The RCMP are defending a decision not to send out a public alert until late in a gunman’s 12-hour rampage through rural Nova Scotia, in what has become the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history.
On Wednesday, provincial RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather said police were in the process of crafting an alert for the province’s emergency notification system when the killer – who The Globe and Mail has learned had drawn up a list of names of people to target – was gunned down Sunday.
The decision to finally issue an alert came many hours after the province activated its Emergency Management Office (EMO), which had contacted police multiple times about sending an alert but never received a request from the RCMP to do so.
Chief Supt. Leather said delays within the chain of command slowed their ability to get an urgent message out.
“You can appreciate that a series of phone calls had to be made to find the officer in charge that evening and to speak to the serious incident commander to have the conversation about the issuing of a message,” he said. “A lot of the delay was based on communications between the EMO and the various officers – and then a discussion about how the message would be constructed and what it would say.”
The RCMP initially chose to spread the information via Twitter, instead of a system that would have sent warnings out to cellphones across the province. It’s not clear why the RCMP changed their approach and decided to plan to use the provincial alert network.
Families of some victims have wondered aloud whether some of the 22 people killed over the weekend may have been spared if more people had known a gunman was on the loose.
The Chief Superintendent, however, said he was “very satisfied” with the messaging that went out to officers and to the public on Twitter, and reiterated that those involved in the response were processing information that was changing very quickly.
“Twitter allowed our information to be shared, followed and broadcast by local, provincial and national news outlets,” Chief Supt. Leather said. “From that initial call, our response was dynamic and fluid, with members using their training to assess what was going on while encountering the unimaginable."
While Nova Scotians found out a killer was on the loose through social media or phone calls from friends, the U.S. Consulate in Halifax sent e-mail alerts to its citizens warning of the danger.
The Globe learned Wednesday that the gunman had gathered a list of people to target, according to one of his would-be victims.
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Nathan Staples, a man from Glenholme, N.S., who lives about 15 minutes from where the killing began Saturday night, said investigators told him Tuesday that they found his name on a list obtained when the RCMP searched the Portapique property of the shooter, a 51-year-old denturist.
Mr. Staples believes this is why a heavily armed tactical officer appeared at his home after midnight Saturday, while the killer was still on the loose, having evaded police while driving a look-alike RCMP cruiser and wearing an officer’s uniform. His neighbours did not have a similar visit, he said.
“The investigator said I was seventh or eighth on the list. I didn’t know what to think,” Mr. Staples said. “He came to apologize. He said ‘we’re sorry we couldn’t have been there quicker.’ That’s when I got angry.”
He and the shooter once shared an interest in old police cars, but Mr Staples says he can’t guess why gunman Gabriel Wortman would have had him on a list – other than a few months earlier, he had declined to sell a used police car to him. The RCMP said they couldn’t discuss any specifics of their investigation.
There are growing questions around others areas of the Mounties’ manhunt – including how the killer managed to evade police for as long as he did, escaping a perimeter around the initial shootings.
“How was this allowed to happen?” Mr. Staples said. “How could they not stop it? How could this go on for more than 12 hours, when this guy was still out there, shooting people? This was a royal screw-up.”
Police have determined that the gunman acted alone. But investigators are still trying to learn whether anyone assisted him leading up to the incident, and declined to reveal the type of guns used by the shooter.
At times during the chaotic hours after the shootings began, it wasn’t always clear who police were chasing. At one point during the manhunt, two Mounties shot bullets into a fire hall in Lower Onslow, N.S. The hall was being used as a Red Cross registration centre for evacuees from the Portapique area.
While no one was injured, that incident is now under investigation by the civilian oversight agency for police in Nova Scotia.
“We don’t know what they were shooting at,” said Pat Curran, interim director of the Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT), an independent body that investigates police actions. “We just know that the suspect was not in the area at that time.”
Four people, including one evacuee from Portapique Beach Road and Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade Chief Greg Muise, were inside the fire hall when gunfire exploded into the building Sunday at 10:30 a.m.
The RCMP has declined to answer questions about what happened. For the past two days, calls from the public have lit up Mr. Muise’s phone.
“I shouldn’t be the one getting calls,” Mr. Muise said. “[RCMP] should be the ones putting it out and letting people know what happened and they seem to be lagging on it.”
A streak of more than a dozen bullet holes perforate the white vinyl siding near the front entrance of the hall, where flags flew at half-mast. The east side of the building was also hit, and bullets shattered the front windshield of a fire truck.
Mr. Muise said the gunman was caught on video travelling past the fire hall, which is 28 kilometres east of Portapique, before the shootout.
“All I know is our building was shot up and I was never told who did the firing,” he said.
SIRT is also asking RCMP for clarification on injuries to a civilian during the initial shootings and arson when the killings started around Mr. Wortman’s rural home in Portapique.
One man who drove to the scene to help Saturday night had his vehicle fired upon – causing injuries that sent him to hospital. He was treated and released, but declined to talk about what happened.
Family of volunteer firefighter Corrie Ellison, who was among those killed Saturday night, wondered whether an emergency alert could have saved lives. They’re still looking for answers.
“We don’t really know a whole lot about what happened,” said Ellison’s aunt, Doris Ellison. “This has been an awful shock to the family.”
Police, meanwhile, are trying to piece together the connection between the victims, some of whom knew the killer, and some who appeared to have no connection at all. Among the victims are Lisa McCully, a school teacher, who rented a cottage from him on an adjacent property in Portapique. She was one of 13 neighbours killed in the area immediately surrounding the gunman’s home, as he lit houses on fire and shot people outside.
In some cases, the gunman drove significant distances to find his victims. Shawn McLeod, a former hunting buddy, was killed along with his wife, Alanna Jenkins, at their house in Wentworth, more than 50 kilometres from the killer’s home in Portapique. Their neighbour, Tom Bagley, was killed when he ran over to help Sunday morning.
Gina Goulet, a fellow denturist, was killed at her bungalow in the countryside outside Shubenacadie, more than 75 kms away from Portapique. It was also in Shubenacadie that the killer was in a shootout with the RCMP – a violent exchange that left Constable Heidi Stevenson dead and another Mountie injured. He wasn’t stopped until he reached Enfield, about half an hour north of Halifax, where two officers shot him dead.
Other shootings appeared to be completely random, including Lillian Hyslop, shot while walking her dog, a father named Joey Webber, out Sunday morning to get some furnace oil, and three people pulled over at the side of the road.
Cyndi Starratt is one of the few people who live on Portapique Beach Road who survived. She was in Truro at her daughter’s house that night, and said she’s lucky to be alive.
“I’d like to think he wouldn’t have hurt us,” she said. “But I can’t put myself inside his head. They were all good folks that he killed.”
With a report from The Canadian Press
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