HALIFAX — A former RCMP officer told a Nova Scotia public inquiry on Tuesday that a tweet warning the public about the mass shooter driving a replica police vehicle should have been sent immediately after he ordered it, not two crucial hours later.
Retired Staff Sgt. Steve Halliday testified that he was assigned to notify the public on April 19, 2020 that the gunman was continuing his rampage in a vehicle marked to look exactly like an RCMP cruiser. The killer murdered 22 people over two days in central and northern Nova Scotia.
Halliday said he delegated this task to Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum at the command centre in Great Village, N.S., at about 8 a.m. that day, with the "expectation that that was going to take place in the immediate future.”
However, the tweet with a photo of the mock RCMP vehicle wasn't published until 10:17 a.m., too late to warn victims murdered in the Debert and Shubenacadie areas.
Halliday said he received the full description of the replica vehicle after the spouse of the killer emerged from the woods of Portapique, N.S., after 6:30 a.m. and her family members sent images of the car to police. He said RCMP supervisors dispatched officers to the killer's two addresses in Portapique to see if two burned Taurus vehicles matched the spouse's descriptions of the suspect's replica police car.
He said that by 7:55 a.m. on April 19, 2020, he had learned the burned cars didn't contain weapons or match features described by the spouse, adding that he said he had concluded the replica car was still unaccounted for.
According to an exhibit shown at the inquiry into the mass shooting, Halliday wrote in his notes, “We are concerned ... there is a possibility he may be on the run in a fully marked RCMP (car)."
"This has to be communicated out to the (RCMP) members, all municipal agencies, police departments and border crossings and we have to get it out to the public as soon as possible,” he added in the note.
During his testimony on Tuesday, the former officer said he was thinking at that time that the public had to be notified, adding that he assigned MacCallum to speak with communications officials and "get that out."
The inquiry heard that at 9:40 a.m., a draft tweet showing the replica car was emailed by the RCMP's communications team to MacCallum for approval, but at that point MacCallum had jumped into a car to race toward the last sighting of the killer near Wentworth, N.S.
Another email was sent to Halliday at 9:45 a.m., but he was also busy dealing with the latest effort to capture the killer and he testified that he only approved the tweet for publication at 9:49 a.m.
"Do you know why this wasn't done shortly after 8 a.m., as you had thought it would be taken care of?" asked Josh Bryson, a lawyer who represents the family of two victims.
"No, I don't know," Halliday replied.
A summary of the command decisions made by senior RCMP officers released on Tuesday suggests the members of the inquiry haven't been able to get to the bottom of what caused the delays. The summary says inquiry investigators are still looking into the involvement of the second-highest ranking officer in the province, Chief Supt. Chris Leather.
“The information available to the Mass Casualty Commission on the consideration of a media release (regarding the perpetrator’s replica RCMP cruiser) by members at the command post is at times unclear and in some places in conflict,” the document said.
“Investigation is ongoing into the role of Chief Superintendent Leather ... in relation to the release of information about the replica RCMP cruiser."
Asked whether the delays in approving the tweet were acceptable, Halliday agreed with Bryson's suggestion that they weren't. "I would agree the sooner that information is out, the better," Halliday said.
According to a commission summary, referred to as a foundational document, at 8:02 a.m. on April 19, 2020 — almost 10 hours after the shooter killed his first victim — the Mounties issued a tweet declaring an "active shooter situation" in Portapique. However, the tweet didn’t mention the suspected getaway car or that the perpetrator could be anywhere in the province.
The RCMP sent their next tweet at 8:54 a.m., identifying Gabriel Wortman as the killer. It also provided a photo of him, but the car's description wasn't released.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2022.
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press