Why didn’t RCMP use a roadblock to stop N.S. mass shooter?

A miscommunication between the RCMP officer in charge and some of the Mounties under his command meant police failed to put up a blockade along the route the gunman used to flee the initial scene of Canada’s deadliest mass shooting, a public inquiry heard Monday.

Come the next day, 51-year-old denturist Gabriel Wortman would kill another nine people in northern Nova Scotia before police spotted and killed him at a gas station. In 13 hours over April 18 and 19, 2020, he killed 22 people and set multiple homes on fire.

In the first hour of his rampage, a three-man RCMP Immediate Action Rapid Deployment (IARD) team hunted for the gunman on foot in the pitch black of Portapique. With more Mounties responding, police turned their attention to containment — attempting to ensure the killer did not escape the scene of his crimes.

Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill was the risk manager that night, the ad hoc officer in charge until an RCMP Critical Incident Commander could take over the reins.

On Monday, during his testimony before the Mass Casualty Commission public inquiry into the killings, he told the commission that when the first-responding IARD team entered Portapique, he then started thinking about containing the killer, but the Mounties who he would have to direct to set up roadblocks were still en route to Portapique.

According to police radio transcripts, at 10:44 p.m., Rehill begins to give directions over the radio to the seal off Hwy. 2 to Const. Jordan Carroll, approaching Portapique from the west, and to Const. Chris Grund, approaching from the east.

“We’re gonna want somebody to seal off Highway 2 just before you guys — someone there, so we can isolate the scene a bit,” Rehill says on the radio.

“10-4, I’m on my way there,” Grund replies.

Rehill asks Carroll to set up a roadblock on Hwy. 2 to the west of Portapique at Five Houses Rd. He asks Grund to set one up on the highway east of Portapique.

“At some point I say it looks like Hillview Lane might be a good spot. There’s an intersection of a small side road that might be a good spot to seal off,” said Rehill to commission counsel Roger Burrill on Monday. “Don’t want any traffic in there and that’s the East End and Grund’s coming in from the highway.

“Those were my directions to him.”

The Hillview Lane instructions go out on the radio at 10:44 p.m.

For some reason, Grund failed to respond to that transmission and instead proceeded directly to Portapique Beach Road, where, along with other arriving officers, they remained in a holding pattern while the IARD team searched Portapique.

In an Aug. 19, 2021, interview with Mass Casualty Commission counsel Roger Burrill, Grund said he didn’t think he had heard from the risk manager.

Burrill: “Am I to understand that before you arrived at Portapique Beach Road … that you had no interaction with the Risk Manager or direction from anyone in a position of command, is that correct?”

Grund: “I believe he would have been on the air at some point. Did I interact personally with them, I don’t believe so.”

Burrill: “Did he direct you, Const. Grund, to do anything in particular or go anyplace in particular?”

Grund: “No, I don’t think so.”

Eventually, it was Grund and Const. Bill Neil who next entered Portapique and evacuated the children of Greg and Jamie Blair and of Lisa McCully, among the killer’s first victims.

By that time, the gunman was long gone, driving north up a dirt road alongside a blueberry field, then turning east on Hwy. 2, driving past Hillview Lane — where Rehill had wanted a roadblock — toward Great Village.

Rehill told the inquiry, that with everything else going on, he didn’t think to confirm with Grund that he’d set up the roadblock as requested. He said his understanding was that Grund was on station there.

“I have to own that,” said Rehill to the inquiry. “If he missed that … and I didn’t follow up and make sure that he was there, then, you know, I don’t want to say that he’s at fault. It’s a two-way street. Could he have said, ‘Staff, repeat where you want me?’ or ‘I’m here now’? Yes.

“I could have followed up, too, and said, ‘Chris, are you sure you know where I want you?’ ”

But Rehill also said the roadblock was not at the top of his priority list, as he believed there was only one way in and out of Portapique and to leave, the gunman would have to go past police stationed on Portapique Beach Road.

He said he was unaware of the dirt “blueberry field road” that the gunman took to reach the highway — it wasn’t showing on his maps.

“That’s why local knowledge is important for members on the ground that know the community well and that kind of thing,” Rehill told the inquiry.

“None of the members told me at any point, ‘Well, you know what, down there … you might be able to get out there.’ We didn’t get that from any of the members.”

But Const. Vicki Colford, the fourth Mountie to arrive in Portapique that night — she was sealing off Portapique Beach Road while the IARD team went in — did point out over the radio that there might be such a road.

At 10:48 p.m., she radioed: “If you guys want to have a look at the map, we’re being told there’s a road, kind of a road that someone could come out of before here, if they know the roads well.”

Rehill said Monday he didn’t recall hearing that transmission. But had he heard it, he went on to say, he already had it in his mind that Grund would have set up the roadblock on Hwy. 2 east of Portapique and would have stopped the gunman there.

The Mass Casualty Commission public inquiry continues Tuesday with testimony from Sgt. Andrew O’Brien, the operations non-commissioned officer from the RCMP Bible Hill detachment.


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