‘It’s a war zone’: First officers on scene of Portapique massacre describe search for mass killer in the dark woods

For the first time in any of their lives, constables Stuart Beselt, Aaron Patton and Adam Merchant got into a formation prepared to confront an active shooter, two officers in the front facing forward, and one officer behind, facing backward.

In that way they moved through the night, seldom turning on a flashlight to check their way for fear of giving away their location to the man who committed Canada’s deadliest rampage.

The unprecedented nighttime search that ensued — the three Mounties hunting a killer through dense forests and streets lined with burning homes — was the subject of testimony heard Monday at Nova Scotia’s Mass Casualty Commission into the Portapique massacre.

Twenty-two people died by gunshot or perished in fires set by perpetrator Gabriel Wortman in a 13-hour period between April 18 and 19 2020 in Colchester Country, Nova Scotia.

The victims were Peter Bond, Joy Bond, Joey Webber, John Zahl, Elizabeth Joanne Thomas, Lillian Hyslop, Dawn Madsen, Frank Gulenchyn, Corrie Ellison, Tom Bagley, Kristen Beaton, Jolene Oliver, Aaron Tuck, Emily Tuck, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins, Greg Blair, Jamie Blair, Heather O’Brien, Gina Goulet, Lisa McCully and Heidi Stevenson.

Beselt, Patton and Merchant testified that they couldn’t have done anything differently with the resources they had that night to save the lives of those killed after officers’ arrival on the scene at Portapique.

However, they did highlight some of what the police knew, did not know, and suspected in the earliest hours of the massacre, and some of the communications that took place.

The officers agreed that GPS tools tracking officers through their radios could have enabled more police teams to search Portapique at the same time that night.

Beselt said that as the gravity of the situation became clear, he asked commanding officers whether some kind of emergency alert should go out to tell people not to come to Portapique or to hide in their bases — but those in charge never ultimately made use of Canada’s Alert Ready system for emergencies.

And the three officers said that, although they were told a car that looked like a police vehicle was at the first crime scene, they never expected it to be the kind of accurate RCMP-vehicle replica that the perpetrator had, meaning they did know exactly what they were looking for.

Dressed in suits and ties, the three men spoke in grave tones about the night they used the active-shooter response training they hoped they would never need.

Beselt said that in 24 years as a police officer, he had responded to calls about murders, and about shootings, but never until April 18, 2020 did he find himself driving to a scene where someone had been shot and killed.

“We don’t live in a place where we have a lot of shootings,” Beselt said Monday morning.

The Mass Casualty Commission is the inquiry into the 2020 attacks that constitute Canada’s deadliest rampage and — because Wortman was himself shot dead — the closest thing to a trial that will follow the massacre.

The testimony of the first police officers to arrive at the scene represents something of a milestone for the inquiry — they are the first significant witnesses to testify there under oath.

On Monday the three officers told their story of mounting shock as they became the first people to learn that the perpetrator had killed not one but many people, traveling around the area of ​​Portapique and turning it into a “war zone” with indiscriminate shots and arson .

Beselt, Patton, and Merchant all said they were shocked to be dealing with a call about a shooting death, and initially suspected it was actually a much more common mental health call. They also received reports early on that a “police car” was found near the scene of one of the shootings, but without further information, none of the three suspected it to be as close a replica as the shooter had in his position.

Instead, they thought they might be looking for an old decommissioned police car or a similar-looking vehicle. Beselt described being “shocked” when his wife showed him pictures of the vehicle — indistinguishable from a police cruiser — the next day.

But when they arrived in Portapique, they quickly realized they were dealing with an active shooter.

“When we were driving up we saw the smoke coming up that’s when I felt wow, this is for real, something bad,” said Patton.

Patton, the junior of the three officers with four years of police experience, encountered a local man in a car who had just been shot. When Patton ripped off the man’s sleeve to see if he had to perform first aid, the bullet fell out; Patton kept it in his pocket through the night.

“Throughout the night we heard heavy gunfire. We’ve just arrived and we can see all these fires burning,” Patton said.

The officers followed the sounds of gunshots and explosions in that active-shooter formation. They were the only team on the ground in Portapique — other officers were working to close off the area from the outside. The trio said that sending more teams in could have been dangerous, because the police did not have GPS devices on their bodies that could have identified them to other officers as legitimate law enforcement and not the shooter.

In fact, at one point, the trio came very close to mistaking another person for the shooter. At the edge of a wooded area, Patton and Beselt saw a flashlight being held by a local man, Clinton Ellison, and believed it was the person they were looking for.

“My line in the sand is: If he runs I’m going to shoot. We’re getting ready to shoot him, we think it’s the suspect,” Beselt said. “Realizing now it wasn’t the suspect I’m very thankful I didn’t shoot.”

Shortly after that, Beselt called out to a commanding officer on their radio to ask if they could send out some kind of emergency alert to the area. It was “thinking aloud,” Beselt said, something that came up in his mind as this unprecedented situation unfolded.

“We had never done an emergency broadcast before,” he said. “It’s a war zone.”

RCMP have come under heavy criticism for relying on social media to release updates on the incident during the active shooting event. The constables said that the Alert Ready system and other tools that may have been used to get public attention were handled by people above their pay grade, and that their job was to search on the ground as safely as possible.

The testimony of the officers did not come about without some wrangling; Lawyers for the RCMP repeatedly argued that their officers should not have to testify.

Ultimately, Beselt, Patton and Merchant were the first to be subpoenaed. At least another 10 RCMP officers will be called to the inquiry later.

The commission inquiry into the events of April 18 and 19, 2020 now enters its second month. It began by establishing a timeline of what transpired on April 19, after the gunman had fled Portapique, leaving 13 victims there dead and multiple houses—including his own—burning behind him.

He was spotted and shot by police at a gas station in Enfield, about 100 kilometers from Portapique.

In the past month, the commission has presented the results of its investigation into the actions and movements of the gunman in Portapique on the night of April 18, as well as those of the first RCMP officers to arrive on the scene.

It’s also released another of what it calls “foundational documents” that describes how RCMP attempted to contain the crime scene — curiously, with checkpoints on the highway only to the west of Portapique, none to the east, which is the direction the gunman appears to have taken to escape.

Backing those documents are hundreds of source documents, containing commission and RCMP interviews with witnesses, police statements, 911 transcripts, forensic reports, police records, GPS data and other records on which the commission’s conclusions — so far — are based.

On Wednesday, the commission continues the inquiry with the presentation of a timeline for the gunman’s actions early on April 19, and the testimony of a civilian witness.

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