant in the case. 

Twenty-two people were killed by a gunman dressed like an RCMP officer during a rampage that started in Portapique, N.S., on April 18 and continued through several other rural communities the next morning.

"We think that there's a great deal of importance of this proceeding," Sandra McCulloch, a lawyer with Patterson Law in Truro, N.S., told CBC News in a phone interview Wednesday. "This has grander implications for Nova Scotia and our country as a whole."

McCulloch is representing Tyler Blair and Andrew O'Brien, who are named as the plaintiffs in the case. Blair's father, Greg, and stepmother, Jamie, were killed in Portapique. O'Brien's wife, Heather, was shot near Masstown the next day.

Jamie Blair, left, and Greg Blair are shown in a family handout photo. They were killed in the Nova Scotia mass shootings. (Kelly Blair/The Canadian Press)

McCulloch said she has heard from the family of every victim except one, but would not comment on how many will take part in the proposed lawsuit, which must be approved by a judge before it can proceed to trial.

"There's been a lot of questions that have arisen since the events of April 18 and 19th," she said. "A lot more questions than answers, and some of the answers that have come out have been less than satisfactory."

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

The statement of claim, filed Tuesday in Nova Scotia Supreme Court, alleges the RCMP had failed to previously investigate the shooter, Gabriel Wortman, despite warnings.

A CBC News investigation revealed Truro police received a tip in 2011 that Wortman wanted "to kill a cop." The bulletin was shared among police forces across Nova Scotia.

RCMP initially said they didn't know what, if any, followup there was, but later said an officer spoke with Wortman at his home in Portapique several times and didn't find anything that caused him concern.

RCMP said the bulletin was purged two years later, per policy.

Heather O'Brien is shown in a handout photo from the GoFundMe page. O'Brien was passionate about her job as a VON nurse, and was very close to her children and grandchildren. (GoFundMe/The Canadian Press)

On April 18, when the first calls came in for help in Portapique, the lawsuit points out that police were warned by an unnamed victim that he had been shot by someone in what appeared to be a police vehicle. That interaction was also described in search warrant documents unsealed on May 19. 

The statement of claim says the force didn't accept that information, and didn't warn the public that the shooter was pretending to be an officer until 10:17 a.m. the next day.

Understaffed, under-resourced

The lawsuit also alleges too few officers were sent to the initial scene in Portapique, and that the RCMP failed to set up a perimeter to contain the gunman. It said the RCMP in Colchester and Hants counties — which include the communities caught in the rampage — are understaffed and under-resourced.

The lawsuit also criticizes police communications.

It says public warnings sent by police on Twitter were inadequate because of poor internet coverage in the area, and that they contained incorrect information about the shooter's location.

It also says the RCMP have deliberately misled O'Brien, releasing conflicting information about whether his wife, a licensed practical nurse, was pulled over and killed or was shot from across the street. 

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

The lawsuit says the RCMP did not properly notify families of the deaths, and allowed photos and videos of the victims to spread on social media before some notifications.

O'Brien's daughter, Darcy Dobson, told Maclean's Magazine her family knew something had happened to their mother, but it took seven hours for them to receive notification from police. 

"There's more than one family that has concerns about the manner in which this information was conveyed to them," said McCulloch.

The lawsuit alleges one vehicle was released back to an unnamed family with gun casings and human remains still inside. A family member "was required to clean the car themselves." It did not give further details. 

Calls for inquiry

Both the RCMP and Nova Scotia's attorney general declined to comment about the suit. 

The RCMP said it had not yet been served the claim, and won't comment once it does. 

"Our primary focus continues to be the ongoing criminal investigation, and supporting the victims of this tragedy as well as our members and employees," the RCMP said in a statement. 

While there have been growing calls for an inquiry, one has yet to be called. McCulloch said she doesn't know if that was a factor in her clients' decision to move forward with the lawsuit.

"Ultimately the processes are different and the outcomes of the processes are different. This is a process by which they can be actively involved and pursue some answers of their own."

McCulloch said while they are asking for damages, it's far too early to determine how much.

"With all the unanswered questions it's really difficult to determine the depths of any of the claims."

She expects it will take between six months and a year before the lawsuit is certified as a class action and can start moving forward.