The inquiry into the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia has revealed two new RCMP miscues that delayed a warning to the public that the killer was driving a replica police car.
In both cases, the commission of inquiry concluded the lapses could not be adequately explained, though it did offer some theories of what went wrong.
The inquiry has heard that on the night of April 18, 2020, officers were dispatched to Portapique, N.S., where they discovered an active shooter had killed several people and set fire to a number of homes. In all, 13 people were murdered in Portapique that night.
But by early the next morning, the killer had yet to be found. Investigators were unaware he was behind the wheel of a car that looked exactly like a marked RCMP patrol car when he escaped out a back road the night before.
The Mounties received a full description of the vehicle after the killer’s spouse emerged from hiding in Portapique at 6:30 a.m., and relatives of the woman provided a photo of the vehicle, which was forwarded to the RCMP at 7:27 a.m.
But that photo was not shared with the public until almost three hours later, a fact that has been the subject of much speculation and public outrage.
In an evidence summary released Tuesday, the inquiry disclosed for the first time that the photo was supposed to be immediately forwarded to Lia Scanlan, the RCMP’s director of strategic communications, but something went wrong.
In a previous interview with commission investigators, RCMP Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum said he forwarded a photo of the killer and a photo of his replica car to Scanlan before 8 a.m. He also recounted how he specifically asked if she had a photo of the car, and she replied that she did not.
“So I sent her a picture of the car,” MacCallum told the commission.
The commission later determined the photo of the killer made it to Scanlan, but the picture of the car went elsewhere. The evidence summary, known as a foundational document, says investigators found that MacCallum sent a second email with both photos at 8:10 a.m.
“It is unknown whether the 8:10 a.m. email and attachment were received by Lia Scanlan,” the document says. “Ms. Scanlan told the Mass Casualty Commission that she was not aware of the perpetrator’s replica RCMP cruiser before 8 a.m.”
Notes that Scanlan took that day say nothing about the photo of the car.
At 8:54 a.m., the RCMP posted a tweet that included a description and a photo of the killer, as well as confirmation that the 51-year-old was armed and dangerous. There was no mention of the vehicle.
Previously released documents and testimony have confirmed there was discussion among senior Mounties who believed that releasing information about the replica vehicle could cause public panic and put police in danger.
“Whether or not there was a decision made at the command post to delay the release of information about the replica RCMP cruiser, it appears the preparations for such a release were underway shortly before 9 a.m. on April 19, 2020,” the foundational document says.
That’s when Cpl. Jennifer Clarke, an RCMP public information officer, emailed Scanlan to provide details about the vehicle. Clarke was told “pull something together” for MacCallum’s approval.
By 9:40 a.m., Clarke sent a draft tweet with a photo of the vehicle to MacCallum, but he did not respond. MacCallum had left the command post in Great Village, N.S., to join the pursuit of the killer, who had been spotted in Wentworth, N.S., where he had fatally shot Lillian Campbell while she was out for her morning walk.
Clarke then contacted Staff Sgt. Steve Halliday, who approved the tweet at 9:49 a.m. But the tweet wasn’t sent until 10:17 a.m., 28 minutes after Halliday granted authorization. No explanation is provided in the foundational document.
The Mounties, however, were dealing with a full-blown crisis at the time. Shortly after 9:30 a.m., a series of 911 calls confirmed the killer had resumed his rampage. Soon after the RCMP learned of Campbell’s death, they were told that a body had been found next to a burning home in West Wentworth, N.S., about six kilometres away.
And just after 10 a.m., police learned of the shooting deaths of Heather O’Brien and Kristen Beaton, who was pregnant at the time. Both were killed on Plains Road in Debert, N.S.
On another front, the commission is looking into what happened after 9:11 a.m. when Chief Supt. Chris Leather, the RCMP’s second-in-command in the province that morning, sent an email requesting a copy of an internal alert sent to police about the suspect and his car.
According to the commission, an investigation is ongoing into Leather’s role “in relation to the release of information about the replica RCMP cruiser.”
During an earlier interview with the commission, Scanlan explained that Twitter has become the RCMP’s main means of communicating with the public over the previous eight or nine years. She noted that she used Twitter to inform the public in June 2014 when a man fatally shot three Mounties in Moncton, N.B., and remained at large for 28 hours.
The Mounties have faced criticism for using Twitter to alert the public during the Nova Scotia mass shooting because the social media platform is not popular among those who live in rural settings and requires constant monitoring to be effective.
When two Mounties fatally shot the killer at a gas station north of Halifax at 11:26 a.m., the RCMP sent out a tweet at 11:40 a.m. saying the “suspect in the active shooter investigation is now in custody.”
Scanlan said the term “in custody” was used because that’s what the communications team was told at the time.
“We didn’t care,” Scanlan said in her interview in September 2021. “We were just told it was over, he’s in custody … so we put it out. There wasn’t like waiting, let’s confirm that he’s dead.”
—Michael MacDonald and Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press