It is one of the most perplexing aspects about the mass shooting in Nova Scotia that claimed 22 lives: after killing 13 people in Portapique, N.S., late on April 18, 2020, the killer decided it was time to rest for the night.
That decision may have helped him avoid capture for much of the next morning, as there is evidence to suggest police assumed the shooting had stopped because the killer had taken his own life somewhere in the woods inside the rural community.
“The narrative going around, particularly through the police radios, was an assumption that he probably killed himself,” said Michael Scott, a lawyer whose firm represents families of 14 of the 22 victims. “The problem with that kind of assumption is that it can have a real impact on how they’re proceeding from that point.”
On Wednesday, the commission of inquiry investigating the case is expected to release a document describing what happened immediately after the killer, Gabriel Wortman, left the rural enclave at around 10:45 p.m., driving a replica RCMP cruiser and disguised as a Mountie.
Previously released RCMP search warrant applications show he drove undetected for 24 kilometres and parked his vehicle just after 11 p.m. behind a welding shop in Debert, N.S., where he spent the night in the vehicle.
The next day, the gunman killed another nine people — both acquaintances and strangers — as he led police on a 100-kilometre chase that ended when he was fatally shot by an RCMP officer who spotted him trying to refuel a stolen vehicle at a gas station north of Halifax.
Among other things, the inquiry has been asked to determine why it took police 13 hours to stop the shooter, and one theory holds that the police investigating the shootings in Portapique concluded the rampage had come to an end on the first night.
“That seems to be the basis for their assumption that he’d killed himself and nobody seems to have even remotely considered the idea that he somehow managed to leave Portapique undetected,” Scott said.
The first RCMP officer to arrive at the scene, Const. Stuart Beselt, told a commission lawyer that he believed the killer shot himself after RCMP Emergency Response Team officers called his name using loudspeakers.
Beselt, in an interview conducted on July 22, 2021, said he heard “one loud crack” of gunfire as he and other officers were being sent home early on April 19, 2020.
“And I’m like, ‘He just did himself in the woods,’” Beselt told commission lawyer Roger Burrill. “We heard one last loud crack and it was like, ‘Nah, he just knows the gig’s up. He just shot himself’ …. I felt like the situation was over. They’ll find him in the woods somewhere.”
Beselt wasn’t the only Mountie who guessed wrong about the killer’s fate that night.
Const. Aaron Patton, one of three officers who advanced into the neighbourhood within minutes of arriving at the scene at 10:25 p.m., also said he later heard what he believed was one, loud rifle shot as police called out to the killer.
Up to then, there had been no single gunshots, he said in an interview with an RCMP officer on April 23, 2020. “It was always multiple gunshots …. It was never just one, so we were 100 per cent sure that that was him killing himself in the woods,” Patton said.
Aside from the officers’ speculation, there is evidence suggesting the RCMP mistakenly concluded the replica RCMP vehicle witnesses had seen in Portapique was among three decommissioned police cars found later that night. Two Ford Taurus Interceptors were burning on the killer’s properties in Portapique and a third was parked in the Halifax area, next to the denture clinic that the suspect owned and operated.
In an affidavit sworn on June 3, 2021, RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell said that on the night of April 18, 2020, police learned the killer had purchased three decommissioned police cruisers in recent years, and all three were accounted for early on April 19, 2020. There’s no indication in Campbell’s statement that police were aware of the fourth former police vehicle, also a Ford Taurus, that was used by the killer.
“They had accounted for three cars the killer owned, but discovered early on that the ones burning in Portapique were not fully marked, as they had been told by several witnesses was the case with the car the killer was driving,” said Adam Rogers, a Nova Scotia lawyer who is writing a blog about the inquiry.
“Hours after the killer had left the area, police were still setting up containment points as though he were still near his home ….Two important ramifications are that all police resources remained focused on Portapique rather than expanding the scope of their hunt, and also that the police mistakenly decided against warning the wider public of any danger.”
According to police documents, the gunman left Debert at daybreak at 5:43 a.m. and travelled 60 kilometres to Wentworth, N.S., where he fatally shot two men and a woman at 6:29 a.m.
Around the same time, the killer’s common-law spouse, Lisa Banfield, emerged from hiding in Portapique and alerted police to the fact that Wortman was on the loose in a replica police car, a photo of which she shared with investigators.
It remains unclear what senior RCMP officers had concluded about the case by the morning of April 19, 2020, but the Mounties gave no indication they were still looking for a suspect until Banfield came forward. At that time, the RCMP quickly issued a bulletin to all police in Nova Scotia to be on the lookout for the gunman and his vehicle.
At 8:02 a.m., the Mounties issue a brief statement on Twitter confirming publicly for the first time they were looking for an active shooter. A tweet about the suspect’s vehicle and RCMP uniform, however, wasn’t issued until 10:17 a.m., almost 12 hours after officers in Portapique and 911 call-takers were told about the marked vehicle.
“You see how connecting the dots of all of these assumptions, all of these little errors, even if they’re understandable, you start to get a view of how this guy was able to roam unchecked throughout the province for 13 hours,” Scott said.
—Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press