TRURO, N.S. — A retired senior Mountie has described to an inquiry his dismay that it took five hours before anyone told him about eyewitnesses who had encountered a mass killer while fleeing the 2020 shootings in Nova Scotia.
It was an example of the communication breakdowns — along with confusion over who was in charge — revealed Thursday in testimony before the public inquiry into the mass shooting.
After almost 40 years of service, Staff Sgt. Al Carroll was one month shy of retiring on April 18, 2020, when he was called in to the detachment in Bible Hill, N.S., where he was the senior officer on duty as an active shooter was on the loose in nearby Portapique, N.S.
Twenty-two people were killed by the gunman in his 13-hour rampage.
By 2 a.m. on April 19, Carroll said he'd shifted to a command post in Great Village, east of Portapique, and at 3:30 a.m. he debriefed the three constables who first went into the community.
The officers had encountered Andrew MacDonald, who had been injured when the killer fired shots at him, and his wife Kate MacDonald, as they were fleeing the killer at about 10:28 p.m.
The inquiry heard earlier that MacDonald saw the killer and the replica RCMP car he drove, and that Kate MacDonald told Const. Vicki Colford that there was another potential exit out of Portapique.
She also spoke to Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill, the risk manager at the Operational Communications Centre in Truro, at about 10:30 p.m., confirming the suspect's first name and that he'd shot at them from "a cop car."
But Carroll, who was deploying officers and considering possible escape routes, wasn't informed of any of these developments until the debrief in the small hours of the morning — as the Mounties continued to suspect the killer was still in the area.
"Out of the blue (Const. Aaron) Patton brought up this Andrew MacDonald and that he (MacDonald) had been shot and I was, 'What?'" said Carroll.
Roger Burrill, the inquiry's senior counsel, asked why "this fundamentally important piece of information" hadn't reached Carroll.
"I can't explain how it never got up (to us)," Carroll replied, adding that he wasn't advised of it by Rehill.
Carroll also said he didn't hear the 10:48 p.m. radio transmission from Colford, saying: "We’re being told there’s a road, a kind of a road, that someone could come out before here, if they know the roads at all." The public inquiry has said in summaries that it's believed the killer slipped out a dirt road the police hadn't blockaded at about 10:45 p.m.
Asked whether Colford's information would have helped him, Carroll responded, "It sure would have."
He disagreed with Burrill's suggestion there were "too many cooks in the kitchen" in the early hours of the response, arguing he'd made clear that Rehill was in charge.
However, he conceded that having Sgt. Andy O'Brien, the operations non-commissioned officer, coming in on the radio to urge against sending in a second team of three constables surprised him, as he thought O'Brien was still at home.
"It may have been a breach of command structure. Should Andy (O'Brien) have made that decision? He should have run it up the chain," he testified.
Later, commissioner Leanne Fitch, former chief of police in Fredericton, noted that the testimony had revealed "a considerable breakdown in communication."
Carroll also gave a new version of what happened at about 9 a.m. on April 19, when he was contacted by a staff sergeant suggesting a media release be issued about the replica police car. Carroll replied with an email saying the request was turned down.
He testified that he contacted his superior, Staff Sgt. Steve Halliday, to discuss the matter, and it was decided the release shouldn't go out at that point.
However, in testimony last week, Halliday said he had issued an order at about 8 a.m. to put out the release "in the immediate future" and he didn't recall ordering Carroll — or anyone else — to delay the release.
Carroll was answering questions via a Zoom call instead of attending in person as part of accommodations the inquiry's three commissioners granted this week to him and two other senior Mounties. Unlike Carroll, the other two will avoid cross-examination from lawyers who represent relatives of the 22 victims.
That accommodation prompted several lawyers to boycott the hearings Wednesday, and the protest continued Thursday.
Outside the hearing room in Truro, about a dozen people staged a protest on the sidewalk. Among them was Charlene Bagley, whose father Tom was fatally shot by the gunman early on April 19, 2020, as he was out for a walk in West Wentworth, N.S.
"The families have been patient long enough," Bagley said, holding a neon green sign that read, "23 reasons why to tell the truth," referring to the fact that one of the 22 victims was pregnant.
"We've been wanting answers and we've been wanting the truth .... With the announcement of this week's accommodations, it just shows that we're probably not going to ever get that."
Bagley said the inquiry's trauma-informed approach is misguided.
"Trauma for who?" she asked. "They're not thinking of the other people involved and their trauma — just the officers. Their trauma seems to trump everyone else's."
The inquiry has heard the gunman, 51-year-old denture technician Gabriel Wortman, was shot dead by two Mounties just before 11:30 a.m. on April 19 when he stopped at a gas station north of Halifax to refuel a stolen car.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2022.
Michael MacDonald and Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press