Nova Scotia

RCMP officer in charge explains why he dismissed marked car evidence in N.S. shooting

Steve Halliday, one of the commanding officers who led the initial RCMP response to Nova Scotia's mass shooting, spoke before the Mass Casualty Commission Tuesday.

Retired staff sergeant Steve Halliday spoke before the inquiry Tuesday

Retired RCMP Staff. Sgt. Steve Halliday provides testimony about the RCMP's command post, operational communications centre and command decisions at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18/19, 2020, in Dartmouth, N.S. on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (The Canadian Press)

One of the commanding officers who led the initial RCMP response to Nova Scotia's mass shooting says he momentarily thought a fellow officer might be the perpetrator behind the killings after a report of a marked police cruiser at the scene.

Steve Halliday, a retired staff sergeant, testified Tuesday at the inquiry examining the shootings that he was able to quickly discount that theory, and instead believed the vehicle connected to the gunman was in fact a decommissioned or old RCMP car.

Halliday is one of a number of officers who have testified at the inquiry that they didn't imagine during the early hours of the rampage that the vehicle being driven by Gabriel Wortman, who killed 22 people on April 18-19, 2020, was nearly identical to a real police cruiser.

He also outlined what he knew of the emergency alert system, and what information led him and other officers to conclude the gunman remained in the community of Portapique, N.S., hours after the shooting began, when in fact he had escaped and would resume killing people the next morning.

A new document released Tuesday by the commission conducting the inquiry details the RCMP command structure and decisions over the 13 hours the gunman was active, and lays out what each officer did and when.

At 10:35 p.m. on April 18, risk manager Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill called Halliday at home to tell him about a likely active shooter situation in Portapique, where multiple people had died, fires were set around the community and a police car was possibly involved.

As the risk manager on duty at the Operational Communications Centre in Bible Hill, N.S., Rehill had been in charge of the unfolding incident from the moment victim Jamie Blair called 911 at 10:01 p.m. She said her husband, Greg, had been shot by Wortman, a neighbour. She also said there had been an "RCMP car" in their yard.

She herself was then shot and killed by the gunman.

Halliday said Tuesday that Rehill told him Dave Lilly, a now-retired RCMP sergeant, had been brought up as being possibly connected since he owned property near Portapique.

"My first thought was 'uh-oh,'" Halliday told the inquiry, adding he was worried Lilly had his marked cruiser with him in Portapique and had done something "heinous" in the community.

"I was really concerned that this could be the case," Halliday said.

According to the inquiry documents, at 10:55 p.m. Halliday called Lilly directly. Lilly was at his cottage, which wasn't in Portapique, and it became clear he wasn't involved in the active shooter situation.

A photo of the gunman's decommissioned 2017 Ford Taurus that he made into a replica cruiser. (Mass Casualty Commission)

Halliday said once he realized Lilly wasn't involved, the idea of the marked cruiser morphed to a decommissioned or older model of police car. He said from his experience, when people are caught up in traumatic situations their information can be "wrongly worded or misinterpreted."

"That factored into my thought process at that time," Halliday said.

When asked further about this issue by lawyers representing victims' families, Halliday said the idea of  a decommissioned car with some old reflective markings left behind made the most sense. To conclude that someone had created a mock RCMP car, which the gunman actually used, "wasn't realistic to me."

The inquiry has also heard that the first three officers who searched for the gunman in Portapique didn't imagine they were looking for someone in a fully marked police car that looked nearly identical to their own.

Halliday retired in January 2021 after 30 years with the Mounties in various roles. He had been an instructor for courses like immediate action rapid deployment, and had been in "numerous" critical incidents over the years through his work as a crisis negotiator.

He did not have critical incident commander training.

Halliday brings in other officers

After the first call from Rehill, Halliday took over and brought in the rest of the command team. He called Staff Sgt. Jeff West at 10:42 p.m. to bring him in as the critical incident commander and get him to mobilize his team "as quickly as he could."

At that time, he would have passed on the information to West that a marked police car was possibly involved, Halliday said Tuesday. Halliday also called Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum and told him he'd need him to handle containment and identify a perimeter.

MacCallum and Staff Sgt. Al Carroll were first to arrive at Bible Hill detachment and began to "prepare and muster resources" for the incident, including assessing maps of the Portapique area, constructing a profile of the gunman and helping call out for other resources.

Just after 11:30 p.m., Halliday joined the two other officers at Bible Hill and decided to have Rehill continue controlling resources on the ground as "ad hoc incident commander."

After spending the first few hours at the Bible Hill detachment, Halliday, MacCallum and Carroll moved to the Great Village command post to join West and other officers. Halliday arrived just after 2 a.m.

The 'blueberry field road' north of Cobequid Court in Portapique, looking north toward Brown Loop. (Mass Casualty Commission )

Andrew MacDonald, a Portapique resident who had been shot and injured by the gunman, was interviewed by Const. Jeff MacFarlane around 5 a.m. He told the officer the gunman's car had "coloured" vinyl decals like a police cruiser, and there was "potentially" another way to get out of Portapique through a path that came out near a church on Highway 2. 

MacDonald's account was passed on to Halliday by Cpl. Gerard Rose-Berthiaume about an hour later. According Halliday's notes, Rose-Berthiaume told him the gunman had driven a Ford Taurus back into Portapique after shooting MacDonald near the entrance to the community. There is no mention of MacDonald's description of police decals on the vehicle.

The notes also say Rose-Berthiaume indicated "there was no other way out" of the community. That information later proved wrong, as the gunman likely used an old back road to leave Portapique. When asked about that Tuesday, Halliday said he could only form opinions based on multiple details he knew at the time.

Halliday said by that point of the morning, and after learning early on that Lilly wasn't involved, the marked police car information had long been "dispelled." 

He said police knew about three Ford Taurus cars the gunman owned, all decommissioned police vehicles. Officers believed two were burning in Portapique while a third was in Dartmouth, N.S., which meant all were accounted for.

Police only later realized there was a fourth, which the gunman was driving. It was unregistered and made to look like an RCMP cruiser.

The remains of the gunman's Portapique property and burnt shell of a car, taken in May 2020. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Halliday said the main impression he took from Rose-Berthiaume was that the gunman "was trapped" in Portapique as long as he was still driving a car — "so that to me was important information, because it enhanced, you know, my belief that the suspect was probably still down in that area."

Other cues that the gunman was still in the area had come in throughout the night from the initial team on the ground as well as the emergency response team, Halliday said. Those included what sounded like gunshots into the early hours of April 19 and flashlights in the woods of both Portapique and the nearby community of Five Houses.

Halliday became emotional when talking about what those first three officers — constables Stuart Beselt, Aaron Patton and Adam Merchant — dealt with on the ground.

He said they were some of the "bravest people" he'd ever met, who risked their lives to help a community in a situation their immediate action rapid deployment training wouldn't have prepared them to address.

That training is based upon finding and stopping an active shooter in a well-lit, clearly defined area, Halliday said, and came out of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. Portapique was more like a "bush-tracking event," he said, where members on the ground didn't even have night-vision goggles.

"When you have an event like this that no one has ever been faced with before, that there has to be opportunities to look and assess what we can improve on, what we can learn, to provide our members with the best opportunity for success," Halliday said.

Rehill issued first containment directions

The commission has suggested the shooter left Portapique not long after the shootings via a private back road — called blueberry field road by locals — then continued on Brown Loop Road to Highway 2 between 10:41 p.m. and 10:45 p.m.

Between 10:44 to 10:46 p.m., Rehill issued the first directions to set up a containment perimeter beyond the intersection of Portapique Beach Road and Highway 2, including roadblocks in the surrounding area.

However, the inquiry has already heard it wasn't until midnight that officers were stationed on Highway 2 east of Portapique Beach Road. In the first hour and a half of the police response, two containment points were set up further west of Portapique Beach Road. 

A pair of officers moved to Brown Loop, to which the blueberry field road connects, at 5 a.m.

Command believed back road impassable by car

Halliday spoke Tuesday about the containment in those first few hours. He said judging from maps they examined at the Bible Hill detachment and Carroll's "local knowledge," there was only one way in or out of Portapique by car — the main entrance of Portapique Beach Road.

"I was satisfied that based on the information I had at that time that our containment was set up in such a manner that anybody who was escaping, you know, in a vehicle, would be intercepted," Halliday said.

However, once he had access to better satellite maps at the command post in Great Village, Halliday said around 4:30 a.m. he noticed a line along the blueberry field that seemed to connect to Brown Loop Road.

Halliday recalled he brought this up to Carroll and MacCallum as a possible exit route. All three agreed "no one could get out there in a car," although perhaps it could be travelled on by foot or in an ATV.

Just to "err on the side of caution," Halliday said they decided to move up the roadblock of two members further east up to the Brown Loop Road.

"To be safe rather than sorry … let's move somebody up," Halliday told the inquiry.

Halliday not told of Colford broadcast

Sandra McCulloch of Patterson Law, whose firm represents many victims' families, asked Halliday about whether he'd heard a broadcast about a possible side road around 10:48 p.m. from Const. Vicki Colford, who'd just interviewed Kate MacDonald.

"We're being told there's a road, kind of a road that someone could come out, before here," Colford radioed.

Halliday said he was still making calls at home and not on the radio by that point, and said no one ever relayed that information to him at the time.

When McCulloch asked whether this detail would have impacted how he assessed the maps of Portapique he was looking at while at the Bible Hill detachment, Halliday said "certainly any information would have come under consideration."

The inquiry has already heard that MacCallum had issues trying to bring up the force's Pictometry program, which is based on satellite imaging, in the first hour of the mass shooting so the officers in Bible Hill turned to Google Maps standard view and paper maps.

McCulloch pointed to an inquiry report showing a view of Portapique with the Pictometry system, which Halliday said looked quite similar to the satellite mapping he looked at hours later. When asked if this would have been helpful to have in the first hours when containment was set up, Halliday agreed.

Alert not in 'playbook'

The inquiry documents show that Halliday spoke with a staff member at the provincial Emergency Management Office just after 6 a.m. about setting up the Onslow fire hall as a comfort centre for Portapique evacuees.

Halliday said Tuesday that he didn't discuss the possibility of sending an emergency alert through EMO, which at that time was the only agency with the Alert Ready system in the province.

The inquiry heard last week that at the time of the shooting, alerts could be sent to all Nova Scotia cell phones on 4G networks, as well as TV and radio stations. EMO staff made presentations on the alert system to RCMP multiple times in the years before the tragedy, and offered them the ability to send alerts on their own, but that was turned down.

Halliday said Tuesday he was "unfamiliar" with the alert system being used for policing in the province.

"It simply wasn't in our playbook," he said.

The RCMP and Halifax Regional Police can now issue their own alerts.

Roadblocks brought up

The inquiry also heard about Halliday's radio broadcast just before 11 a.m. on April 19, directing another member to look at closing Highway 2 southbound. This would have come right after Const. Heidi Stevenson was shot and killed by the gunman after he crashed his cruiser into hers in Shubenacadie.

Before that, Halliday said there had been some discussions around roadblocks or whether they should create checkpoints strategically along certain areas.

However, he said the decision was made not to do this as it "posed increased risk to the public" by creating a bigger target for the gunman where people were stuck sitting in a line of cars.

After Stevenson was shot and the net was "tightening down" on the gunman's location, Halliday said roadblocks seemed appropriate because they finally knew where he was within a smaller area.

Tara Miller, who represents relatives of victims Aaron Tuck and Kristen Beaton, asked Halliday about why exactly more roadblocks weren't set up in the Truro area on April 19 to prevent the gunman moving from the northern part of Nova Scotia to the south.

She noted by the time police knew the gunman was active again around 9:30 a.m. on April 19, when the call came in about victim Lillian Campbell in Wentworth, the gunman's partner Lisa Banfield had told police she was worried he would head to her sister's home in Dartmouth to hurt her.

Halliday said within a short time after Campbell's death, the gunman knocked on the door of a couple's home in nearby Glenholme and multiple RCMP officers as well as the emergency response team surrounded that area.

"It was my belief that individual was going to be dealt with at that home," Halliday said, so that was the focus.

But Miller suggested it is the job of police to look at the "global picture," and keep in mind all information about where the gunman might head next — to which Halliday agreed.

Two more RCMP commanding officers involved in the mass shooting response will testify before the inquiry on Wednesday.