The first three officers to arrive at the scene of a mass shooting in Nova Scotia in 2020 told a public inquiry on Monday they were prepared for anything as they raced to Portapique.
But they never imagined their suspect was in a vehicle nearly identical to the ones they drove.
Constables Stuart Beselt, Adam Merchant and Aaron Patton tested together on Monday at the inquiry examining the shooting that killed 22 people, including a pregnant woman and RCMP officer. The witness panel format had all three sitting side by side, as they retraced the first 90 minutes of the RCMP response on April 18, 2020.
The trio described how they drove between 160-200 km/h in separate vehicles from outside Truro to get to the scene in Portapique in about 20 minutes. At the time, they only knew there had been a shooting in the small, rural community.
Beselt acknowledged they had information upon arrival suggesting the suspect was driving what “looked like a police car,” but he said that can mean different things to different people.
“We’re open to the possibility of anything at that point, but we were 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,” he said .
Beselt told the inquiry it wasn’t until the following day when RCMP released a photo of the gunman’s car to the public that he realized it was truly a replica police car.
“The thing you have to realize is that for him it’s a target-rich environment because he knows he’s the only fake. We had no idea the level of that car — what it was done up to be,” Beselt said.
“The next day, they did and he still got the jump on two members.”
Encountering mock cruiser would have been difficult: officer
Beselt told the inquiry how they assumed that night it was likely an old decommissioned police car with “some of the old markings,” but he said they were open to anything.
“We didn’t ever imagine it was that detailed,” said Beselt.
Patton said if they had encountered the replica car that night, there would have been difficult decisions on how to proceed.
“We would obviously have treated it as the threat, but it would have been very difficult to take action on it, maybe feeling maybe it’s a co-worker who has made it in there before us,” he said.
Beselt said had that been the case, and they came upon the gunman, they would have been shot.
He said the officers “pointed our guns at every vehicle” they saw that night.
‘Holy this is crazy’
Roger Burrill, senior counsel for the Mass Casualty Commission that is leading the inquiry, played audio from 911 calls and radio communication between RCMP members before asking for reaction and insight.
Patton described how they weren’t fearful that night as they searched for the shooter. He said there was too much adrenaline.
“I don’t think it’s a sense of we’re the three bravest guys that there are because I don’t think that’s the case. We didn’t have a chance to be scared,” he said.
Beselt described how they chased the sounds of explosions and gunfire. Merchant said he was thinking in the back of his mind “this is crazy.”
Patton said it wasn’t until the end of the night when fires were settling that they were able to reflect on the severity of the situation.
“There was no real direction of where we needed to go, waiting for the next direction of where to go, and I think that was the first opportunity three hours in that we said, ‘Holy this is crazy.'”