David Westlake is an unbelievably lucky man who still wonders what saved him when two Mounties mistook him for a killer and opened fire.
On the morning of April 19, 2020, the emergency management coordinator was at the firehall in Onslow, N.S., as the fire chief was welcoming people evacuated from nearby Portapique, N.S., where a gunman had killed 13 people the night before.
At the time, the killer was still at large and his rampage wasn’t over. He would kill a total of 22 people before being shot by police later that day.
At 10:17 a.m., as Westlake was chatting with an RCMP officer parked in front of the building, he watched in disbelief as a car screeched to a halt about 80 metres away and two men emerged with rifles. As both took aim at him, he made a dash for the firehall.
“I remember a shot that sounded like a sonic boom and then another one that was really loud, and I’m moving at this time,” Westlake told a public inquiry investigating the worst mass shooting in modern Canadian history.
The two shooters were RCMP officers who mistakenly assumed Westlake was the killer, mainly because he was wearing a yellow-and-orange reflective vest that matched the police description of what the suspect was wearing.
Westlake’s dramatic account of what happened that day was given to an inquiry investigator on June 15, 2021. The release Monday of a document that includes excerpts from that interview marks the first time the public has heard Westlake’s version of events.
“Do not ask me what deity had their hand on my shoulder that day and made sure it wasn’t my time,” Westlake said in the interview.
The inquiry document also highlights the confusion that RCMP officers faced as they pursued the killer for more than 100 kilometres. Two Mounties fatally shot him at a gas station north of Halifax at 11:26 a.m.
As for Westlake, he said he still couldn’t believe he escaped with his life, though the close call had not hurt his sense of humour.
“I was just a fat guy in the wrong place at the wrong time wearing a vest,” he told the inquiry investigator. “I’ve never had malice to the two individuals that pulled the trigger. I want to meet them. I want to ask them how they missed, because I can’t hide behind telephone poles.”
Still, the document raises awkward questions for the RCMP, which has said little about the almost-lethal blunder.
Just before Const. Terry Brown and Const. Dave Melanson showed up in Onslow, Westlake was standing in the front lot talking to RCMP Const. Dave Gagnon, who was behind the wheel of a marked cruiser, a vehicle almost identical to the getaway car being used by the killer.
Both Brown and Melanson told inquiry investigators they did not see Gagnon in the car.
Before the two officers jumped out of their unmarked Nissan Altima, Melanson tried several times to use a police radio to report what they were seeing. But instead of getting a clear signal to broadcast, Melanson said the radio “bonged,” which meant that the frequency had been jammed by too many users.
The Serious Incident Response Team, Nova Scotia’s police watchdog agency, released a report in March 2021 that cleared both officers of any wrongdoing. It concluded the officers had reasonable grounds to believe they had the killer in their sights, and that they discharged their weapons “to prevent further deaths or serious injuries.” The independent agency also drew attention to the jammed radios.
Melanson said he, like Brown, believed the man in the reflective vest was the killer. “I’ve got my carbine on the guy and I’m yelling to him, ‘Show me your hands!'” Brown told the inquiry’s investigators last month.
“And he’s looking at me and then he ducks behind the car, and I was sure he was getting a gun …. And I thought he was going to kill us. I thought he was going to kill others …. And he started running.”
Westlake, however, told investigators he did not hear anyone say, “Show me your hands.” He said the only thing he heard, aside from gunshots, was someone saying, “Get down!”
As well, eight people living near the firehall told investigators about what they saw that day, and none of them reported hearing anyone say, “Show your hands!”
In all, investigators found Brown fired four rounds at Westlake, and Melanson fired once. Two rounds pierced one of the station’s garage doors and damaged a fire truck inside. A third round hit a roadside sign and another hit the side of the firehall. The fifth round hit a stone monument near the door that Westlake used to escape.
As for Gagnon—the constable in the cruiser—the document says he tried to use his radio to alert the other two officers about his identity, saying, “You guys are pointing your guns at me.” But the transcript from the broadcasts that day suggest the transmission did not get through.
All that was recorded was Gagnon saying: “You got that—Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” and “Who are you shooting at? It’s Gagnon!”
When the shooting stopped, Gagnon emerged from his vehicle with his hands up. After a brief exchange with the two other officers, he and Melanson went inside the station, where Westlake told them no one had been injured.
Neither Brown nor Melanson checked on the others inside the firehall, who included fire Chief Greg Muise, Deputy Chief Darrell Currie and evacuee Richard Ellison, whose son Corrie had been murdered in Portapique.
Westlake would later recall that he had spotted an RCMP cruiser with a black push-bar on the front driving past the firehall at 10:07 a.m. That vehicle matched the description of the killer’s vehicle, but the RCMP did not release that information to the public until they sent a tweet at 10:17 a.m.—roughly the same time the unmarked car arrived at the firehall.
There’s no indication that Gagnon saw the suspect’s car.
By Michael MacDonald