HALIFAX—When a gunman impersonating a Mountie started killing people in Portapique, N.S., on April 18, 2020, four children huddled in a home where they relayed key information about the killer as the tragedy unfolded around them.
Portions of a transcript of that disturbing 911 call were released today by an independent commission of inquiry investigating the worst mass shooting in modern Canadian history, which claimed 22 lives over a 13-hour span.
The phone conversation is recounted in a 90-page document that focuses on the first hour of the killer’s rampage. It offers clear evidence that authorities were told about the shooter’s identity and his replica police vehicle before he used a back road to evade a police blockade.
Recordings of the 911 calls were not played during the hearings. However, the so-called foundational document provides grim, detailed descriptions of how 13 people were gunned down that night, including Gabriel Wortman’s first victims: Greg and Jamie Blair, the parents of two young boys.
Based on statements from residents and the gunman’s common-law spouse, the commission has concluded that some time before 10 p.m., the perpetrator assaulted his spouse and set fire to his home and the building where he kept his mock police vehicle—facts previously confirmed by the RCMP through the gradual release of search warrant applications.
Then, at around 10 p.m., the killer approached the Blair home, where he killed Greg Blair on the front deck. Jamie Blair immediately called 911, telling the operator her husband had been shot. She also said there was an RCMP cruiser in her driveway.
“It’s decked and labelled RCMP ... but it’s not a police officer,” she told the operator. “The man is coming back up the deck with a big gun.”
At that point, the woman hustled her two boys—ages 11 and 9—into the back bedroom, where the brothers hid on the floor behind a bed.
Blair identified the killer as “Gabriel” to the 911 operator and she whispered into the phone that he was trying to get into the house.
In a statement to police, the 11-year-old boy—identified as AD—said Wortman shot the family’s cat and dog before firing multiple shots through the bedroom door, killing his mother.
On Monday, commission counsel Roger Burrill presented a summary of what happened in Portapique, including the events in the Blair home. “It is essentially a contemporaneous report of murder,” Burrill said, describing Jamie Blair’s 911 call. ”Jamie Blair was shot at this time through the door of her bedroom, protecting her children.”
The children remained hidden and do not believe that they were seen by the killer, the commission’s report says.
About 10 minutes later, the boys fled the home when they realized the killer had set fire to the house before leaving. They sprinted next door to the home of Lisa McCully, who had been fatally shot minutes earlier by the gunman as she walked to the edge of her property to find out what was going on.
The boys did not see her as they made their way to their neighbour’s house. Inside, the two Blair boys were met by McCully’s children, identified as 12-year-old AB and 10-year-old AC.
Blair’s 11-year-old son called 911 at 10:16 p.m., telling the operator about his parents’ death and the fact that the killer had driven away in a police car, carrying a “massive gun.”
“Just like ... a police car,” he said, adding that the mother of the McCully children had left the house earlier and had not returned. At 10:21, the boy confirmed he could hear gunshots going off every thirty seconds.
“The children referenced the perpetrator by his first name,” the document says. “They (correctly) advised that he ‘works in Halifax as a denture person’ .... The children indicated that the perpetrator would blend in with the cops ‘because he has a cop car.’”
They also confirmed that the car, correctly identified as a Ford, had emergency lights and proper decals.
At 10:39 p.m., the children reported seeing the replica cruiser on the move. “One of the children exclaimed, ‘It’s Gabriel!” the report says. As more shots rang out, the children were told to move to the basement, where they stayed until 12:20 a.m., when the Mounties decided it was safe for them to leave.
Burrill told the hearing Monday that he had listened to the entire, two-hour 911 call.
“The children are describing a horrific scene of fire and shooting and no parents,“ he said. ”(But) the children’s poise, presence and capacity to engage with the 911 call taker is simply outstanding. They are calm. They are responsive. They are observant.”
According to the commission’s research, the RCMP checked on the children three times before the house was evacuated. Some critics have suggested they should have been rescued earlier, given the fact that other residents had been removed for their safety. A separate report on the role of first responders will be released Tuesday.
As for the other victims, the commission’s report says all except one were fatally shot in their homes between 10:04 p.m. and 10:45 p.m., though the sequence of events is not always clear, given the lack of witnesses, phone calls and surveillance video.
The report says it appears the last person killed in Portapique was Corrie Ellison, who was in the community that night with his brother to visit their father.
It says Ellison had set off on foot to investigate the fire burning at Wortman’s sprawling garage and was shot dead while he took photographs with his cellphone. The time of his last photo, a blurry image that shows nothing, was 10:40 p.m.
Minutes later, Wortman’s escape was spotted by Patricia Zimmerman as she stood outside her home on Portapique Crescent, looking at the eerie glow in the sky created by her neighbours’ burning houses.
She would later tell police that at 10:45 p.m. she noticed a set of headlights travelling “like a bat out of hell” along a rough, private road that ran along the side of a blueberry field east of the rural enclave, toward Highway 2. Zimmerman said she and her sister thought the driver was probably a volunteer firefighter, which is why they didn’t alert police.
Another resident, Harlan Rushton, told commission investigators that it was around midnight when he told police at the scene that the killer could have used a back road to escape. Harlan said he told police: “You know, there’s another way out of there, right?” According to Harlan, the officer replied, “Yeah, we know. Just get out of here. Just go.”
The commission’s report concludes with a summary of the horrific events in Portapique and a blurry photo from a surveillance camera showing the killer’s car speeding past a gas station in nearby Great Village, N.S., at 10:51 p.m. Police say he later parked in an industrial park in Debert, N.S., where he spent the night.
The next day, he fatally shot nine more people — both acquaintances and strangers — as he led police on a chase that spanned more than 100 kilometres.
Wortman was shot dead later that morning by an RCMP officer who spotted him trying to refuel a stolen vehicle at a gas station north of Halifax.