Nova Scotia

CBC applying to unseal information used to obtain search warrants in N.S. shooting

A Nova Scotia judge is expected to hear arguments Monday about whether to unseal the information the Mounties used to obtain search warrants to access property belonging to the man they say is responsible for killing 22 people in a shooting rampage.

Provincial prosecutors say they plan to oppose full release of documents

Police block the highway in Debert, N.S., on April 19. RCMP later learned that the gunman spent six hours hiding in the Debert area during his shooting rampage, which claimed the lives of 22 people. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Crown prosecutors say they plan to oppose CBC's request to unseal the information the RCMP used to obtain search warrants to access property belonging to the man police say is responsible for killing 22 people in a shooting rampage.

CBC made an application to the Nova Scotia provincial court in Truro in hopes that court records could offer insight into what RCMP knew about the gunman and when they became aware of that information.

The rampage unfolded over about 13 hours, beginning in the tiny community of Portapique, N.S., in Colchester County the night of April 18 and ending at a gas station in Enfield about 92 kilometres south of there when the gunman was fatally shot by police at around 11:26 a.m. AT on April 19.

WATCH | What we know about how the Nova Scotia mass shooting 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

While a warrant states what is being searched, the information used to obtain warrants (ITO) often spells out evidence that investigators have gathered to support a warrant, what offences they're investigating and specific allegations against an accused person.

The parties applying for a warrant can ask that the files be sealed.

In the shooting case, there are at least seven sealed search warrants, so it's unclear what properties were searched or what the RCMP used for justification when applying to a justice of the peace for the warrants. With four of those warrants, searches were done and the file contains a return, which can outline what evidence was seized. 

Federal prosecutors now involved

Senior Crown counsel Shauna MacDonald told the court during a teleconference hearing Monday morning that provincial prosecutors plan to contest CBC's application to unseal the documents. 

She said they are willing to consider whether releasing redacted documents is an option, but that would involve consulting "with very busy investigators who are still actively investigating."

On Monday, federal prosecutors with the Public Prosecution Service of Canada also joined the proceedings.  

One challenge is they want to physically review the sealed documents, which are located in Truro, and must do so in a secure way. They have to figure out how to do that amid COVID-19 travel restrictions. 

The federal prosecutors said they have to consult with the Canadian Border Services Agency to determine their position and whether the information could impact the CBSA's ongoing investigation.

Courts only hearing urgent matters

On account of COVID-19 restrictions in place across the province, Nova Scotia courts have only been hearing urgent matters since mid-March, and courts have shifted to teleconferences and video conferencing.

In its application submitted last week, CBC argued that its request was urgent because the public should know what information police had in this case, in the event changes to police protocol need to be made.

Postponing a hearing for months, the corporation said, could delay steps that could prevent a similar situation in the future.

A memorial is shown at the top of Portapique Beach Road where RCMP set up a roadblock for their investigation of the rampage shooting. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

The Crown argued there was no urgent reason to deal with the application but, in a hearing on April 30, Judge Alain Bégin rejected that position.

"This was the largest mass murder in [recent] Canadian history, and it left my jurisdiction shattered and the province of Nova Scotia shocked and the country stunned," he said.

Bégin said it made more sense for him to hear the arguments now, while his schedule is open, as opposed to June or July amid "the possible madness of overburdened court dockets."

Next hearing May 11

Although on Monday the federal Crowns asked for two weeks to prepare, Halfpenny MacQuarrie set the next teleconference for May 11.  

The judge, who normally presides in Port Hawkesbury provincial court, said her schedule is open for the next month, but she could become very busy when the court's normal operations resume.

"This is a serious matter on all sides, and for the court," she said. "I really will be pushing to get this done as quickly as possible, giving everyone the full benefit of as much time as I can so they can properly put their positions before the court."

Police found a Ford Taurus similar to the one used during the rampage in the parking lot of a property the shooter owned in Dartmouth. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Halfpenny MacQuarrie said the Port Hawkesbury courtroom is large enough, saying she has measured it to ensure it can allow people to maintain a safe physical distance from one another. 

Parties will be able to join via video conference. 

She asked the lawyers involved to discuss possible redactions and other matters as much as possible among themselves to speed up the process.

Documents released to Crown

During a teleconference last week, Bégin agreed to release the sealed documents to the Crown so that the prosecutors could see that information in advance of Monday morning's hearing.

Several other media outlets, including CTV, Global, the Globe and Mail, Postmedia, the Canadian Press and the SaltWire Network have joined CBC's application.

Halifax police taped off the Atlantic Denture Clinic in downtown Dartmouth, owned by shooter Gabriel Wortman. Photo taken on April 20, 2020. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

The gunman, Gabriel Wortman, owned three lots on Portland Street in Dartmouth, where he operated his business, Atlantic Denture clinic. He also ran a second clinic on Novalea Drive in Halifax.

During a briefing on April 28, RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell said RCMP searched the shooter's home and businesses in Dartmouth and found that his primary residence recently was in Portapique, where he owned three properties. The Portapique home was destroyed by fire.

More than 435 witnesses

During the same briefing, Campbell said police have identified more than 435 witnesses and obtained 20 legal authorizations and applications "to access details regarding [the shooter's] acquisition of equipment and the movements of the gunman."

CBC previously successfully argued for the release of a redacted version of search warrant documents in the case of six teenage boys in Bridgewater charged with distributing intimate images without consent and possessing and distributing child pornography. The judge in that case agreed the document could give a clearer picture of how the alleged crimes played out.

The corporation also applied to unseal search warrants in the case of off-duty Truro police officer Catherine Campbell's murder. The documents laid out the police's allegations against Christopher Garnier, who was later convicted of second-degree murder.

If you are seeking mental health support during this time, here are resources available to Nova Scotians.

About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Over the past 11 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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