Frantic radio logs reveal confusion, fear as Mounties responded to N.S. shootings
WARNING: This story contains distressing details
When the first RCMP officer arrived in Portapique, N.S, he encountered a man bleeding from a head wound who said he had been shot by his neighbour, "Gabe," who was driving what looked like a police car. At that moment, the shooter was less than 200 metres away.
Const. Stuart Beselt and the two other officers who were first to arrive on scene late on April 18, 2020, knew their suspect had shot at numerous people and feared he could be lurking in the darkness of heavily wooded lots. They decided to approach on foot.
The details of the chaotic scene that the three Mounties encountered at the beginning of a 13-hour rampage during which Gabriel Wortman killed 22 people, including a pregnant woman, are included in a document put together by the Mass Casualty Commission examining the tragedy.
At one point, the officers thought they were on the verge of catching their suspect and prepared to shoot, only to realize hours later that the flashlight they saw disappearing into darkness was a frightened man horrified by finding his brother's body. He, too, thought he was being pursued by the gunman.
Audio of radio transmissions played during a public hearing Tuesday reflect out-of-breath officers frantically trying to communicate they were hearing gunfire or explosions, impaired by the darkness that was only broken by flames from multiple fires.
All three officers — the only ones to enter the subdivision for 90 minutes — had already changed into their hard body armour and had their carbines ready. They decided to leave their police cruisers about 170 metres from the entrance where Portapique Beach Road connects to Highway 2, a quiet two-lane rural road along the Minas Basin.
Const. Aaron Patton, who was sprinting down Portapique Beach Road to meet Beselt and Const. Adam Merchant, the first two officers on scene, radioed at 10:40 p.m.:
"Lots of gunshots in here. Three gunshots… two more gunshots," said Patton
Beselt confirmed they were "hearing numerous gunshots" and warned:
"Patton, be very careful to avoid bringing your car down here to avoid ambush."
'Officers die in their cars'
Beselt, with 24 years experience, was the acting team leader that evening, according to the Mass Casualty Commission, which has conducted its own interviews with the officers and reviewed statements they made to RCMP days after the shootings.
Beselt told the commission that he had no doubts it was an active shooter situation. He said a crucial lesson learned after a gunman killed three RCMP officers and injured two others in Moncton in 2014 was that cruisers could be "billboards" that could draw fire.
"Police officers die in their cars," he said, adding that the only way to get any advantage was to move "stealthily" on foot.
"I think it kept me alive, to be honest with you," Beselt said.
Roger Burrill, the senior lawyer presenting the commission's report Tuesday afternoon, said not driving "was a clear tactical decision" informed by officers' training.
"Clearly it would've been a slower process but as Const. Beselt says, in order to respond to the complaint, you have to be alive in order to do that," said Burrill.
"I would submit this was a very intense situation."
After the three officers connected on Portapique Beach Road, they passed the gunman's burning cottage and noticed a white Taurus — not yet on fire — in the driveway. But Beselt said on the radio they weren't stopping because they heard gunshots in another direction.
The commission says at that point, the trio headed through the woods toward the gunfire, which turned out to be the gunman's garage, also in flames. Beselt reported that "things are blowing up or they're shooting. I'm not sure."
Burrill said the constable's tone gave a "sense of the urgency and the lack of information the officers have… you hear the tension. You hear the uncertainty."
Not far from the burning garage the officers soon discovered the bodies later identified as Corrie Ellison, who'd gone out to get a closer look at the fire, and Lisa McCully, who was killed on her front lawn.
Meanwhile, the RCMP's Operational Communications Centre was sending them updates from four kids that were hiding together in McCully's home.
The closest the three officers came to firing occurred when they saw a flashlight approaching and assumed it was the gunman. They got into position and warned colleagues they were ready to shoot but the light disappeared before anyone fired, according to the radio logs.
"We saw somebody with a flashlight that went dark. We have no idea where he went. We're going to go back to the red house, we're going to set up there to make sure those children are safe, unless we hear more gunfire, we're sitting still," Beselt reported back.
They later realized the person with the flashlight was Clinton Ellison, who was terrified after seeing his brother's body and thought the gunman was chasing him.
Question about 'emergency broadcast'
But the calls didn't stop. About 45 minutes after arriving in Portapique, Beselt, Patton and Merchant thought they heard more gunfire and were sent to help a woman who called 911 because she thought her house was about to catch fire.
Beselt asked on the radio about the possibility of warning people still in their homes.
"Is there some sort of emergency broadcast we can make that make people go into their basement and not go outside?" he asked at 11:16 p.m.
Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill, the risk manager who was in charge of directing officers, replied that the RCMP Operational Communication Centre was trying to contact residents using a 911 map.
At 11:32 p.m., the Nova Scotia RCMP sent out their first and only public communication on April 18, 2020 about the situation via Twitter. The written post stated that officers were responding to a firearms complaint in Portapique, asking people to lock doors and stay inside.
It's not clear from the commission documents released to date if Beselt's comment had any bearing on the decision to send the tweet.
Many concerns about ambush
The three Mounties that first entered the community were not the only ones on guard for an ambush. At the intersection of Portapique Beach Road and Highway 2, Const. Vicki Colford and Cpl. Natasha Jamieson, the fourth and sixth officers on scene, were trying to provide each other with cover — Colford with a shotgun and Jamieson with her service pistol — as they waited at the entrance and checked cars leaving the community.
Colford, who RCMP interviewed on April 23, 2020, said she was on edge hearing sounds from the nearby woods and felt like they were an easy target.
At one point, Cpl. Dion Sutton, a police dog handler, arrived and retreated to the woods to provide the pair with cover. Unlike the female officers, he had night vision goggles, something Colford said would have been helpful.
Neither Jamieson or Colford were trained to use a carbine rifle, another recommendation that came in the wake of the Moncton shootings. Jamieson later said in an interview with the commission that was no fault of the RCMP as she'd had to postpone training due to a surgery. Colford has since retired.
Hoped gunman was dead
Many of the officers who arrived on scene Saturday evening were relieved of their duties early Sunday morning.
After the four children in McCully's house were driven to safety, the first three officers on scene stayed in the house and were eventually picked up by the Emergency Response Team in its tactical vehicle.
When Patton spoke to RCMP a few days later, he said he debriefed at the makeshift command post at the Great Village Fire Hall and drove home with Beselt. They talked about how the gunman was likely dead in the woods.
It was only when he woke up and called a colleague that he realized how wrong that assumption was. The shooter killed nine more people on Sunday morning, most of them strangers.