Blue Line

N.S. mass shooting inquiry: RCMP officers doubted reports about replica police car

March 29, 2022  By The Canadian Press

Mar. 28, 2022, Halifax, N.S. – The first three RCMP officers who responded to the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting testified Monday they were initially doubtful the killer was in a marked RCMP vehicle, even though a dispatcher relayed that information from two 911 calls.

Const. Stuart Beselt, the team leader the night of April 18, 2020, told the inquiry that as the three were driving at top speed to the scene of the initial shootings in rural Portapique, N.S., they had to keep an open mind about what they were being told.

“We were open to the possibility of anything at that point in time,” he 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.”

Const. Aaron Patton agreed.

“I think it would have been irresponsible of us to be closed-minded to the fact that it could only be an exact replica,” Patton told the inquiry. He said if the three officers had encountered the vehicle in the darkened enclave west of Truro, N.S., they probably would have hesitated to open fire on the suspect, making them easy targets for the gunman.

“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,” Patton testified.

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

Beselt was more blunt: “We would have been shot? There’s no doubt he would have gotten the jump on us.”

Beselt and Patton offered their testimony along with Const. Adam Merchant as members of a witness panel, answering questions from inquiry lawyer Roger Burrill. Their testimony marked the first time the inquiry, which began Feb. 22, has heard from anyone directly involved in the worst mass shooting in modern Canadian history.

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

In the second half of Monday morning’s testimony, Beselt was asked about his decision to proceed straight down the main road – Portapique Beach Road – rather than turn left at an intersection on Orchard Beach Drive, which is the road where the first 911 call came from Jamie Blair, just before she was fatally shot in her home.

Beselt said the team was trained to go after the active shooter, and as a result, he and Merchant, who were joined by Patton within minutes, proceeded straight ahead toward the sound of gunshots and fires.

“Your main goal is not (to reach) people who have been shot at that point in time. Your main goal is to prevent someone from being shot,” Beselt said.

According to summaries released earlier by the inquiry, the killer – unbeknownst to the RCMP officers – had retreated down the main road in his vehicle, made his way through a wooded area and had shifted over to Orchard Beach Drive, where he would kill Corrie Ellison at about 10:40 p.m.

Burrill asked the three witnesses whether it would have helped to have had a second team of officers to cover more of the subdivision.

The commission has received written evidence – confirmed in testimony on Monday – that Beselt’s full team was to be six, but was operating at a “minimum” level of four. The commission’s timeline has also indicated that the first three officers were on their own amid the chaos and fires for more than 90 minutes after their initial entry on foot.

Beselt gave a conditional answer to Burrill’s question about whether added officers could have assisted, saying there was a risk two teams could have shot at each other.

“If I knew where they (other officers) were, I’d love to have another team in there. If I don’t know where they are and I have an opportunity where we’re going to run into each other, then no,” Beselt said.

However, Robert Pineo, the lawyer for 14 of the 22 victims’ families, questioned the officers on whether they were aware that the radios they were carrying had a GPS system that would have allowed supervisors to track them. The lawyer noted the systems hadn’t been activated.

All three said they hadn’t been aware of that capability, and all three also agreed with Pineo’s statements that the technology could have allowed a second team to safely operate.

The three constables also testified they didn’t have access to night vision goggles on the night of April 18, 2020. All three testified the goggles could have been helpful as they attempted to find the perpetrator in the dark.

Near the end of their testimony, the three officers said they felt there was nothing substantial they would have changed in their response to the shooting.

Asked if there was anything further he would like the public to know about his team’s experience that night, Beselt praised the commission for accurately reflecting his team’s account of what occurred.

“It wasn’t told at the beginning and led to a lot of conspiracy (theories) that RCMP didn’t react in an appropriate way,” Beselt said. “I was glad to see we were finally being acknowledged for going in.”

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

The gunman took a little-used dirt road to reach the 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.

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