Public inquiry calls for removal of 'highly sensitive' 911 calls from N.S. mass shooting
WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
The public inquiry examining the circumstances of the Nova Scotia mass killing is calling for Frank Magazine to remove "highly sensitive" audio of 911 calls — including one from a child who witnessed his parents dying — placed the night the shooting began that would leave 22 people dead.
Several family members of people killed expressed outrage and anguish on social media after the Halifax publication posted online the tapes and transcripts of three calls made from the rural community of Portapique, about 95 kilometres north of Halifax, on April 18, 2020.
The tapes were obtained by freelance journalist Paul Palango, who has been covering the mass shooting for Frank. CBC does not know who shared the calls with him. The magazine posted them online Wednesday evening.
The calls were made by Portapique resident Jamie Blair, her son who was 12 at the time and a man who lived nearby and was shot by the gunman while driving and survived.
Jamie and Greg Blair were among 22 people killed on April 18 and 19, 2020, when a 51-year-old denturist masquerading as a Mountie shot neighbours, acquaintances and people he'd never met over the course of 13 hours in Portapique and other central Nova Scotia communities of Wentworth, Debert and Shubenacadie. He also burned three homes of people he killed.
The Mass Casualty Commission, a joint federal and provincial inquiry examining the circumstances of the tragedy, issued a statement Thursday saying it "condemns the access and posting of the highly sensitive audio recordings.
"We are extremely concerned for the privacy of those affected by the content, especially the child," the statement said.
Meanwhile, the RCMP says it is investigating whether the release of the recordings broke any laws.
RCMP condemns the release of recordings
"Given the heartbreaking effect on victims' families and on our employees, we are publicly condemning the publication of the audio recordings," said Asst. Commissioner Lee Bergerman, commanding officer of the Nova Scotia RCMP.
She said the force's family liaison officer has assured families the Mounties are looking into the situation.
The Mounties have not been commenting on the mass shootings due to the public inquiry and lawsuits.
Three municipal councillors who represent parts of Nova Scotia affected by the tragedy said they were worried about families being re-traumatized by the 911 calls.
"The violation of the privacy of children in this manner crosses a line of decency and respect that should never be crossed," said Munipality of Colchester councillors Lisa Patton, Marie Benoit and Tom Taggart in a joint statement.
Police shot and killed Gabriel Wortman at a gas station in Enfield, N.S., on Sunday, April 19. By that point, he'd travelled nearly 200 kilometres and, during and much of that, he was driving a decommissioned police cruiser that he'd outfitted with decals — making it nearly identical to a real officer's vehicle.
In the audio posted by Frank Magazine Wednesday night, three callers are heard separately telling 911 dispatchers about a gunman and what appeared to be a police vehicle between 10 p.m. and 10:25 p.m., before RCMP officers arrived in the community. RCMP didn't share with the public that their suspect was disguised as a Mountie for another 12 hours, at which point the force tweeted a photo of the replica cruiser.
On the calls, Jamie Blair specifically said her neighbour, a denturist who drove police cars, shot her husband. Her son told the 911 operator the man who killed his parents pulled out of their driveway in a police car. The Portapique resident who was shot while driving and survived identified his neighbour by his first name. CBC has decided not to name the man who was shot.
Last fall, the CBC's The Fifth Estate reported that the man called 911 to report two fires on Orchard Beach Drive and relayed that there appeared to be an RCMP officer in a cruiser outside a home when it ignited.
In an audio statement the man gave to a private investigator working on behalf of victims' families, he said he was on the phone with the dispatcher when the cruiser approached him and the person driving, who he recognized as his neighbour, shot him. His account is also included in search warrant documents unsealed by the courts.
CBC News also previously reported that Tyler Blair said investigators told him his stepmother was the first person to call for help at 10:01 p.m., reporting that her husband had been shot outside their home and that his younger brother subsequently called 911 for help from a neighbour's home.
911 system transfers calls
Nova Scotia's Emergency Management Office administers the 911 system and there are four call centres across the province. When people dial, they initially speak with a provincial 911 operator who then transfers them to police, poison control, fire or Emergency Health Services.
The audio excerpts published by Frank appear to be from when the callers first dialled 911, before the call taker determined they needed to speak with RCMP. In two of the calls, the 911 operators appeared to be communicating with a third person about the need for firefighters.
Brendan Maguire, the minister responsible for the Emergency Management Office, which oversees the 911 system, said this is the first time in 20 years that audio from a 911 call has been "leaked."
"It's very important that people understand the confidentiality around the 911 calls," he said.
"People are calling that have been assaulted, that are in some of the worst cases, worst states of their life, and the public needs to be assured that when they call that these phone calls are private."
Justice Minister Randy Delorey said his department was looking into whether to refer the release of the calls to the privacy commissioner to investigate.
Last RCMP press conference 1 year ago
In the days following the tragedy, RCMP officials acknowledged they had received information about a police vehicle from the man who was injured in Portapique, but they stressed much of the information about their suspect came to them around dawn, when the gunman's spouse emerged from hiding.
"This included the fact that he was in possession of a fully marked and equipped replica RCMP vehicle and was wearing a police uniform," said Supt. Darren Campbell in an April 24, 2020, press conference.
When asked about when police determined the gunman was wearing a police uniform and driving a replica cruiser during an April 22 press conference, Chief Supt. Chris Leather said a "key witness," who was Wortman's spouse, provided information between 7 and 8 a.m. on April 19.
"Prior to that, we did not have all those details," Leather said. "The bulk of the details about our suspect came to us at that time."
Police have also said that while they knew the gunman owned several decommissioned vehicles, they believed he had three and didn't learn of a fourth until they spoke with his spouse, Lisa Banfield.
Thursday afternoon, Cpl. Lisa Croteau reiterated these statements in response to questions from CBC.
"Fairly early into our involvement we learned of a possible suspect and that the individual lived in a home in the community of Portapique, " she said in an email.
Croteau said that Saturday night, the suspect's home and garage were burning as were two police vehicles located on his properties. But she said it wasn't until RCMP spoke to their "key witness" Sunday morning that they "confirmed the suspect was Gabriel Wortman and that he was in possession of a fully marked and equipped replica vehicle, was wearing a police uniform and was in possession of several firearms."
The RCMP has not held a press conference on their investigation into the mass shootings since June 4, 2020.
For anyone who needs mental health support connected to the release of the 911 calls, the commission has set up a confidential 24-hour crisis line 1-888-429-8167.
Nova Scotia is also offering 24/7 support through the Mental Health Provincial Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-888-429-8167.
With files from Kayla Hounsell, Michael Gorman and Jean Laroche