One of the people operating the 911 call center on the night of April 18, 2020 gave insight into what it was like when people in Portapique, Nova Scotia started calling to report gunshots. fire, murders and arson.
Jennifer MacCallum was one of the civilian supervisors at the RCMP operational command center which was based in Truro at the time. She spoke last September as part of the investigation into the murders of 22 people.
MacCallum says the other supervisor, Donnalee Williston, took the first call at 10:01 p.m. that night. The person on the phone was Jamie Blair.
“My neighbor is completely screwed,” Blair reportedly said in a transcript of the call.
She tells Williston that she thinks her husband, Greg Blair, was shot. She says he is lying face down on their deck and not moving.
“There’s a police car in the fucking driveway,” Blair adds.
She then goes on to explain to Williston that if there is a police car, there is no policeman. She gives Williston the name Gabriel and says he is her neighbor. She also says he has a big gun.
Jamie Blair can be heard on the phone calling for his children to come into the room. There are whispers, then a scream, and a voice says “help me” before the call drops.
It’s a call that would change the dynamics of the command center for the next 13 hours.
“There’s no crying out there…so there’s still a lot of work to be done there,” Williston later told commission attorneys in an interview.
MacCallum said he saw Williston type his report after Blair called to get emergency responders on the road.
Then she asked Williston if she thought the call was “real” since they’ve been getting calls from people with mental health issues who made reports to 911 that turned out to be false.
Williston assured MacCallum that she believed the call was genuine. They then began the process of getting the police to respond.
It was then, MacCallum said, that a second call came in. This time it was the Blair children.
They had fled their home, where their mother and father had just been murdered, and had taken refuge with their neighbor, Lisa McCully. She too had been a victim of the shooter and her body would later be discovered on the ground outside.
According to MacCallum, the look on his colleague’s face said it all.
“I could tell by his facial expression that what we had was now getting higher. So I ran to the other side and when I informed the risk manager and when we started making our phone calls” , MacCallum said.
She asked the operator if he needed anything, but she said he couldn’t talk to her because he was always talking to the kids. He stayed on the phone with the children for two hours until they were evacuated by the police.
“The questions coming in, the chaos…the incredible fear that came from the side of taking calls to the dispatch was something I had never experienced on any of my shifts before,” MacCallum said. .
Inside the center, the software used to keep a “rolling log” of information started having problems that night due to the volume of material they were trying to enter.
MacCallum said they relied more on person-to-person contact to ensure everyone who needed it had the most up-to-date information.
Like the RCMP, MacCallum said people at the call center had a hard time accepting the idea that the shooter was using a fully marked police car. They had accounted for all RCMP cars assigned to Colchester and Cumberland counties that night.
After Jamie Blair said it was a police car, his children and the McCully children also told the 911 operator that they had seen a police car. The kids also repeated Gabe’s name, and MacCallum said she was able to get Gabriel Wortman’s name from it.
She searched for him and discovered that he was the registered owner of a decommissioned Ford Taurus police car.
“Then there was another Taurus that I knew when I was talking to my regional counterparts in Halifax that the ERT had found in his office. So it was like… like how… I thought they were done, c that’s all,” she said.
She told the commission that she did not learn the details of the cruiser’s replica until the next morning after her shift ended.
Coordinated rescue from the woods
MacCallum said once a critical incident commander takes over a case, the 911 center can usually step back and relax a bit. She said that was not the case that night.
MacCallum said that in the middle of everything else, she was on the phone with Clinton Ellison. Ellison was hiding in the woods of Portapique.
He had gone in search of his brother, Corrie, only to find him dead. Then Clinton Ellison spotted some lights and ran and hid.
He thought it was the shooter. They were actually the first RCMP team to enter Portapique that night.
MacCallum said she stayed on the phone with Ellison until he was rescued by the emergency response team.
She was nearing the end of her shift when the shooter’s partner, Lisa Banfield, came out of the woods. She went to a neighbor, Léon Joudrey, who immediately called 911.
“He ended up passing the phone to her, and I talked to him, and I talked to him for a few minutes until the ERT was in his driveway. And then I told them both to get their hands out. hands up and being picked up by them,” she said.
MacCallum told the inquest she was shocked to learn Banfield had survived. Earlier in the night, his team probed Banfield’s mobile phone several times in an attempt to find his location, with no response.
No break in tasks
Williston, who took the initial call along with many others that evening, quit her job in August 2020. She believes the RCMP could have done more to help employees recover from their trauma.
“I feel like they should have followed the pattern after the Moncton shooting and all the dispatchers were sent home for three or four weeks, and so was all the staff, whoever was working that night was not allowed back into the building for a big block of time,” she said.
“We were back straight away, and I think that was pretty damaging.”
Williston said they had three days off scheduled and another to debrief.
MacCallum said that night also affected her.
“At the time, I was very adamant that I was going back to work,” she told investigators.
MacCallum said they received good support, but she would have been better off taking a break.
“So it might have been more prudent, now that I look back, to have taken, like, straight away, as soon as it happened, everybody gave a month off.”
At the end of her interview, MacCallum said the lack of information also bothered her.
“I just wish the RCMP had been a little more upfront with everything we’ve done instead of being a little quieter or out of the public eye because all we’ve done is just let the audience go down a rabbit hole,” MacCallum said.
“And so many rumours, especially in rural communities, were started, and it didn’t do anyone any good.”