Watchdog clears RCMP officers who shot at N.S. firehall during mass shootings

Nova Scotia’s police watchdog has cleared the two RCMP officers who shot at a fire hall in Onslow, N.S., during the hunt for an active gunman last April, saying the Mounties had reasonable grounds to believe a man outside the hall, which was being used as a shelter, was the killer.

The 10-month investigation by the Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) found the two officers — who drove up to the Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade Hall in an unmarked vehicle — had yelled “Police!” and “Show your hands!” at a man who was dressed in a safety vest similar to one worn by the suspect they sought. The agency determined they opened fire because the civilian ducked behind a police cruiser and ran inside the hall.

“The investigation found that based on everything the officers had seen and heard since coming on duty and what they had observed at the time, they had reasonable grounds to believe that the male was the killer and someone who would continue his killing rampage,” SIRT director Felix Cacchione said in a press release.

“They discharged their weapons in order to prevent further deaths or serious injuries.”

The watchdog agency concluded that no criminal offences were committed and there were no grounds for criminal charges.

That morning, April 19, 2020, police in Nova Scotia were searching for a gunman travelling between communities shooting strangers while disguised as an RCMP officer. It would end up being the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history. Thirteen hours after it began in nearby Portapique, 22 people were dead.

Gabriel Wortman is currently in the <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/CentralOnslow?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#CentralOnslow</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Debert?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Debert</a> area in a vehicle that may resemble what appears to be an RCMP vehicle &amp; may be wearing what appears to be an RCMP uniform. Please stay inside and avoid the area. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/RCMPNS?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#RCMPNS</a>

&mdash;@RCMPNS

But when shots rang out at the fire hall, the man responsible for those deaths wasn’t there. Two Mounties fired at a bystander who was close to the hall near a parked RCMP cruiser, in which another Mountie sat.

The hall had been opened as a safe gathering place for people who couldn’t return home to Portapique and the RCMP officer was stationed there to keep them safe. When the gunfire started, the fire brigade’s chief and deputy chief were inside with a man whose family member was killed the night before.

At the same time the two officers were firing — 10:21 a.m. AT — Nova Scotia RCMP had tweeted that the gunman was “currently in the Central Onslow Debert area.”

Two firefighters inside the hall looked to Twitter for information and assumed the actual gunman was firing in their direction. For an hour, they waited for more information, crouched behind tables inside the hall, terrified.

No one inside or outside the hall was hurt, but bullets peppered the hall’s siding over a distance of several metres. The shots went through one of the big bay doors and punctured a fire truck’s windshield, fender and engine.

Shots also pierced an electronic welcome sign close to the road, more than 60 metres from where the cruiser was parked, and a granite monument by the building’s entrance.

The SIRT report does not identify the two officers who fired their weapons. It says both had been called into work at 3 a.m. AT and drove together in a unmarked Nissan Altima to a makeshift command centre at the fire hall in Great Village.

There they were briefed on the situation and learned RCMP believed five people had been killed by a heavily armed gunman in Portapique.

Police later learned Gabriel Wortman had killed 13 of his neighbours in the community that Saturday night.

In the morning, one of the Mounties spoke to Wortman’s spouse, Lisa Banfield, who relayed that he had been wearing an orange safety vest and driving a replica police cruiser.

Later, after learning about shots fired in Debert, where two women would be found dead in their vehicles, the two Mounties headed toward Onslow, searching for the gunman, according to the SIRT report.

Debert is midway between Glenholme and Onslow, which are about 14 kilometres apart.

The bystander who the Mounties mistook for the gunman, seen here in surveillance video, ran inside the fire hall. (Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade surveillance cameras)

It’s not clear from the SIRT report if the two Mounties knew what the fire hall was being used for. However, the SIRT investigation reviewed all radio transmissions sent that morning. It found that when the pair was working on April 19, there were 2245 radio communications and only two related to the fire hall in Onslow being used as a comfort centre. The analysis found that neither mentioned “that security would be present at the fire hall.”

As the Mounties approached from the west, they stopped in the middle of the road after seeing the cruiser parked outside and a man standing near the driver’s side door in a reflective vest. He “was dressed in a fashion similar to other accounts of how the killer was dressed,” SIRT found.

“They could not tell if the driver’s side door was open or if anyone was in the car because they were over 88 meters away and facing the passenger side of that vehicle,” according to the report.

The SIRT investigation said the two Mounties had a radio in their vehicle and a portable radio but ran into problems trying to communicate what they were seeing at the hall.

The watchdog agency said they yelled at the man outside the hall and he “did not show his hands but rather ducked behind the marked police car then popped up and ran toward the fire hall entrance.” In response, one Mountie fired his rifle four times and the other fired once.

“The evidence establishes that the [two Mounties] had reasonable grounds to believe the person they saw, who was disobeying their orders, was the mass murderer who had, in the preceding hour, killed three more persons,” the report concluded.

One witness said she counted 32 bullet holes in signs at the fire hall. Repairing the damage cost $39,000 which the fire brigade says the RCMP paid. (Submitted by Sharon McLellan)

Firefighters ‘frustrated and disappointed’

The Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade said the SIRT findings have left them “frustrated and disappointed that there will be no accountability for the RCMP.”

“Their actions that day endangered lives, damaged property and caused mental health issues for many of the people involved,” the brigade said in a statement posted to their Facebook page.

The post went on to say that the volunteer brigade “will move past will move past the horrific events of that day and we will continue to act in an accountable, safe and professional manner with all our first responder partners and our community.”

Deputy fire chief Darrell Currie, who was among those inside the hall during the shooting, said he and Chief Greg Muise would not comment further.

Radio problems

In addition to looking at the mentions of the fire hall as a comfort centre, SIRT examined transcripts of all the 7731 radio transmissions sent over the Colchester, East Hants and Emergency Response Team radio channels during the 13-hour period following the first 911 call in Portapique.

The agency’s report said they contained an “overwhelming volume of information.”

It found that of the 70 radio transmissions the two officers who fired in Onslow tried to make that morning, only 34 came across with audio. The other half were recorded as having no audio.

The two officers reported they were “bonged out” when they tried to communicate — on the mobile radio in their vehicle and the portable radio they carried — about what they were seeing. SIRT determined this happens when “either the radio is in a poor coverage area and cannot communicate with the radio Tower or the radio Tower is at capacity and does not have an available talk path.”

A subsequent test at the site during the SIRT investigation determined poor coverage wasn’t a problem in the area. The report concluded “there was no available talk path due to the heavy volume of radio traffic”

SIRT’s analysis also found that the RCMP officer who was stationed outside the fire hall tried to communicate three times in the span of 10 seconds while shots were being fired. It found one of those messages was audible, one could only partly be made out and a third was inaudible.

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