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 ready for anything as they ran to Portapique, but never imagined that their suspect was in a vehicle nearly identical to the ones they were driving. .
Constables Stuart Beselt, Adam Merchant and Aaron Patton testified together Monday during the investigation into the shooting that killed 22 people, including a pregnant woman and an RCMP officer. The format of the witness group had all three seated side-by-side, as they recounted the first 90 minutes of the RCMP’s response on April 18, 2020.
Now that they’ve had nearly two years to reflect on that chaotic night and its aftermath, officers told the inquest they “did their best”.
“It was a mess. We tried to deal with things as they happened,” Patton said.
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 and 200 km/h in separate vehicles from outside Truro to reach the scene in Portapique in around 20 minutes. At the time, they only knew that 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 it could mean different things to different people.
“We’re open to the possibility of anything at this point, but did we specifically think he had a simulated police car that looked exactly like a police car in every way? No. It was surprising for us,” he said. .
Roger Burrill, lead counsel for the Mass Casualty Commission leading the investigation, played the audio of 911 calls and radio communications between RCMP members before asking for a reaction and insight.
Beselt told the inquest that it wasn’t until the next day, when the RCMP released a photo of the shooter’s car, that he realized it was really a replica of the 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 impostor. We had no idea what level this car was – what it was done,” Beselt said.
“The next day they did it and he still got the jump on two limbs.”
const. Heidi Stevenson of the Nova Scotia RCMP was shot and killed by the gunman on the morning of April 19. His colleague, Const. Chad Morrison, was also shot but survived.
Beselt told the inquest how they assumed that night it was probably an old, disused police car with “some of the old markings”, but he said they were open to anything.
“We never imagined it was so detailed,” Beselt said.
Patton said that had they encountered the replica car that night, there would have been tough decisions about how to proceed.
“Obviously we would have treated him as a threat, but it would have been very difficult to act, maybe thinking that maybe he was a colleague who succeeded there before us,” he said. declared.
Beselt said if that had been the case, and they ran into the shooter, they would have been shot.
He said officers “pointed our guns at every vehicle” they saw that night.
Leaving the children alone “the most difficult decision”
Beselt testified that he did not remember exactly what prompted them to come to the red house on Orchard Beach Drive, but recalled being “surprised” to find four children hiding there.
The children of shooting victims Jamie and Greg Blair had gone there to be with the children of Lisa McCully, and officers told the children to stay in the basement and not answer the door.
Based on their Immediate Action Rapid Deployment (IARD) training – the approach the three officers took at Portapique – they said they had to leave the children alone and continue to search for the shooter.
“It was the hardest decision we made that night,” Patton said.
All three did not want to leave the children, but said they had to move on since IARD depends on finding and stopping an immediate threat.
“It would have been easy to stay there and protect the children. But if you think people are dying on the streets and you could have prevented that…that’s the basic principle of P&C…you know, stop the threat,” Beselt said.
“[It] Never mind that he kills the whole subdivision and you keep the kids safe. He kept doing what he was going to do.”
Meeting with the 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.
Actually, it was Clinton Ellison. He was terrified after finding the body of his brother, Corrie, and believed the officers were the shooter.
Beselt said over the radio that if there were any other officers in the woods they should identify themselves because he was about to fire. They were lying flat on the ground, watching the light approaching to try to identify who 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 fled into the woods, losing the officers. Beselt made the decision that running blindly through the pitch black woods would have been “suicide”. They continued down the road instead, and that’s 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 consumed him for the next two days.
“Regret … knowing that you could have prevented the next day if you had fired,” Beselt said. “I was pretty upset about it.”
It wasn’t until an informal debriefing Monday with other officers who had been involved that night that Beselt heard key information that made him realize they had been confronted by Clinton.
“Damn that’s crazy”
Patton described how they were unafraid that night as they searched for the shooter. He said there was too much adrenaline.
“I don’t think it’s the feeling that we’re the three bravest guys ever because I don’t think that’s the case. We had no chance to be scared,” he said. declared.
Beselt described how they hunted 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 late at night, when the fires died down, that they were able to reflect on the seriousness of the situation.
“There wasn’t really a direction where we had to go, waiting for the next direction where to go, and I think that was the first opportunity for three hours where we said, ‘My God, this is crazy.'”