Late in the evening of Saturday, April 18, 2020, a gunman embarked upon one of the deadliest killing sprees in modern Canadian history.
Thirteen hours later it was over, leaving scars on the rural community of Portapique, N.S., the province and the entire country.
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Twenty-two people lost their lives that weekend. Many more people lost someone they loved.
In Episode 9 of 13 Hours: Too Little, Too Late, we explore the RCMP’s communication with the public and the fact that no emergency alert was issued. We also learn about four more of the victims killed by the gunman.
Too Little, Too Late
At 11:32 p.m. on April 18, Nova Scotia RCMP sent out a tweet that said they were responding to a “firearms complaint” in Portapique, where 13 people had just been killed by a gunman in a murderous rampage.
At the time, police knew who their suspect was and that he was driving what looked like a police cruiser, court documents and witness statements reveal.
For the next eight and a half hours, while police searched for the gunman, no one from the RCMP communicated with the public.
Then, at 8:02 a.m. on April 19, the RCMP sent out another tweet that said police were on scene in Portapique responding to an “active shooter” situation.
The tweet asked residents in the area to remain inside and to lock their doors. The tweet did not mention the suspect’s name, nor did it mention he was likely driving a look-alike RCMP cruiser.
The RCMP would decide instead, at the time, to share this detailed information only with other law enforcement partners.
At 8:07 a.m. — just five minutes later — the RCMP sent a bulletin to all police forces in Nova Scotia telling them to “be on the lookout” for Wortman.
The bulletin said Wortman was “armed and dangerous,” very familiar with firearms, and wanted for homicide. It also said that he was possibly driving a “fully marked” Ford Taurus police car, with badge number 28B11, and that he could be “anywhere in the province.”
“The last information given (the suspect) was loading firearms into that vehicle,” the bulletin said.
It wasn’t until 8:54 a.m. that police sent out another tweet naming Wortman as their suspect.
The RCMP then sent a tweet at 10:17 a.m. that said Wortman may be driving a mock police cruiser and wearing what appeared to be a police uniform.
Wortman murdered three, or possibly four, people between the time the RCMP told local police forces about the mock police vehicle and when they issued the tweet warning the public about this same information.
The RCMP did not answer any questions about why details about Wortman and his vehicle were not shared with the public sooner.
Canada has a nationwide alert system designed to warn citizens of everything from missing or abducted children to natural disasters and terrorist attacks.
The system was designed in collaboration with all levels of government and police forces, including the RCMP.
One of the things the system is meant to be used for is a “civil emergency.” This includes anything related to urgent law enforcement investigations, public safety experts say, such as an active shooter situation.
But the RCMP didn’t use the alert system at any point during the 13-hour manhunt for the gunman.
At an April 20 press conference, RCMP Chief Superintendent Chris Leather said that police regularly use Twitter to communicate with the public and that it is a “superior” way to share information instantaneously.
The RCMP also acknowledged there’s no national policy explaining how or when the emergency alert system should be used.
The force has, however, committed to developing one.
But for Darcy Dobson, whose mother Heather O’Brien was murdered by the gunman on April 19, this isn’t good enough.
Dobson said that if an alert had been sent, her mom would still be alive.
“I will always believe that the alert would have saved my mother’s life and the lives of anybody outside of Portapique,” Dobson said.
“Nothing that you could ever say to me … would make me not believe that.
“She had no reason to leave the house except to check on her children and grandchildren, which she thought she was safe to do because the threat was in Portapique, which is the deadly assumption made by the RCMP.”
Dobson isn’t the only person who feels this way.
Nick Beaton, whose pregnant wife Kristen was murdered by the gunman on April 19, also said an emergency alert would have saved lives.
“I wish with my whole soul none of it happened to anybody,” he said.
“Why would you even debate on warning the general public?”
The RCMP has said it was “very satisfied” with its communications during the manhunt, including communications with the public.
During the same April 22 press conference, Leather told reporters that the communications offered that weekend were the “best and clearest information that could be provided.”
The RCMP’s failure to use the emergency alert system is one of the topics the joint federal and provincial public inquiry into the killing spree will consider.
The inquiry, which has not yet started hearings, is required to deliver an interim report by May 2022 and a final report six months later.
Tom Bagley was a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces who served in the navy. He was also a volunteer firefighter.
On the morning of April 19, Tom ran toward the flames at the home of Sean McLeod and Alanna Jenkins, who were also killed by the gunman.
Tom was just shy of his 71st birthday. He died trying to help his neighbours.
Tom’s daughter Charlene Bagley said he and her mother were together for nearly 50 years. He loved being outside, hunting, fishing, snowboarding and biking.
Lillian Campbell, 65, lived in the Yukon for nearly three decades before moving to Nova Scotia.
Lillian was a retired public health worker. She and her husband Mike Hyslop moved to a home in Wentworth when they inherited property in the province.
The pair created a beautiful garden and loved being close to the beaches.
During their time in the North, Lillian was active in the dog mushing community. She and Mike raised sled dogs for years.
“Lillian was a gentle person, sweet lady, very community-spirited,” said Heather Matthews, who knew her from around the neighbourhood. “She walked almost every day.”
Heather O’Brien was a 55-year-old nurse and a Reiki master. She was a mother of eight who spoiled her 12 grandchildren.
Her daughter, Darcy Dobson, said she was the glue that kept their family together.
“She loves to feed everybody,” Darcy said. “So anytime we could come together for a meal or a barbecue or have all the kids in one place, I think that’s probably when she was at her happiest — when she knew where all of her children and grandchildren were.”
During the early days of the pandemic, Heather made a weekly route to see her family, bringing coffee and talking to them through the window.
She was a front-line health care worker so she worried about putting her family at risk of being exposed to COVID-19.
Kristen and Nick Beaton had just found out they were expecting their second child at the time of Kristen’s death.
Kristen, 33, was already “the most amazing mom” to their son Dax, Nick said.
“She took it to a whole other level that I’ve never, never seen anyone take it,” he said.
Kristen was passionate about her work as a continuing care assistant and went above and beyond for her clients.
In the early days of the pandemic, Kristen was one of many health care workers across Canada raising awareness about a shortage in personal protective equipment.
Nick said he sees so much of Kristen in their son.
“As long as he’s here, she’ll never totally be gone,” he said.
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