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What the RCMP knew and didn’t tell the public in days after NS mass shooting

The RCMP intentionally held back key details — including the number of victims — and evaded questions officers knew the answers to in the early days following the Nova Scotia mass shooting in April 2020, a public inquiry into the tragedy has been found.

The Mass Casualty Commission released its report Tuesday on the way the RCMP and government communicated about the April 18-19, 2020, rampage that left several people injured, homes destroyed and 22 people dead, including a pregnant woman.

The records show the public statements top Mounties made in the aftermath of the killings did not reflect the latest information they’d been briefed on internally or the information officers had gathered behind the scenes.

During the first press conference the evening of April 19, 2020, Chief Supt. Chris Leather told reporters “in excess of” 10 people had died and the investigation was ongoing. When asked if he knew the total, Leather said he did n’t know and “we’re not fully aware of what that total may be.”

He said the number could go up and bodies could be found on some of the burned properties.

But that wasn’t the full picture.

Number of victims held back

The public inquiry found that “internal knowledge shared” with Leather an hour before that press conference “suggested the victim count was at least 17,” and that he’d known for hours his officers had discovered at least 14 bodies.

Lia Scanlan, the civilian director of Nova Scotia RCMP’s strategic communications, told the commission in an interview they decided on the number 10 — not based on whether families had been notified, but because they needed to settle on a number and send their speaking notes to be translated into French.

She said they knew the body count would change and the plan had been to provide an updated total the following day.

But things didn’t go according to plan because that night, the top-ranking Mountie in the country, Commissioner Brenda Lucki, shared information about a higher total with some media outlets — first 13 and then 17.

The inquiry found some news organizations were confused about whether the total Lucki released included the gunman. For instance, that night CBC News reported Lucki said the death toll stood at 16, plus the shooter.

Death toll had already risen

The public inquiry has found that by 7 pm AT, the RCMP knew Const. Heidi Stevenson and 17 other people were dead and Lucki released that number.

By 11 pm, police had discovered all 17 crime scenes and knew there were potentially 22 victims, plus the gunman. Eight of the gunman’s victims were discovered in or near structures that burned.

Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19, 2020. Top row from left: Gina Goulet, Dawn Gulenchyn, Jolene Oliver, Frank Gulenchyn, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins. Second row: John Zahl, Lisa McCully, Joey Webber, Heidi Stevenson, Heather O’Brien and Jamie Blair. Third row from top: Kristen Beaton, Lillian Campbell, Joanne Thomas, Peter Bond, Tom Bagley and Greg Blair. Bottom row: Emily Tuck, Joy Bond, Corrie Ellison and Aaron Tuck. (CBC)

The RCMP’s investigative log said “confirmation with family members is still needed to determine the exact number of deceased parties,” the inquiry found.

Meanwhile, the inconsistencies prompted a flurry of media inquiries to the RCMP.

“It looks awful and I’ve had to ask my entire team to turn their phones off as a result. Lord help me!!” Scanlan wrote to her counterpart of her based at RCMP headquarters in Ottawa.

Wander on history of violence

In that first press conference, Leather said the gunman was not known to police. The chief superintendent also said he wasn’t aware of a history of violence.

But the inquiry has found that behind the scenes, RCMP officers had already pulled together records related to Gabriel Wortman’s past dealings with police officers and others.

Not long after RCMP officers shot and killed the gunman at a gas station in Enfield, NS, another Nova Scotia Mountie found Wortman had previously been charged with assaulting a teenager in Dartmouth and received a conditional discharge. The gunman completed probation, but it did not leave him with a criminal record.

Another officer pulled together a profile summarizing the gunman’s interactions with Halifax Regional Police, including a 2010 complaint that he threatened his parents. The profile included mention of Const. Greg Wiley being “a friend” of the gunman and never having seen firearms at his cottage in Portapique.

The same profile summarized a March 2011 tip that the gunman wanted to “kill a cop” and possibly had guns at his cottage in Portapique.

The RCMP would not address that tip until months later after CBC News obtained a copy of the 2011 police bulletin through freedom-of-information legislation. At the time, RCMP said the bulletin had been routinely purged from their system and they didn’t have access to it while responding to the mass shooting.

Earlier interaction with police

Before the deadly confrontation with RCMP officers in Enfield, the gunman’s most recent interaction with police occurred outside his denture clinic in Dartmouth in February 2020. Halifax officers described a man who became “extremely irate and shaking” because they parked in his business lot. The man refused to remove a chain to let the officers out.

The inquiry records do not specify whether Leather was briefed on this information or sent the profile by email.

On April 21, 2020, the RCMP publicly stated the gunman did not have a criminal record and did not include any reference to how he was charged with assault or investigated for making threats or having guns, the inquiry found.

5 press conferences in April

In the week that followed, the RCMP held four more press conferences: on April 20, 22, 24 and 28.

On April 20, RCMP communications officials in Ottawa agreed to defer questions to their counterparts in Nova Scotia.

But prior to an afternoon press conference, Lucki once again released information about the number of victims, saying 18 people plus the gunman were dead. The prime minister echoed that number in a COVID-19 briefing.

When Leather spoke at the media briefing, he said there were “in excess of 19 victims.” He also said they were all adults, although Emily Tuck was 17 years old.

By then, RCMP officers knew her age and had notified Tuck’s relatives of her death and that of her parents. The inquiry noted a GoFundMe page publicly stated her age.

Knew teen was among victims

Leather’s own handwritten notes from April 20 referenced to “teenage female” among the confirmed dead.

Internally, RCMP Staff Sgt. Steve Halliday emailed two colleagues asking about the discrepancy and Sgt. Laura Seeley responded that Leather “released what he felt confirming at the time.”

It’s not clear from the commission documents why Leather stuck to referencing more than 19 when the previous night investigators had said 22.

On April 21, the Nova Scotia RCMP said in a Facebook post there were 22 victims and clarified one victim was 17.

Information about replica cruiser

One of the primary issues raised by families of people killed on the second day of the rampage is why the RCMP did not warn the public earlier that the gunman was driving a replica police cruiser. Three people had mentioned a type of police car being involved within a half-hour of the first 911 call.

During the April 20 press conference, Leather said the mock cruiser was “first reported to us early in the morning [of April 19]”and he never explained where the photo that RCMP released of the gunman’s vehicle came from.

RCMP Nova Scotia tweeted the photo of the gunman’s replica police cruiser at 10:17 am on April 19, 2020. (RCMP Nova Scotia/Twitter)

On April 22, Leather clarified that details about the gunman having a police car and uniform “came in their totality to us early in the morning of Sunday [April 19]after a key witness was located and interviewed.”

In response to a question about why it took so long to inform the public, Leather said “once that information was compiled, it was immediately tweeted by our communications section.”

That wasn’t exactly true as it was nearly three hours after RCMP obtained a photo of the cruiser that they tweeted out a picture warning the public.

On April 24, Supt. Darren Campbell reiterated that the “critical” details of the car, like its photo, “didn’t emerge until the early morning hours of the 19th.”

He also said the officers in charge believed they had accounted for all the gunman’s decommissioned cruisers and factored it into the consideration of notifying the public.

Top Mountie expressed disappointment

On April 28, Assistant Commissioner Lee Bergerman, Leather, Campbell and Scanlan had a conference call with RCMP headquarters. According to inquiry documents, Lucki expressed disappointment in that phone call about the press briefings carried out by Nova Scotia RCMP.

“In particular, Lucki felt that the Nova Scotia RCMP had disobeyed her instructions to include specific information on the firearms used by the perpetrator,” states a summary by the Mass Casualty Commission.

In his notes, Campbell wrote he had told the RCMP Strategic Communications Unit not to release information about the perpetrator’s firearms out of concern that it would jeopardize the ongoing investigation.

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