Repeated communication failures were partly to blame for the Nova Scotia RCMP’s inability to stop a gunman from killing 22 people over a 13-hour span in April 2020, recently released documents show.
Transcripts of interviews with two Mounties who helped coordinate the police response reveal that key information about the killer’s vehicle — a replica RCMP cruiser — was not relayed to senior officers or was ignored.
The documents released by the public inquiry into the mass shooting point to other shortcomings, including shoddy technology, erroneous assumptions about the killer’s whereabouts and delays in warning the public.
Among the first senior Mounties called in the night of April 18, 2020, was Staff Sgt. Allan Carroll, district commander for Colchester County and a 39-year veteran of the police force.
“It was one of the worst nights of my life,” Carrol said during an interview with inquiry investigators on Nov. 10, 2021.
Soon after he arrived at the detachment in Bible Hill, N.S., sometime after 10 p.m., Carroll said he and another senior Mountie quickly learned from 911 calls that a lone gunman in Portapique, N.S., identified as Gabriel Wortman, was shooting at people and setting fire to homes.
They were also told he was driving a mock police car.
Based on the information he received, Carroll said he understood the suspect was driving an old, decommissioned police car that had no markings.
“And that’s what we heard, old police car,” he told the investigators. “(An) old unmarked (Ford) Taurus. There was a bunch of them around.”
But that’s not what witnesses in Portapique were telling 911 call-takers. Previously released 911 transcripts clearly show that the killer’s first victim, Jamie Blair, described the car as ”decked and labelled RCMP.” And shortly after she was fatally shot in her home at 10:04 p.m., her 11-year-old son — who survived the mayhem — told 911 the vehicle was “just like a police car,” complete with emergency lights and proper decals.
At that point in the police operation, Carroll was joined by Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum, district commander for neighbouring Pictou County. Like Carroll, MacCallum said he understood the suspect’s vehicle was an “old police car.”
MacCallum said that when he arrived at the detachment, his priority was to get an overview of what was happening in Portapique. But he said it took him half an hour to find a computer with the RCMP’s Computerized Incident Dispatch System, which uses satellite tracking to show the positions of police vehicles.
Despite the high-tech display, MacCallum said the digital map was lacking.
“I’m looking on the screen where the members are, but I’m not very happy with what I’m seeing,” MacCallum, a 23-year veteran, told inquiry investigators on Nov. 5, 2021. “I start trying to find better mapping because I’m trying to see what we have for escape routes.”
MacCallum tried Google Earth, but he quickly realized the site was “making roads where there’s no roads.”
The officer then recalled all detachments are supposed to have access to a licensed program called Pictometry, which offers access to high-resolution aerial photographs.
“I couldn’t find it, and Al didn’t know where it was,” he said. “So we ended up pulling a map off the wall.”
Carroll, who at the time was a month away from retirement, later told investigators he was never trained to use Pictometry.
Using a road atlas and other maps, Carroll and MacCallum concluded there was only one way for a vehicle to get out of the darkened, rural enclave where the shooting started: Portapique Beach Road.
But the two Mounties were wrong. At about 10:45 p.m., 20 minutes after the first officer arrived at the scene, the gunman escaped by driving along a little-used dirt road beside a blueberry field
“That didn’t show up on the map we were looking at,” Carroll said afterwards.
As well, the main highway leading to Portapique from the east — the escape route taken by the killer after he fatally shot 13 people and fled — was not blocked by police until shortly after midnight, the inquiry has found.
MacCallum told investigators he was confident the scene had been properly contained, though there’s no indication when he came to that conclusion.
Until 2:50 a.m., officers reported hearing gunfire in Portapique, which led them to believe the shooter was still there. But it appears police were actually hearing ammunition and other substances exploding in the various fires the killer had set.
At around 3:30 a.m., there was a major development when one of the first officers at the scene presented MacCallum with a bullet that the killer had fired at a surviving eyewitness in Portapique. MacCallum said it was the first time he heard that local resident Andrew MacDonald and his wife Katie had encountered the killer just before police arrived.
Previously released RCMP search warrant documents confirm that MacDonald, who was shot in the shoulder, had provided a detailed description of the killer’s vehicle at around 10:28 p.m., saying the car looked exactly like a marked RCMP cruiser. But that information had not been relayed to the two senior officers.
“I had no real idea that we actually had a live witness to this,” MacCallum said. “I had no idea what was going on with him if there was any more information coming from him or whatnot.”
Still, MacCallum and Carroll said they continued to believe Wortman had not left Portapique until the gunman’s common-law spouse, Lisa Banfield, emerged from hiding in a wooded lot at daybreak. That’s when she provided police with a photo of the replica cruiser.
Earlier in the evening, police had accounted for three decommissioned police cars owned by the suspect, but they were unaware of the fourth vehicle in the photo.
“Oh my God, this isn’t just like somebody doing a hobby,” MacCallum recalled saying. “This is better than ours is.”
By 7:45 a.m., about 30 minutes after the photo surfaced, MacCallum said he was tasked with preparing a public statement with the help of the RCMP’s media relations department. He said he made it clear the public should be warned to watch for the car.
At 8:02 a.m., the Mounties issued a brief statement on Twitter confirming publicly for the first time they were looking for an active shooter, almost 10 hours after the gunman killed his first victim. A tweet about the vehicle, however, wasn’t issued until 10:17 a.m., two-and-a-half hours after MacCallum received the photo.
By that time, the killer had already resumed his murderous rampage, eventually killing an additional nine people as he led the Mounties on a chase that spanned more than 100 kilometres across northern and central Nova Scotia.
He was shot dead later that morning by an RCMP officer who spotted him trying to refuel a stolen vehicle at a gas station north of Halifax.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2022.