How the N.S. gunman convinced people not to report mock cruiser before mass shooting

·11 min read
The gunman's replica RCMP cruiser that was used in the Nova Scotia mass shooting was created using a decommissioned 2017 Ford Taurus. (Mass Casualty Commission - image credit)
The gunman's replica RCMP cruiser that was used in the Nova Scotia mass shooting was created using a decommissioned 2017 Ford Taurus. (Mass Casualty Commission - image credit)

Many people knew about the gunman's fully marked replica RCMP cruiser before he used it in Nova Scotia's mass killing, but didn't report it to police based on the various lies he told them about why he had the vehicle and whether it was legal.

New documents released Monday by the commission leading the public inquiry into the April 18 and 19, 2020, shooting rampage detail how gunman Gabriel Wortman created the replica cruiser, gathered other police paraphernalia like uniforms and equipment, and who knew about them.

The records show he spun tales to neighbours, friends, strangers and patients at his denture clinic about how he was using the replica vehicle as a "show car" to honour fallen officers in parades, as a prop in a movie he was making about the apocalypse, and that he was a retired officer who wanted to scare off burglars who might break into his cottages.

The gunman may also have spoken directly with someone at RCMP provincial headquarters in 2019 about the replica cruiser, according to one person interviewed by the commission, but was apparently told such a vehicle would be illegal.

"He wasn't hiding it; I can tell you that," Max Liberatore, a manager at the federal surplus warehouse where the gunman bought his decommissioned RCMP cars, told the Mass Casualty Commission in an interview.

"Of course you don't think he did what he did. That's the last thing you would ever think."

But the officers on the ground in Portapique, N.S., who responded in the first hours of the massacre, those in command positions and 911 dispatchers did not appear to have these details right away. They were left scrambling to understand what witnesses meant by the shooter being in a "police car."

During most of the rampage that started in the small rural community and saw 22 people killed, the 51-year-old denturist drove a decommissioned police vehicle he had bought through a federal government auction site on June 27, 2019, for $10,990.

According to a timeline put together by the commission, the gunman began searching online for police materials in January 2018.

That replica cruiser was one of three decommissioned Ford Taurus cars registered under the gunman's company, Berkshire Broman Corporation. Two were 2013 models and the fully marked replica was a 2017, but did not have a licence plate. A fourth 2013 Taurus was not registered at all, according to the commission's summary.

Steve Lawrence/CBC
Steve Lawrence/CBC

When RCMP cars are retired from police service they are stripped of all vinyl decals and equipment at the surplus warehouses before being put up for auction, Liberatore said.

Liberatore told the commission he knew the gunman was adding decals to one of the cars and creating a mock cruiser. When Liberatore asked him why, the gunman said he was planning to honour the three Moncton, N.B., officers who were killed by a gunman in 2014 by featuring them through decals on the hood of the car.

"I said, 'Oh yeah, that's kind of cool,'" Liberatore recalled, and the gunman added he planned to use the vehicle in parades.

The gunman never tried to purchase decals through the surplus warehouse, Liberatore said, and while he talked about the gunman's plans with other coworkers he never passed the information up through the federal government internally, or reported it to RCMP.

Liberatore testified at the inquiry on Monday, where lawyer Tara Miller asked him more about his original statement to police in April 2020. Miller represents relatives of victims Aaron Tuck and Kristen Beaton.

CBC
CBC

In the statement, Liberatore recalled a conversation about the replica cruiser where he told the gunman "you can get in that god damn car and drive down the road and pull people over."

"He goes yeah, he goes you can do it pretty quickly, they can pull over for it no problem at all for me," Liberatore recalled the gunman saying.

Miller asked Liberatore whether he was aware it was a crime to impersonate a police officer, and he agreed.

"That didn't raise any concerns with you?" Miller asked.

"I didn't think he was out there pulling people over in the car," Liberatore said.

The inquiry also heard that Liberatore didn't think there was anything unusual about one person buying three or four decommissioned police cars in the span of a few months, which the gunman did, because he's seen people buy 10 or 15 at one time to resell.

Mass Casualty Commission
Mass Casualty Commission

Amanda Byrd, commission counsel, said Monday there are federal and provincial laws that make it a crime to impersonate a police officer, or use badges, uniforms or police equipment.

New Nova Scotia legislation, the Police Identity Management Act, is expected to come into effect May 12. Byrd said this prohibits the sale, reproduction or possession of police-issued items by an individual or for someone else.

It also prevents the sale of marked police vehicles, and restricts possession of vehicle decals and police vehicle equipment to "authorized individuals and uses," Byrd said. The act makes it an offence to use or possess police paraphernalia besides some exceptions like films, museums or exhibitions. The act also prohibits the sale or fabrication of police paraphernalia unless the buyer is authorized.

In Nova Scotia, former RCMP cars are no longer being sold after being decommissioned and are instead stored or destroyed.

Mock cruiser seen at dealership

The gunman's story about honouring fallen officers, and specifically those who died in Moncton, was repeated to various people including family members of the gunman's common-law partner, Lisa Banfield.

Although Banfield's siblings and other family members questioned whether the mock cruiser was legal, the gunman assured them he'd checked with a "Crown prosecutor" about strictly using it for parades.

He told people who questioned the legality of the replica that police either knew about the car, or that it didn't matter since he didn't actually drive it.

But some people actually saw the gunman driving the cruiser in the months before the massacre, including Bruce Gilmore, who worked at a Mercedes dealership in Halifax that handled one of the couple's cars.

Gilmore said he saw the gunman drop Banfield off at the dealership around the end of January 2020 in a marked cruiser. When Gilmore asked how he drove it legally, the gunman told him it was "just a hobby" and it was "known" he was doing so.

"I thought, end of story," Gilmore told the commission. "If you've got the green light to do it, it's not my business."

In hindsight, Gilmore said he likely should have called police to report the mock cruiser, but the gunman was a "pretty prominent person" in the Halifax area and "he'd never given me any reason not to believe him."

Gunman may have spoken with RCMP

A few months before Gilmore's sighting, a then-commissionaire at Nova Scotia's RCMP headquarters met the gunman. In a statement to police, Bob Dentremont said the gunman drove up to ask about registering a "mocked up police car," but Dentremont told him he didn't think that was allowed.

The gunman replied he thought that might be the case as the Registry of Motor Vehicles had also told him the same thing, Dentremont said to police.

Dentremont said he dialled someone inside headquarters, who could have been the sergeant major as that was common practice, and handed the gunman the phone.

"Whoever he was talking to at the headquarters told him definitely not; that car cannot be registered as some mocked up police car," Dentremont said, adding the gunman said he wanted to rent the replica cruiser for movies.

The commission documents note the sergeant major retired later in 2019, and a "supplementary report" will come later.

CBC
CBC

In creating the replica, the gunman had some decals made through a sign shop in Truro, N.S. RCMP have said one of the shop's employees, Peter Griffon, printed the decals without his boss's knowledge.

Griffon was living in Portapique on parole, after serving time for drug offences linked to organized crime. The Parole Board of Canada found he initially lied to RCMP about printing the decals, and it sent him back to prison.

The gunman bought various paraphernalia for the cruiser like a divider, decals, light bar and radar. Some were purchased through Amazon or eBay, a few bought through friends, and others shipped to a friend's address in Maine where the gunman would collect them.

He also bought raw vinyl material that could then be turned into decals, including from a Dartmouth, N.S., business called ND Graphics. Employee Angela Baker later told police she told the gunman he wouldn't be able to drive the car once he made it look like a replica cruiser — he agreed that would be "illegal" and said it was just for show.

RCMP, dispatchers confused by police car description

In the first hour of the mass killing as the gunman shot neighbours in their Portapique homes and burned buildings, multiple witnesses told RCMP officers or 911 dispatch that someone in a marked "police car" was shooting people.

But the first three RCMP officers who walked into the community on April 18, 2020, have testified they never imagined the gunman could have an authentic-looking police cruiser. They thought it was likely an older model that had been stripped of markings.

Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill, RCMP risk manager on duty, also said on a call at 10:32 p.m. that night "they're saying someone in a police car is shooting people and we can't nail it down. But we don't think it's a police car."

A 911 dispatcher working out of the Operational Communications Centre in Truro also told an RCMP officer asking about the police car around 11 p.m. that "we can't still get to the bottom of that."

As the Ford Taurus cars were not registered under the gunman's name, police weren't aware for the first few hours exactly how many he had.

But they did have a record: Const. Nick Dorrington had ticketed the gunman for speeding in February 2020, took a photo of his driver's licence, and noted he was driving an unmarked white 2013 Ford Taurus with a licence plate.

Just after midnight, Dorrington pulled up the gunman's photo and Taurus' licence plate, which he shared with police. But he did not share the name of the company under which the car was registered.

The commission documents said "it is unknown" whether all the details on the speeding ticket were reviewed by RCMP or dispatch staff during the mass shooting.

Photo of mock cruiser shared with police

Police collected more details of the mock cruiser in the early morning hours of April 19 from Banfield and Andrew MacDonald, who had been shot by the gunman but survived. One of Banfield's sisters then shared a photo of the cruiser, which was released internally to RCMP and Halifax Regional Police around 8 a.m.

It would not be released to the public until 10:17 a.m. when RCMP tweeted the photo.

The morning of April 19, Const. Heidi Stevenson of the Enfield, N.S., RCMP detachment called 911 dispatcher Lisa Stewart around 8:20 a.m. to ask more about the gunman's mock car and whether he had a police radio.

"Wait until you take a look at it … unbelievable this car," Stewart said.

They both speculated whether the cruiser could be stolen because of the realistic decals, but Stevenson said "anybody can get decals made."

Liam Hennessey/The Canadian Press
Liam Hennessey/The Canadian Press

"But can you just go out and buy a light bar?" Stevenson asked, to which Stewart said, "I don't know."

Stevenson was killed by the gunman in Shubenacadie, N.S., roughly two hours later, after a gunfight where she managed to injure his head.

Other officers were just as confused: RCMP Staff Sgt. Brice Briers was updating a Truro Police Service officer, Cpl. Ed Cormier, on the marked cruiser around 8:45 a.m.

Cormier said that was "crazy," and the Mounties must be second-guessing every RCMP car they pass.

"It's hard to believe," Briers said. "I don't know how you acquire one, like if you ask me to figure out how to do that, I wouldn't be able to tell you."

Uniform likely came from uncle: commission

The documents also have conflicting details about how the gunman got the RCMP uniform he had in the car with him through the shootings, including the pants with distinctive yellow stripes, and white shirt.

Banfield said the gunman had his uncle's former uniform. But the uncle, retired Mountie Chris Wortman, said he hadn't given them to the gunman.

Chris Wortman confirmed he'd given the gunman his red serge uniform and high brown boots, but said the gunman might have been able to take the other uniform when he visited Wortman's home.

The commission noted there is no evidence the gunman ever wore the RCMP pants during the massacre. He was wearing black jeans when he was eventually killed by police at an Enfield gas station.

The inquiry's public hearings for this week will be held at the Prince George Hotel in downtown Halifax, near the commission's primary location at the Halifax Convention Centre.

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