On the morning of April 19, 2020, Kristen Beaton, a pregnant 33-year-old nurse, pulled her car over along a wooded stretch of Plains Road in rural Nova Scotia. Social-media posts were vibrating on her phone about an active manhunt for an armed gunman in the area, and she was messaging her husband about the news.
“If you see someone walking, don’t stop,” her husband, Nick Beaton, texted her shortly before 10 a.m.
What neither Kristen nor Nick Beaton, nor most Nova Scotians, knew at the time was that the killer was driving a look-alike RCMP patrol car that he had built himself. That critical piece of information was known by the RCMP – but was kept from the public for hours by the Mounties as they scrambled to catch him.
Within minutes of Ms. Beaton texting with her husband, gunman Gabriel Wortman slowly pulled up beside her in his vehicle that looked identical to an RCMP cruiser. She was fatally shot through the driver’s side window. Shortly after, he killed another woman, Heather O’Brien, a 55-year-old grandmother, in a similar fashion just 350 metres down the road.
More than 12 hours after the gunman’s neighbours described the fake patrol car in detail to 911 operators, and two hours after the RCMP confirmed its existence and distributed a photo to police agencies across Nova Scotia, the Mounties finally told the public about it, through Twitter. The information came too late to protect Ms. Beaton and Ms. O’Brien.
That fatal delay on the part of the RCMP is one of the central issues Nova Scotians expect to be addressed when a public inquiry into the mass shooting that began in Portapique, N.S., and claimed 22 victims releases its final report on Thursday.
The nearly 3,000-page report, produced by the Mass Casualty Commission after almost seven months of public hearings that wrapped up in September, 2022, will also examine the killer’s access to firearms, history of intimate partner violence and prior interactions with police, as well as officers’ tactics during the manhunt – while offering recommendations to prevent similar tragedies.
Revelations from the Nova Scotia mass shooting inquiry are building. The news and impact so far
The failure of the Nova Scotia RCMP to alert the public to the gunman’s replica patrol car in a timely manner is one of the many blunders by the Mounties in their response to the rampage. The police were also hamstrung by shoddy technology and a lack of training; they dismissed 911 calls about the killer’s vehicle and were crippled by a confusing and disorganized command structure.
At one point, in a case of mistaken identity, two Mounties opened fire on a community hall with people cowering inside. At another stage in the manhunt, an off-duty RCMP sergeant was issuing orders via a two-way radio even though he’d told colleagues he was not in a position to make decisions and had consumed four to five rum drinks earlier that evening.
An exhaustive public inquiry, one of the most expensive this country has ever seen, began its work in early 2021 and started public hearings in February, 2022. The commission released 31 foundational documents with more than 3,000 supporting source materials, while its investigators conducted more than 240 interviews, including with 79 members of the RCMP.
The inquiry exposed in plain terms the many problems with the RCMP’s response, including a bureaucratic, top-down organizational structure that slowed its ability to properly alert the public during the manhunt. It showed how the Mounties failed multiple times to catch the gunman over a 13-hour period, as he terrorized rural Nova Scotia, killing neighbours and strangers while dressed as an RCMP officer for most of the slayings.
Lawyers for the gunman’s victims say the RCMP must accept responsibility for those failures and commit to changing the national police force. They called on the Mass Casualty Commission to be blunt in its assessment of those mistakes as it prepares to deliver its recommendations.
“Now is not the time to shy away from assigning accountability for the fear that it might have the appearance of blame,” Sandra McCulloch, whose firm represents the majority of the victims’ families, said as the inquiry ended last September. “Our clients deserve a frank and honest assessment of what went wrong. ... For many, their faith in this process is dwindling if not lost. They need to know that they’ve been heard.”
The MCC also showed how multiple federal agencies dedicated to public safety missed earlier warnings about the gunman. That includes the Canada Border Services Agency, which had grown suspicious about Mr. Wortman long before the shooting rampage because of his long history of smuggling drugs and alcohol from the United States.
The gunman and his common-law wife were placed on the CBSA’s Project Frequent Flyer list in 2010 because of their frequent trips to “drug-source countries of concern” in the Caribbean, but multiple searches at the border revealed nothing. He was also suspected of smuggling because of his frequent border crossings from the U.S into Canada near Woodstock, N.B. – but again searches revealed nothing.
The CBSA was unaware of an RCMP bulletin that Mr. Wortman had said he wanted to “kill a cop” and other red flags about his weapons and violent assaults because the two agencies did not share that information with each other. The inquiry learned Mr. Wortman was able to smuggle three of the guns he used in his rampage across the U.S. border.
It also learned that the gunman’s online purchases of police equipment, as he assembled the pieces needed to build his fake patrol car, were flagged by online retailers to the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, but only after his deadly attacks. Previous “suspicious transaction reports” generated as he moved money around in unusual ways were analyzed by FINTRAC, but did not raise alarm and were not shared with police at the time.
The Mounties themselves had the gunman on their radar in the years prior to his shooting rampage, but failed to properly investigate complaints about domestic violence, illegal weapons or death threats he allegedly made toward others. RCMP Constable Greg Wiley told the inquiry he visited the killer’s home “15 or 16 times” while he was assigned to the detachment in Bible Hill, N.S., but never saw any reason for concern.
Lawyers told the inquiry the Mounties need to update their training so they are better equipped to identify “high-risk circumstances” and respond to domestic violence, and improve the way to handle victims who are reluctant to press charges.
What’s been most troubling for some of the victims’ families is the RCMP’s lack of changes to policy, training or resources in the aftermath of the rampage that killed 22.
“You’ve not instituted any material changes,” lawyer Josh Bryson, who represents the family of Joy and Peter Bond, told then-RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki. “You’ve missed valuable learning opportunities for those cadets who are now members. You could’ve been teaching them your findings, best practices of what came out of Portapique.”
When she testified, Commissioner Lucki spent much of her time refuting allegations she interfered in the mass shooting investigation to help the federal Liberal government’s gun-control agenda – an accusation that launched a political scandal in Ottawa. She acknowledged Nova Scotians’ trust in the RCMP has been “shattered” by the mass shooting and promised to make the necessary changes within the force.
“I can’t undo the past, but I surely can change the future,” Commissioner Lucki said. “You have my commitment.”
She stepped down from her position as the country’s top Mountie on March 17, less than two weeks before the inquiry’s final report is to be released. The RCMP says it has begun work to reform the national force in the wake of the inquiry, but couldn’t offer specific examples. It said privacy laws prevented it from confirming if any disciplinary measures have been handed down to any officers connected to the tragedy.
“Work is under way across the RCMP to improve our operations, reform our culture and make communities safer in the future, including in key areas such as emergency alerting, critical incident response, air support and equipment,” Corporal Kim Chamberland, a spokesperson for the national force, said in a statement last week. “And we will continue with this work, informed by the MCC report and recommendations to come, to make our service to Nova Scotians and Canadians better.”
Michael MacDonald, chair of the MCC, has said he hopes the report’s recommendations will improve safety for communities not just in rural Nova Scotia, but across the country. Many of the victims’ families, some of whom staged boycotts of the inquiry because some RCMP officials were spared cross-examination, will be watching closely.
The question now, as they wait for those recommendations that will come nearly three years after the mass shooting, is whether the RCMP will actually be able to change.
Mr. Beaton, who has been a vocal critic of both the Mounties and the inquiry itself, told reporters on the last week of public hearings he’s waiting for the final report to pass judgment on whether any good will have come from this incredibly painful process.
“There’s hope. That’s all we’ve had is hope. I mean, we fought hard to get it. We voiced our concerns along the way,” he said. “Me and the other family members I know, that’s all we have left is hope, because we tried every other avenue.”