Nova Scotia

Mountie who warned of back way out of Portapique doesn't remember saying it

An RCMP constable who alerted colleagues there might be a back way out of Portapique, N.S., on the first night of the 2020 mass killing says it was such a hectic night, she doesn't remember making the radio broadcast.

Const. Vicki Colford, now retired, says she was focused on helping woman in shock

The burned-out remains of one of the gunman's cruisers at his former cottage on Portapique Beach Road, N.S., taken May 13, 2020. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

An RCMP constable who alerted colleagues there might be a back way out of Portapique, N.S., on the first night of the 2020 mass killing says it was such a hectic night, she doesn't remember making the radio broadcast.

Const. Vicki Colford, who has since retired, answered questions in a sworn affidavit entered as a Mass Casualty Commission exhibit earlier this month. Her statement is shedding light on how police missed a key piece of information about a possible escape route the gunman is believed to have used to evade police stationed less than a kilometre away.

On April 18, 2020, Colford was the fourth RCMP officer to arrive the night a gunman killed 13 neighbours and torched several homes. Family members of people killed the following morning have questioned why police did not do more to seal off the community and why it took so long to realize the gunman could have driven out on a private road bordering a blueberry field.

The public inquiry examining the tragedy went over surveillance footage, spoke to witnesses and determined the gunman most likely drove along the field and out onto Highway 2 a few hundred metres from the main entrance between 10:41 p.m. and 10:45 p.m. AT.

Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19, 2020. Top row from left: Gina Goulet, Dawn Gulenchyn, Jolene Oliver, Frank Gulenchyn, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins. Second row: John Zahl, Lisa McCully, Joey Webber, Heidi Stevenson, Heather O'Brien and Jamie Blair. Third row from top: Kristen Beaton, Lillian Campbell, Joanne Thomas, Peter Bond, Tom Bagley and Greg Blair. Bottom row: Emily Tuck, Joy Bond, Corrie Ellison and Aaron Tuck. (CBC)

By the time Colford pulled up around 10:32 p.m., two officers had gone into the community on foot. After learning a third would join them, she decided to check vehicles at the entrance and ensure Andrew and Katie MacDonald, who had been shot at, got medical attention.

At 10:48 p.m., Colford said on her police radio: "If you guys want to have a look at the map, we're being told there's a road, kind of a road that someone could come out, before here. Ah, if they know the roads well."

But at least three senior officers overseeing the response testified they never heard her transmission and Colford herself said she didn't realize she made it.

'No recollection' of radio transmission

It wasn't until reviewing inquiry documents that she learned of it and had "no recollection" of being told about a back exit or if the woman she spoke with identified the road connected to it, Colford wrote in an affidavit.

The MacDonalds left in separate ambulances and Colford stayed with Katie MacDonald for about 45 minutes.

"Katie MacDonald was very upset and not speaking clearly. I was trying to keep her calm while monitoring our surroundings for the threat," she said.

An aerial map of Portapique from May 2020 with street names added by the Mass Casualty Commission. (Mass Casualty Commission)

Her focus was on "trying to keep my head on a swivel to watch and be aware" amid the nearby fires, shots fired and the active shooter on the loose, Colford stated.

She said her assumption — based on reading the transcript — was that she made the broadcast to pass new information to the risk manager overseeing the response and anyone else that was part of it.

She said most of her communications that night happened over the radio, but she did also speak with senior officers by phone.

Worried about ambush, screening vehicles

Another Portapique resident, Harlan Rushton, told the commission he spoke to a female Mountie on his way out, telling her something along the lines of, "You know there's another way out," and the officer agreed.

Colford told the commission she didn't have any memory of that exchange but checked about 10 vehicles looking for signs of the gunman, weapons, gas cans and anything suspicious.

An RCMP officer talks with a local resident before escorting them home at a roadblock in Portapique on April 22, 2020. The night of April 18, Const. Vicki Colford was stationed at the entrance to Portapique Beach Road. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Her goal, she explained, was to get people out quickly so the exchanges only lasted a few seconds. She said she scanned the back of trucks and hatchbacks and got at least one driver to pop their trunk.

"I had no idea where the perpetrator was… The possibility of ambush was always on my mind," she wrote.

"Every time a vehicle was leaving, it diverted my attention from my surroundings and I didn't want anyone to get shot at while stopped."

Not required to testify 

Lawyers representing families of victims had requested that Colford appear as a witness and though the commissioners initially said they would subpoena her, they later granted Colford an accommodation that she could provide a written statement instead of oral testimony.

The National Police Federation had made the request and submitted confidential personal information that the commissioners considered.

Lawyers representing participants were able to submit the questions they had for Colford, including requests to clarify statements she previously made to the RCMP during an interview a few days after the shootings. She answered 63 questions posed by the commission.

Felt like 'sitting duck'

Colford and Cpl. Natasha Jamieson spent most of the night stationed near the mailboxes at the top of Portapique Road. While positioned around a colleague's SUV, they tried to provide each other with cover — Colford with a shotgun and Jamieson with her service pistol.

Neither officer had completed carbine training.

"I really felt very much like a sitting duck in that I couldn't see much beyond my immediate area due to lack of street lights," Colford told the commission.

Colford had previously provided back up to a colleague — Const. Nick Dorrington — who pulled the gunman over for speeding in February 2020 but had no other prior interactions with him and didn't know the community that well.

Dorrington is scheduled to testify at the inquiry on Monday.

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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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