RCMP investigators in Nova Scotia haven’t finished tracing the path of the man they say killed 22 people last weekend, but newly obtained video and audio recordings capture the chaos and confusion surrounding their 13-hour manhunt.
“Nova Scotians have lots of questions about what happened, why it happened, what things were done and what wasn’t,” RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather, the province’s criminal operations officer, told a news conference in Dartmouth on Wednesday.
“You can be assured that we have those same questions and we’ll be seeking answers.”
Leather defended the force’s actions — including the decision to rely on Twitter to spread news of an armed and dangerous suspect making his way across the province — referencing the “unimaginable” challenges posed by a rampage that stretched over 100 kilometres and encompassed at least 16 separate crime scenes.
The investigation remains a “work in progress,” he said, launching an appeal to the public for details about the suspect and his movements on Saturday night and through Sunday morning.
However, a clearer picture of the tragedy is emerging.
Gunshots and a blazing fire
The initial 911 call, reporting the sound of gunshots in the tiny beach community of Portapique, N.S., was logged at 10:26 p.m. AT on Saturday. But when officers arrived 12 minutes later, they quickly understood that the situation was much more dire.
“Is there also a structure fire out this way?” an officer asked his dispatcher in a radio exchange captured by Broadcastify, a website that monitors emergency communications. “We’re seeing huge flames and smoke.”
Within five minutes, police had found the first of many victims, and ambulance was directed to the scene. “You’re going to meet a police officer there,” a dispatcher told paramedics.
“They do have a GSW [gunshot wound] victim with them.”
It’s not yet clear who police initially discovered, but the brother of one of the victims shared the harrowing story of his own escape with CBC News on Wednesday.
Clinton Ellison said his family heard the sound of gunfire shortly after 10 p.m., and that his younger brother Corrie went outside, saw flames in the distance, and went to see if he could help.
Ellison called the fire department and after a few minutes set out to join his 42-year-old sibling.
“I walked up looking for my brother with a flashlight and I could see his body laying on the side of the road,” he recounted. “I got one more step closer. I could see blood and he wasn’t moving. I turned around and I ran for my life in the dark.”
After finding the safety of the nearby woods, Ellison looked back and saw a flashlight beam scouring the area around his brother’s body — the killer searching for him, he believes.
Ellison phoned home to warn his father to take cover, then spent four hours in the cold and dark waiting for police to rescue him.
“All I could hear was explosions from the fires and gunshots coming from all around,” he said. “I’ll be traumatized for the rest of my life.”
For the RCMP, confusion, about the exact nature of the crime and whether the suspect was still on the loose, persisted for hours.
“Do we know if they’ve caught the assailant?” a first responder asked dispatch at 11:21 p.m.
“No, not for sure,” was the response. “They don’t know if they’ve caught him.”
In fact, it wasn’t until early Sunday — sometime between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. according to Leather — that investigators finally came to understand that their suspect, Gabriel Wortman, was likely wearing an RCMP uniform and driving a replica police cruiser.
That information wasn’t shared with the public until 10:17 a.m., in a tweet.
Security video obtained by CBC offers a glimpse of him as he passed through the community of Millbrook, some 40 kilometres away from the initial crime scene, shortly before 11 a.m.
It shows the replica RCMP cruiser pulling into a roadside parking lot and a uniformed man exiting the vehicle, then casually removing his coat and donning a yellow reflective vest over his shirt.
He then sets off again, heading south along Highway 2 toward Halifax.
Around 15 minutes later, and some 28 kilometres south, Eric Fisher heard gunshots outside his home in Shubenacadie. Through his kitchen window, which overlooks a highway on-ramp, he saw what appeared to be two police cars that had collided head-on.
Fisher says that he saw a man, dressed in black uniform pants and a khaki shirt, but not a safety vest, walk over to the other cruiser with a gun in his hand, firing several times.
Fisher saw another car arrive and then stepped away to call 911. By the time he returned to his window, the two cruisers were on fire, and the third car was gone.
It would later emerge that Const. Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year RCMP veteran and mother of two, had been shot dead at the scene, and that the suspect had hijacked another vehicle.
Audio recordings from emergency scanners also captured the frantic last minutes of the manhunt as police realized that one of their own had been shot, and closed in on their suspect.
“We’re just overhead [a] vehicle fire at the intersection on Highway 2,” a police helicopter crew said at 11:14 a.m. “Looks like there might be a police car involved.”
There are reports that Stevenson had rammed the suspect’s car in an attempt to stop him.
Cellphone video, presumably taken moments later and now circulating online, shows two burning cruisers on the on-ramp and heavily armed tactical officers searching the area as one of their colleagues drags the wounded officer to safety behind an armoured vehicle.
“I am currently treating a member in the back of an ambulance,” a first responder radios at 11:21 a.m.
The RCMP said on Wednesday that their manhunt ended at 11:26 a.m. after Wortman was killed in a gun battle at a gas station in Enfield, 16 kilometres south of where Stevenson was killed.
The RCMP say Wortman acted alone and did not possess any licences for firearms in Canada. But their inquiries continue, with a special focus on who might have helped Wortman obtain his replica vehicle, and apparently authentic uniform.
“It’s a key element, a key element of the investigation,” Leather told reporters.