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 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.
Now that they’ve had nearly two years to reflect on that chaotic night, and the aftermath, the officers told the inquiry they “tried their best.”
“It was mayhem. We tried to deal with things as they came,” said Patton.
All three members continue to work for the RCMP. Beselt and Merchant are still in Nova Scotia while Patton is based in Nunavut.
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 .
Roger Burrill, senior counsel for the Mass Casualty Commission that is leading the inquiry, played audio of police communication before asking the officers for their insight.
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.”
const. Heidi Stevenson of the Nova Scotia RCMP was shot and killed by the gunman the morning of April 19. Her colleague, Const. Chad Morrison, was also shot but survived.
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.
Leaving children alone ‘hardest decision’
Beselt testified that he couldn’t remember exactly what made them go to the red house on Orchard Beach Drive, but remembers being “surprised” to find four children hiding there.
The children of shooting victims Jamie and Greg Blair had gone there to be with Lisa McCully’s children, and the officers told the kids to stay in the basement and not answer the door.
Based on their immediate action rapid deployment training (IARD) — the approach all three officers took in Portapique — they said they had to leave the children alone and keep looking for the shooter.
“It was the single-hardest decision that we made that night,” Patton said.
All three didn’t want to leave the kids, but said they had to move on since IARD hinges on finding and stopping an immediate threat.
“It would have been easy to stay there and protect the kids. But if you think people are dying down the street and you could have prevented that … that’s the basic principle of IARD … you know, stop the threat,” Beselt said.
“[It] doesn’t matter if he kills the whole subdivision and you kept the kids safe. He’s gone on doing what he’s going to do.”
Encounter with victim’s brother
As soon as the officers left the children, Beselt said he saw a light in the woods and assumed it was their suspect.
In fact, it was Clinton Ellison. He was terrified after finding the body of his brother, Corrie, and thought that the police officers were the gunman.
Beselt radioed that if there were any other officers in the woods they should identify themselves because he was getting ready to shoot. They lay flat on the ground, watching the light get closer to try and identify whoever it was in the dark.
“My line in the sand is if he runs I’m going to shoot, because I want to stop this threat,” Beselt said.
But Clinton turned off his flashlight instead and ducked into the woods, losing the officers. Beselt made the decision that to run blindly into the pitch-black woods would have been “suicide.” They continued down the road instead, which is when they found Lisa McCully’s body.
Although Beselt said he didn’t think he could have done anything differently, that moment facing what he thought was the shooter with a flashlight ate him up for the next two days.
“The regret … knowing that you could’ve prevented the next day had you taken the shot,” Beselt said. “I was pretty entertained about that.”
It wasn’t until an informal debriefing on Monday with other police who had been involved that night that Beselt heard key information that made him realize they’d been facing Clinton.
Team thought suspect dead
Burrill asked the team about the decision not to go to the Blair’s home, where the children had told the 911 dispatcher that their parents had been killed.
They said since the house was set back from the road they didn’t notice it. They instead assumed it was the one further down the road engulfed in flames. That residence was actually the home of Frank and Dawn Gulenchyn.
Eventually the officers said they ended up back at the McCully home, soaked with sweat and shivering as the cold set in, having run more than 10 kilometers through the woods carrying heavy gear.
As they waited, Beselt said they heard the emergency response team calling for someone in the woods to come out, before “one last explosion.” It was again Clinton Ellison, but Beselt said they had no idea that was the case and guessed it might be the shooter.
“You hear this loud crack,” Beselt said, and he assumed the gunman had realized the “jig is up” and shot himself rather than be arrested.
Patton agreed that’s what he thought, and while Merchant said it also crossed his mind, that assumption didn’t change anything in the investigation because they were headed off shift.
‘Holy this is crazy’
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.'”
Inquiry resumes Wednesday
Commissioner Michael MacDonald thanked all three officers for testing in person and answering questions.
“We very much appreciate it. This process is important for us to help us understand what happened, and of course why it happened,” he said.
MacDonald said the inquiry will take a break on Tuesday, and resume Wednesday with testimony from Portapique resident Debra Thibeault. She lived on Cobequid Court next to the southern entrance to the private blueberry field road, which the commission has suggested is likely the route the gunman took out of the community.
The commission will then present new documents focused on Hunter Road and along Highway 4 in Wentworth, covering the areas where Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins, Tom Bagley and Lillian Campbell were killed.