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N.S. gunman's 'advantage': Hours passed before RCMP told public he was disguised as one of them

The RCMP have acknowledged they were aware that Gabriel Wortman was driving a replica cruiser and wearing a police uniform for hours before they shared the information with the public. A lag that friends and family say may have contributed to the deaths of six people.

Six more victims died during RCMP delay in sharing squad car, uniform information

A photograph of Kristen Beaton, one of the 22 victims who died in a gunman's killing spree in Nova Scotia last weekend, is seen at a makeshift memorial in Debert, N.S., on April 23. Beaton's family believes she might still be alive if the RCMP had quickly warned the public that the suspected gunman was posing as a police officer. (Tim Krochak/Reuters)

Tom Bagley was on the phone with his daughter before he left the house for his Sunday morning walk, a bit ahead of 9 a.m. Heather O'Brien sent her family a final group chat message at 9:59 a.m. And Kristen Beaton was texting back and forth with her husband almost right up to the moment she was killed, not long after 10 a.m.

All three were in close contact with loved ones early on April 19, heading about their business as usual, and completely unaware of the danger that lurked nearby — a killer stalking the province disguised as a police officer. 

At a Friday news conference in Nova Scotia, the RCMP revealed that officers first heard that a shooting suspect might be driving a look-a-like police car around 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 18. And that by 7 a.m. on April 19, Gabriel Wortman's girlfriend had confirmed that he was indeed behind the wheel of a replica RCMP cruiser and wearing a uniform. 

Not long after, they shared that information in a BOLO — be on the lookout — bulletin with police forces across the province.

But the public wasn't informed until the RCMP sent out a tweet at 10:17 a.m.

And in that gap, Wortman killed an additional six victims, according to the RCMP's own timeline of events that was shared with reporters on Friday.

RCMP in Nova Scotia tweeted out this photo of a mock RCMP vehicle on the morning of April 19 — alerting the public that a suspected mass killer was posing as a police officer. (Nova Scotia RCMP)

Sean McLeod and Alanna Jenkins, both corrections officers, and acquaintances of Wortman, were killed around 9:30 a.m. and their house in Wentworth, N.S., was set ablaze. Police also discovered the body of their neighbour, Bagley, a 70-year-old navy vet and retired firefighter, on the property.

Lillian Campbell Hyslop, a retiree, was shot near the gates of Wentworth Provincial Park, 11 kilometres to the south, a short time later.

And O'Brien and Beaton, both home care nurses for the Victorian Order of Nurses, were killed in their cars near the town of Debert, about 30 kilometres further along Highway 4, within minutes of each other. The RCMP says Wortman pulled the women over with his fake police cruiser and then shot them. And that by 10:08 a.m., he had left the area and was on his way to Shubenacadie, where Wortman would claim the final three of his 22 victims, before he himself was killed in a gas-station shootout with police at 11:26 a.m. Sunday.

Veteran and retired firefighter Tom Bagley, who would have turned 71 on Tuesday, was among 22 people killed by a gunman who rampaged across rural Nova Scotia last weekend. (Jeff Flanagan)

Heather Matthews, a friend of Hyslop's, says she can't understand why the RCMP was so slow in sharing the vital information about the police car and uniform, details that might have saved lives.

"After so many more innocent people," she said Friday, from her home in Wentworth. "Let people know to be safe. How hard is that to do? I'm thinking that they just screwed up there."

Matthews, who was out walking with her husband at the time of Hyslop's murder and heard the gunshots, says she is certain that a warning from the police would have changed the course of the morning.

"I'm sure if she had received an alert, or we were made aware early enough in our day, like if we're out having breakfast, none of us would have been up for a walk," said Matthews.

Supt. Darren Campbell, the officer in charge of support services for the RCMP in Nova Scotia, tried to address the information gap during Friday's press briefing. The situation on the night of April 18, and through the morning of April 19, was fluid, he said, as police went house to house in Portapique, N.S., where the rampage began, looking for victims and their suspect. 

Although they quickly learned that Wortman owned three registered ex-police vehicles, they believed they were all accounted for — two in the smoldering remains of his cottage in Portapique, and the other in the garage at his Halifax-area home.

It wasn't until after dawn that they discovered he had a fourth, unplated Ford Taurus, kitted out as an exact replica of an RCMP patrol car.

"I don't think it's difficult for non-police personnel, or the public, to understand that it would obviously complicate things," said Campbell. "You know, I have been a police officer for almost 30 years now, and I can't imagine any more horrific set of circumstances — when you're trying to search for someone that looks like you. The dangers that causes. The complications that causes.

"That obviously was an advantage that the suspect had on the police, that he had on the public, that he had on every person that he encountered throughout the course of his rampage."

WATCH | RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell explains how the replica police car complicated the manhunt: 

Saying it would obviously complicate things, RCMP say the Nova Scotia rampage suspect may have been able to escape the first crime scene by driving a mock RCMP vehicle. 0:51

Friday's revelations clarified what had been a murky facet of the police investigation.

At the beginning of the week, the RCMP issued a news release stating that they had informed the public "as soon as" they learned the suspect was "possibly in a replica police cruiser." Then on Wednesday, they presented a revised timeline suggesting the information about the car and uniform only came to light after a witness came forward between 7 and 8 a.m. on Sunday. 

There are now growing calls for a full and thorough examination of what may have gone wrong.

In Ottawa on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked if the RCMP's delay in notifying the public that Wortman was wearing a uniform and driving a fake cruiser was a "failure" on the part of the RCMP.

"Right now, we need to be there for the people of Nova Scotia, for the families and communities that are grieving, and give them all the support we can. Part of that support needs to be answering their many, many questions," he said. "Questions about what happened during the incident, what happened to their loved ones, but also questions about the police response and what exactly happened and what could have happened differently or better."

And Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil told a media briefing Friday that he has asked his justice minister to examine all possibilities to answer the "questions that so many Nova Scotians may have" about the shootings, and put the details of the weekend's tragic events "to the test."

'We thought it was over'

Earlier this week, Nick Beaton told CBC Radio that he never would have let his pregnant wife Kristen leave their family home to visit a client on Sunday morning, had he known that the shooter they had heard about in nearby Portapique the night before was still at large.

"It went quiet and we thought it was over," he said. "We just figured that he was grabbed up or gone."

Kristen Beaton was among the victims of a gunman's rampage in Nova Scotia last weekend. (GoFundMe/The Canadian Press)
 

When he learned that Wortman was in the area — via a Facebook post from a friend who was listening in to fire and EMS radio — Beaton texted his wife and told her not to stop for hitchhikers or let herself be flagged down by a stranger.

"I did not know he was in a police outfit, or that he had a police cruiser, or what looked like a police cruiser, until it was too late," Beaton explained.

LISTEN Carol Off interviews RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki:

Police in Nova Scotia made the best decisions "based on what they knew at the time," RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki tells As It Happens host Carol Off. 7:32

On Friday, Carol Off, the host of CBC's As it Happens, asked RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki if lives might have been saved if the public had been informed sooner that Wortman was disguised as a police officer. 

"Anything is possible. Absolutely," said Lucki.

And she said there will be a thorough examination of what her force did and didn't do with regards to the mass shooting in Nova Scotia.

"There should be no life lost in vain," said Lucki. "We need to look at this. We need to review. "

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story erroneously included part of a reporter's question in a quote from Heather Matthews.
    Apr 25, 2020 11:19 AM ET

About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.

With files from Thomas Daigle

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