Court document casts doubts on RCMP decisions as Nova Scotia mass shooting was unfolding

RCMP were told early on by witnesses who had been shot at by gunman Gabriel Wortman that he was driving a replica police car, but the public wasn't notified for nearly 12 hours

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      By Enzo DiMatteo

      Psychopath. Controlling. Paranoid. Disturbed. Abusive. Intelligent. Millionaire.

      These are just a few of the words used by former friends and acquaintances of Gabriel Wortman, the Nova Scotia denturist who went on a shooting rampage last month that ended in Canada’s deadliest mass murder.

      The descriptions are found in a search warrant document released by a Nova Scotia judge earlier this week as part of an application filed by a number of media organizations seeking information on what led to the killings. The legal proceeding forms the backdrop to a widening RCMP probe into the killing spree as more questions are being asked about the actions of police during Wortman’s murderous tear.

      The 40-page document provides the most detailed glimpse yet into the frightening 13-hour rampage that left 22 people dead, including RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson, a number of people injured and several structures up in flames.

      But while media reports have so far focused on building a psychological profile of the killer, the document is also shining a harsh light on the RCMP’s decision not to notify the public sooner that a killer posing as one of them was on the loose.

      According to the document, parts of which have been redacted by provincial and federal Crown prosecutors, police were told by witnesses early on in the rampage that Wortman was driving an RCMP replica cruiser, but failed to issue a public notice until almost 12 hours later via Twitter, when the shooting spree was almost over. Their first public notice issued by the RCMP on Twitter characterized the situation as a "firearms complaint" and advised residents to lock their doors and stay indoors. It wasn't until 7 am the next morning that the RCMP issued a warning via Twitter of an "active shooter." The RCMP identified Wortman as the shooter at 9 am.

      The search warrant document is part of a batch of some seven search warrants executed by the RCMP on properties owned by Wortman. Media organizations are seeking the release of the others as well. The document sets out information obtained by the RCMP from witness interviews. Its release comes as calls for a full-fledged public inquiry into the mass shooting, including from family members of at least two of the victims, grow louder.

      Nova Scotia premier Stephen McNeil expressed his own concerns in the days following the shooting about why the public wasn’t notified earlier. But McNeil told CTV News this week that it would be up to Ottawa to order an inquiry.

      The head of the union representing RCMP officers questioned the need for an inquiry in an interview. But calls for a full-scale review are becoming harder to ignore as more details become public and the RCMP’s role comes under increasing scrutiny. 

      RCMP didn't know Wortman had a fourth replica police car

      The court document released this week, for example, raises a number of questions about command decisions made by the RCMP on the night of April 18 and into the early morning hours on April 19 as the rampage was unfolding.

      It reveals that two acquaintances of Wortman’s saw a “huge” fire coming from the area of his cottage in Portapique at approximately 10 p.m. on the night of April 18. They got in a car to go take a closer look.

      As they drove toward the fire, they passed what looked like an RCMP cruiser in front of a house that belonged to Wortman’s neighbour. They assumed the cruiser was waiting for firefighters to arrive. A little further down the road, Wortman’s garage was “engulfed” in flames. They called 911 and were told that a report on the fire had already been received.

      They made a U-turn and drove back up the road when they noticed the kitchen of the house where the cruiser was parked was also on fire. The RCMP vehicle was still in the driveway but the person inside was just sitting there. That’s when they say the cruiser circled the driveway and approached them, pulling up alongside their car. They rolled down their windows to talk but before they could say anything the man in the cruiser pulled a gun and opened fire, getting off “two or three” shots.

      They say they were able to duck and speed away up the road where they encountered an RCMP vehicle responding to the 911 call. They told the officers in the car what had happened and that they weren’t sure but they thought the shooter was Gabriel Wortman, and that he had a look-alike police car. They told the police that “Gabe had been working on it [the car] for a long time.”

      Why wasn't the public notified sooner that a killer in a lookalike RCMP vehicle impersonating one of their own was on the loose?

      According to a statement provided by RCMP public information officer Lisa Croteau, police looked into the gunman's background "as soon as a witness told officers the suspect was driving what looked like a police vehicle... and learned that he had three plated vehicles that were probably former police vehicles".

      She says that police were sent to Wortman's Halifax residence where the existence of one of the vehicles was confirmed. Two other vehicles were burning at Wortman's residence in Portapique.

      But Croteau says that police "weren't unaware at that particular time that the gunman had a fourth registered vehicle with no license plate and that was the vehicle he was using".  

      Croteau says they were only able to confirm that information at 6:30 am the next morning when Wortman's common-law partner called 911 after hiding in the woods to escape the killer. 

      It was at that time, Croteau says, that more details about Wortman were confirmed, including the fact that "he was in possession of a fully marked and equipped replica vehicle and was wearing an RCMP uniform."