Nova Scotia

'I gave my all': Mounties who shot at N.S. fire hall testify they were trying to stop killer

The two RCMP officers who fired their weapons at a civilian standing outside the Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade on April 19, 2020, testified at the public inquiry in Dartmouth. Both said they believed they were shooting at the killer responsible for the mass shooting, and wouldn't have done anything differently.

Const. Terry Brown and Const. Dave Melanson believed they fired at gunman responsible for mass shooting

N.S. officers defend firing at bystander in mass shooting

2 months ago
Duration 2:03
An inquiry into the April 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting heard from two RCMP officers who apologized for mistakenly shooting at a man wearing a safety vest outside a fire hall in Onslow, N.S., thinking he was the gunman.

Const. Dave Melanson's voice broke as he expressed remorse for the fear people experienced when he shot at a man outside a Nova Scotia fire hall — but the RCMP officer said he stood by the decision he made during the manhunt for a killer. 

"It's a great benefit to go back and say if you knew this, if you knew that, and I didn't have that benefit. I had a fraction of a second. On that day, I gave... I gave my all," he said. 

"I am sorry for what the firemen went through, it was a hard day for many people that day, it affected all of us." 

Melanson and his partner Const. Terry Brown testified Thursday in Dartmouth about the April 2020 morning when they were in an unmarked car searching for the man who was murdering strangers. The officers said they discharged their carbines in Onslow, N.S., to try to stop a man who fit the description of their suspect, who they believed was a threat. 

"I'm very sorry for the people that were in the building, the firemen that were in there. Had no idea they were in there," Brown said. "At the end of the day, it wouldn't have changed my reaction. I believed that person was going inside the building to kill people."

The man who was their target turned out to be a civilian wearing a safety vest. David Westlake was the emergency management co-ordinator for Colchester County and was wearing a bright yellow vest with orange and grey reflective strips. That morning he was at the fire hall to help people displaced by the violence that started in Portapique, N.S., the previous night. 

No one was physically injured but three other men who were inside the fire hall previously testified at the inquiry about the terror they experienced after realizing someone was firing at their hall. They spent about an hour hiding, waiting for information, thinking the actual gunman was outside. 

Suspect wearing bright safety vest

On April 19, 2020, Gabriel Wortman was travelling between Nova Scotia communities driving a replica RCMP cruiser and killing strangers. The previous night he'd killed 13 neighbours, and Brown and Melanson knew he'd murdered at least three people that morning. 

Brown had interviewed the gunman's common-law partner around 7 a.m. in the back of an ambulance in Great Village, N.S., and told the inquiry that her description of him wearing an orange vest stuck with him. Later, another Mountie radioed in that he passed the suspect on the road and he was wearing "a reflective vest."

After realizing the heavily armed shooter was on the move, Brown and Melanson went in pursuit. They told the inquiry their focus was on stopping him and they were poised for a confrontation.

"I was prepared to expect to be shot at. I figured it would be a given if we encountered him," said Melanson. 

David Westlake, the emergency management co-ordinator for Colchester County, was at the fire hall on April 19, 2020, connecting people with Red Cross resources. He was outside when two Mounties started firing. The time stamps on the fire hall's surveillance videos are off by 10 minutes. (Mass Casualty Commission)

After spotting a man in a safety vest outside the fire hall about 10 kilometres from the shooter's last known location, Brown and Melanson said they pulled to a stop in the middle of the road and sought cover behind their vehicle. Both officers said they couldn't see anyone sitting inside the cruiser and only realized an officer from Pictou County was in the driver's seat when he got out. 

They also testified they had missed hearing information that was radioed about the gunman's car having a black push bar and did not know the fire hall was being used as a comfort centre. 

Different accounts on what was yelled 

Melanson testified that after spotting the possible suspect, he frantically tried to communicate on his portable radio. The inquiry found he made eight failed attempts to get through.

Brown said he was completely focused on the man in front of the hall and didn't notice other cars or pylons set up in the parking lot. He said he identified himself and shouted at the person who he thought was the gunman to show his hands before firing.

"All I could see was that person in the orange reflective vest standing by the police car. They ducked down. So while I'm yelling commands, he ducks down, and at that point I don't know if he's coming up again with a gun or what his intentions are," Brown said. 

"Then he ran from the back of the car towards the building and that's when we discharged our firearms."

Two RCMP officers started firing in the direction of the Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade hall on April 19 around 10:21 a.m. They were about 88 metres from the building, the public inquiry heard. Brown said it would’ve been too risky to get closer and risk getting shot. (CBC)

The man's movements "appeared to be tactical, kinda moving to the back of the car. I believed that we had to stop him." said Melanson. 

Melanson said he didn't recall exactly what his partner shouted. But Westlake's account and Brown's account differ on what was said. 

"I never heard 'police' or 'show your hands.' I heard 'get down.' And I am adamant to this day this is what I heard," Westlake said in his interview with the commission. 

He said he didn't realize the men across the parking lot were police, heard a "sonic boom" of a shot and ran toward the fire hall. 

It was the first time Brown shot at someone in his 13 years as a police officer. He fired four rounds. Melanson fired one. 

18 seconds inside hall

It wasn't until Const. Dave Gagnon, the Mountie who had been sitting inside his cruiser, got out and yelled on his radio and across the parking lot, that Brown and Melanson realized there was a second man outside, they testified.

Meanwhile, Westlake had joined two firefighters and Richard Ellison, whose son was murdered the night before, inside the hall where they hid behind tables.

Video surveillance captured at the hall showed that Brown walked around the outside of the hall and Gagnon and Melanson stepped inside for 17 seconds. 

Surveillance footage captured outside the fire hall showed the officers leaving the parking lot less than five minutes after they started firing. (Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade surveillance cameras)

Melanson testified they asked if everyone was OK and accounted for, got confirmation that was the case from Westlake and never realized anyone else was inside the building. 

"I knew there would be time for explanation but that wasn't the time," he testified. 

Within five minutes of discharging their carbines, Melanson and Brown were back on the road in hopes of tracking down Wortman. 

Apology too late, firefighters say 

Thursday's testimony was the first time firefighters Darrell Currie and Greg Muise were in the same room with the two Mounties whose shots caused $40,000 worth of damage to their hall.

They said it would have saved them an hour of fear and uncertainty had the Mounties spent a little time explaining the situation before leaving.

Greg Muise, Onslow fire chief, Darrell Currie, deputy chief and Portapique resident Richard Ellison, left to right, field questions about the incident at the Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade Hall in Halifax on April 11, 2022. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"If nothing else, they could have come in and asked us personally, verified the number of people in the building and checked on us to make sure we were all physically OK," said Currie, the volunteer brigade's deputy chief.

Muise said all they knew was that someone was shooting at them, trying to harm them, and they didn't learn until later it was RCMP who had mistakenly fired.

Trauma with long-lasting impacts

He and Currie also remember hearing a bang on the side door of the hall while they were hiding, which led them to believe Wortman was outside trying to get in. 

Neither Brown or Melanson said they tried to open a locked door. 

Both firefighters previously talked to CBC News about the lasting trauma caused by losing their sense of security at their hall and their faith in the police force they always worked closely with while attending to fires and other emergencies. 

David Westlake entered the Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade hall around 10:21 a.m. on April 19, 2020. He crouched down as he went through the front door to pick up a portable radio he dropped. (Mass Casualty Commission)

They questioned why the RCMP never apologized for the incident. On Thursday they called the Mounties' response "lip service" and said the the apologies in their testimony didn't make up for it.

"I don't know why they waited so long for an apology … it doesn't mean nothing to me now," said Muise.

Currie said he feels the force should apologize to his whole community for the trauma the incident caused. 

"There's people here today that are still suffering and going through therapy, but they're not recognized as having experienced a traumatic event," he said.

'We were close and we didn't give up'

The officers said they did not spend time surveying the impact their rounds had as they were in the midst of the search for the active shooter, and they weren't focused on property damage. 

Back on the road, Brown proceeded to call Staff Sgt. Al Carroll to tell him what happened and they got gas before proceeding up Highway 102, the main route to Halifax, in an attempt to intercept the gunman. While driving, they learned he'd attacked two of their colleagues.

Const. Chad Morrison survived a confrontation with the gunman; Const. Heidi Stevenson did not. 

Brown and Melanson arrived at the Big Stop in Enfield, N.S., shortly after two other Mounties recognized and shot Wortman. 

"My training and goal was to go after the killer, and I think if I would've I stayed behind [at the fire hall] that would've been a mistake and I'd be regretting it today," said Melanson. 

"Terry and I were there when he was taken down, within minutes we pulled into the yard where he was and the shots were fired. We were close and we didn't give up."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC in Halifax. Over the past 13 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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