Police ‘Dropped the Ball’ in Several Ways During NS Massacre, Says Lawyer for Families’ Class-Action

Public inquiry into Gabriel Wortman’s killing spree yet to be scheduled

Police ‘Dropped the Ball’ in Several Ways During NS Massacre, Says Lawyer for Families’ Class-Action
Motorcyclists leading a ceremonial drive to honour the victims of April’s mass killings pass through Indian Harbour, N.S., on Aug. 15, 2020. The event was organized by Harry Bond, who lost his parents in the murder rampage that claimed 22 lives. (The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan)
Jason Unrau

The lawyer for the families of victims killed by Gabriel Wortman who have filed a class-action lawsuit against the federal and Nova Scotia governments says “there seems to be a number of ways” police “dropped the ball” as the tragedy played out.

“The best example is perhaps the failure to properly alert the public in a timely manner, or to provide accurate content at the time that they had it,” Sandra McCulloch of Patterson Law said in an interview.

“I have to say, of course, that this was an unusual event, if not maybe one-of-kind type of event. But having said that, our police forces should be prepared to respond to these sorts of tragedies.”

Filed in June and amended early this month, the suit is seeking damages for the spouses, children, and/or parents of Wortman’s victims and those who were injured, as well as punitive damages against the RCMP over how it handled the investigation.

Wortman began his killing spree, most of the time disguised as a police officer, in the quiet Minas Basin community of Portapique, N.S., at around 10:00 p.m. on April 18. He had killed 22 people and burned multiple residences in five communities by the time he was shot and killed by police at a gas station in Enfield the following day near noon.

The suit alleges that police sat on crucial eyewitness accounts from Wortman’s surviving victims for hours before alerting the publicthat the killer was impersonating an RCMP officer, complete with mock-up police cruiser.

“To keep that close to their chest until, you know, well beyond numerous tragedies and potentially expose the public to further tragedy—it just doesn't make sense,” McCulloch said.

Superintendent Darren Campbell, the criminal services officer in the Criminal Operations Division of the Nova Scotia RCMP, at the time spoke of some of the difficulties police faced.

"I've been a police officer for more than 30 years now, and I can't imagine a more horrific set of circumstances than trying to search for someone who looks like you," he said.

RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather said the police response “was dynamic and fluid, with members using their training to assess what was going on while encountering the unimaginable.”

“Critical incident command staff were processing fast-changing information related to what was unfolding in front of them,” he said at a press conference on April 22.

The lawsuit alleges that prior to the rampage the RCMP had received but “failed to investigate and/or take action in relation to reports” that Wortman possessed illegal weapons, physically abused women, and had “stated that he wished to harm police officers.” This history came to light in May after a Nova Scotia judge unsealed a number of heavily redacted police documents containing investigative reports and search-warrant evidence involving multiple properties owned by the killer.

Among the suit’s litany of liability claims is that the RCMP "failed to contain Wortman in the community of Portapique” after he had killed 13 people in the small community before going on to claim more victims.

The class-action’s representative plaintiffs are Tyler Blair and Andrew O'Brien. Blair’s father and stepmother were killed at their home in Portapique on the night of April 18, while O’Brien’s wife was killed the following morning near her home in Masstown.

The claim alleges that police were told by an unnamed victim shortly after arriving at Portapique on the night of April 18 that the “victim had been shot by a man in what appeared to be a police car” and that “the shooter may have been ‘Gabe’ who owned property in the area.”

Police were given similar information the next morning at around 6:30 a.m. by Wortman’s estranged partner, Lisa Banfield, who had called 911 and reported “that Wortman had an authentic RCMP uniform and a replica RCMP police cruiser and multiple firearms.”

Between Banfield’s 911 call and the encounter with police at the gas station in Enfield, Wortman killed nine more—six of them while still in disguise, including RCMP officer Heidi Stevenson.

The class-action also notes what has long been in the public domain—that it wasn’t until 10:17 a.m. on April 19 before the RCMP tweeted that the suspect “may be driving what appears to be an RCMP vehicle & may be wearing an RCMP uniform.”

‘Chaotic Scene’

The lawsuit also claims that the RCMP created further liabilities for public safety by failing to call in an “Emergency Response Team when it ought to have done so” and by relying solely on Twitter to warn the wider public.

It says that using Twitter to inform the public was inadequate because the population affected by the rampage was older and less likely to be Twitter users, the internet coverage in a large portion of the area was inadequate to alert the entire affected population, and the Twitter alerts contained either inaccurate or insufficient information to allow the population to properly protect itself.

Leather defended the use of Twitter to notify the public. “Twitter allowed our information to be shared, followed and broadcast by local, provincial and national news outlets,” he said.

He said the provincial Emergency Management Office contacted the RCMP about sending an emergency message via the provincial emergency alert system, but due to various delays, the alert was never sent out.

Campbell told CTV News in an interview in early June that it was a "chaotic scene" in Portapique the night of the killings and that he couldn’t explain why the Mounties described the situation merely as a “firearms complaint” in their first tweet.

"It was a chaotic scene. It was dynamic, it was evolving, and all of the details weren't known,” he said. “I can't speak as to why they chose that language.”

The lawsuit is one of three civil actions related to the Wortman homicides. Banfield, who had earlier renounced her role as executor in Wortman’s purported $1.2 million estate following the rampage, made an individual claim in August against Wortman’s assets, which include properties and various forms of savings.

McCulloch’s firm is also representing a class-action claim filed in May against Wortman’s estate by family members of Wortman’s victims, specifically excluding Banfield. Similar to the civil action against the federal and provincial governments, it includes survivors seeking compensation for injuries they suffered as a result of Wortman’s actions.

On top of pending litigation is an as-yet unscheduled public inquiry, called at the end of July by Public Safety Minister Bill Blair as public outcry grew over plans for a panel review that was deemed insufficient.

Heather Fairbairn, media relations adviser with the Nova Scotia Department of Justice, said in an email that the province “is currently working with the federal government to establish the public inquiry, which includes appointing commissioners and establishing the terms of reference.”

She declined to comment on the lawsuit as the matter is before the courts.

McCulloch told The Epoch Times that the defendants have yet to respond and that she doesn’t expect any case to go to trial for at least a year, “given the nature of the case and the volume of materials and people involved,” but that the lawsuits will go forward regardless of what the inquiry finds.

“There's something to be said for a process that will in the end potentially have financial repercussions … and so that may be more effective at producing positive change versus an inquiry that produces a report with recommendations,” she said.

Neither the public safety minister’s office nor the RCMP responded to requests for comment for this article.