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RCMP Const. Aaron Patton, one of the first officers on the scene in Portapique, fields a question at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18/19, 2020, in Halifax on Monday, March 28, 2022.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Three RCMP officers who were the first on the scene at a mass shooting that terrorized Nova Scotia two years ago testified on Monday that they almost shot the wrong man during the chaotic response to the rampage, which one described as being like a war zone.

The testimony was the first to be given before the Mass Casualty Commission, an independent inquiry into the attack, which began public hearings on Feb. 22. The federal and provincial governments established the commission after victims’ families criticized police for not being forthcoming with information about the incident, during which a gunman, Gabriel Wortman, used a replica police vehicle to slip past authorities and continue killing. He murdered 22 people over a 13-hour period before RCMP officers shot him dead.

Police missteps are a central issue for the commission, which is tasked with making recommendations to prevent similar tragedies in the future. The RCMP union fought to keep the officers from testifying, arguing that their appearance at the inquiry would be retraumatizing – a suggestion that deeply angered many of those who lost loved ones.

The Mounties described a tense scene in Portapique, N.S., a rural beachside community west of Truro that was the starting point of the attack on April 18, 2020. They recalled aiming their weapons at a man as he walked down a road in the dark. As they were lying flat on a lawn, with gunshots echoing around them and buildings on fire, they thought they were looking at the killer.

Instead, they were moments away from opening fire on Clinton Ellison, who had just discovered the body of his brother, Corrie Ellison, in the road. Fearing for his own life, Mr. Ellison turned off his flashlight and hid in the woods.

“We were getting ready to shoot him,” said RCMP Constable Stuart Beselt, who was the shift supervisor that night. “If he would’ve ran, we would’ve shot him … I’m very thankful I didn’t shoot.”

The officers said they pursued Mr. Ellison, still thinking he was the killer, but stopped short of chasing him through the woods because they were worried about their own safety.

“It would be suicide,” Constable Beselt said. “It was self-preservation at that point.” He testified that he did not learn for two more days that Mr. Ellison wasn’t the gunman.

The commission’s counsel, Roger Burrill, pressed the officers on their response that night, asking them why they were initially doubtful the killer was in a marked RCMP vehicle, even though a dispatcher relayed that information from two 911 calls.

Constable Beselt told the inquiry that he and his two colleagues were driving to the scene at speeds of more than 160 kilometres an hour, and that they had to keep an open mind about what they were being told. He said he would never have imagined the suspect’s vehicle would turn out to be an exact replica of a fully marked RCMP police cruiser, complete with emergency lights and reflective decals.

The inquiry heard that all three officers were concerned the description of the vehicle was misleading, because people suffering from mental illness often make exaggerated complaints to the police.

“We were open to the possibility of anything at that point in time,” Constable Beselt testified. “But were we specifically thinking that he had a mocked-up police car that was in every way exactly like a police car? No. It was surprising to us.”

Constable Beselt and his colleagues, constables Aaron Patton and Adam Merchant, told the inquiry that if they had encountered that vehicle in the dark, they probably would have hesitated to open fire, which would have made them easy targets for the gunman.

“We would have been shot,” Constable Beselt said. “There’s no doubt he would have gotten the jump on us.”

They also worried about shooting one of their own, Constable Patton explained.

“If we would have crossed paths with him that night and came upon an identical, marked-up vehicle like ours, we would have treated it as the threat, but it would have been difficult to take action on it, feeling like maybe it’s a co-worker that’s made it in there before us,” he testified.

“I strongly believe that we would have been injured.”

Constable Patton expressed regret that he and his colleagues had left four children behind in a home for several hours while they searched for the gunman in the community. The children’s parents had been killed. The Mounties told them to lock the house’s doors and hide in the basement until officers returned.

“That was the single hardest decision we made that night,” he said. “We were worried non-stop after leaving the house that something was going to happen to those kids.”

Police eventually evacuated the children, using one of their parents’ cars. The Mounties had ditched their own vehicles before entering the community, worried the marked RCMP cruisers would make them easy targets.

Lawyers for some of the victims’ families have said they are worried the inquiry’s rules will limit their ability to directly question the officers and other witnesses. The inquiry’s three commissioners have said participating lawyers must ask permission before they can cross-examine witnesses, a rule that is unusual for public inquiries.

In previous statements, the three officers confirmed that, within minutes of arriving in Portapique at 10:25 p.m., they had donned body armour, armed themselves with semi-automatic carbines and quickly moved into a forested subdivision where a suspect was in the process of fatally shooting 13 people and setting fire to several homes.

The killer escaped in the replica police car within 20 minutes of the three officers’ arrival. They were joined by a fourth officer, who stood guard at what they thought was the only entrance to the subdivision.

The gunman took a little-used dirt road to reach a main highway. He spent the night in his vehicle, which he parked behind a welding shop in Debert, N.S., about 24 kilometres away.

The next day, he resumed his rampage, killing another nine people in northern and central Nova Scotia before he was shot by an RCMP officer while attempting to refuel a stolen vehicle at a gas station north of Halifax.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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