Hunting a killer in the dark: first officers on scene in Portapique recall the night

Hunting a killer in the dark: first officers on scene in Portapique recall the night

On Sunday, April 19, 2020, Const. Stuart Beselt woke up and turned on the news.

You could have scraped his jaw off the floor.

“Flabbergasted,” Beselt told Mass Casualty Commission counsel in a recorded interview.

Beselt had gone to bed thinking Gabriel Wortman was dead.

The acting corporal had led a team of three regular duty RCMP officers into Portapique, hunting the gunman amongst the fires and dead neighbours he’d left behind.

Soaked through with sweat in the front door of the red A-frame from which they’d rescued four children, staring into the dark as the recently arrived emergency response team called into the forest with loud speakers, Cst. Beselt had heard a single, clear crack.

“We heard one last loud crack and it was like, nah, he just, he knows the gig’s up,” Cst. Beselt told interviewers.

“He just shot himself and, you know, so when I woke up Sunday morning. I kind of felt like the situation was over. They’ll find him in the woods kind of somewhere.”

We all know now that it wasn’t over.

That Wortman had escaped out of Portapique along a cart-path down the edge of blueberry field non of the responding officers knew existed and spent the night parked in his replica RCMP cruiser behind an industrial building on Ventura Avenue in Debert.

But this is the story of the officers who walked down a dark road toward the fires, gunshots and explosions of a mad man, seeking to make a community safe again.

An average Colchester County Saturday night

Two and a half years out of training, Const. Aaron Patton was getting used to Colchester County night shifts.

The Bible Hill detachment is a busy one.

His shift was typically shorthanded – staffed by four rather than six officers – covering an area that spread from Shubenacadie to Tatamagouche to the Bay of Fundy.

“We do a lot of people hitting deers with their vehicle… and then all the way up to disturbances, assaults, really anything,” Patton told Mass Casualty Commission interviewers of the workload.

“Sky’s the limit, it really is, there’s a mix of everything.”

On April 18, he and Const. Adam Marchand were wrapping up their responsibilities at a mental health call in Salmon River.

In separate cruisers, the two were following a woman taking her husband to the hospital.

Patton turned down his radio as he returned the call of a person who wanted to speak to the RCMP on an unrelated matter.

Then Const. Marchand turned on his lights and sirens and roared past.

Lawyer Roger Burrill, part of the presenting counsel team, released details at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18/19, 2020, in Halifax on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. - The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan
Lawyer Roger Burrill, part of the presenting counsel team, released details at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18/19, 2020, in Halifax on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. – The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan

It was 10:01 p.m. and 911 had received a call from Jamie Blair saying that her neighbour had shot her husband on their front deck in Portapique.

“There is a police car… but he drives, he’s a denturist and he drives like a … there is an RCMP … it’s decked and labelled RCMP … [Inaudible] … but it’s not a police officer …” reads the transcript of her call.

She was in the bedroom with her two children (aged 9 and 11) hiding between the bed and wall.

She died on the line as Wortman first shot her through the closed bedroom door, then came in the room and shot her again without apparently noticing the hiding children.

But Patton, Marchand and Beselt didn’t know any of this.

They were responding to a report of a shooting in Portapique by a man driving a car that looked like an RCMP cruiser – without any detail on it having lights or markings other than being a large white sedan.

Then another call came in, from two children claiming their parents had been shot.

“I had my vehicle to the floor, right,” Cst. Beselt recalled.

“Like I was going as fast as that old Tahoe would go.”

Responsible for the lives of others

He thought of Moncton, where five RCMP officers were shot six years earlier by a 24-year-old, how RCMP vehicles attract bullets, and that as the acting corporal he was responsible for the lives of the officers he was about to lead into harm’s way.

Arriving first at where the Portapique Beach Road branches off Highway 2, he stopped the truck, put on his hard tactical body armour and readied his carbine.

Two cars appeared coming toward him from Portapique.

Inside the first, he was surprised to find a friend from recreational hockey who’d been shot in the arm by someone driving a white car.

“And the next car behind him was white,” Cst. Beselt recalled.

“… I drop on that car and it’s, you can tell it’s a family and they’re like, ‘it’s not us, it’s not us.’ ”

Marchand and Patton arrived.

Seeing that the bullet has passed clear through the man’s arm and he wasn’t “bleeding out” Patton provides the first aid he could and directed him to another arriving officer.

Patton then ran to join Marchand and Beselt who were walking into Portapique.

All RCMP officers are required to regularly take what’s called immediate action rapid deployment training.

In this active shooter situation, the training dictated that the officer’s role was to find and neutralize the threat.

More than one way out of community

According to the maps there was one way out of the community, which was blocked by two officers and more were en route.

They maintained a formation of two spread apart in front and one trailing behind covering the rear.

“So as far as I’m concerned we have an active shooter and we’re going ahead,” said Beselt.

“Right. Like we’re not stopping until you know there’s not more shots being heard.”

They passed what would later turn out to be the shooter’s home, fully engulfed in flames, with a white Ford Taurus parked out front.

They heard gunshots and explosions and could see flame and smoke through the woods separating them from Orchard Beach Drive, which runs parallel to Portapique Beach Drive.

They cut through the woods and came upon Gabriel Wortman’s large storage building.

The quonset hut was a torch in the dark, making its own explosions as others could be heard but not seen further up Orchard Beach Drive.

In its light they found their first body.

They kept moving.

Cst. Beselt still doesn’t know why he walked up to the red A-frame and knocked on the door.

According to his training, they should have continued from that first body in the direction of the other explosions.

“I just felt like we had to go to the house,” recalled Beselt.

Four children came to the door.

“They were like very, very calm,” recalled Patton.

“Two of them explained that their parents were dead next door and they had been shot. And like, they weren’t… they were…. they were very calm. There was no emotion or… or panicness or anything.”

The children provided the most detailed information yet on what they were dealing with but also raised a hard question.

Hunting for a killer

As far as the officers could tell, Wortman was still killing further up Orchard Beach Road.

To prevent a blue-on-blue, where officers end up shooting at each other in a chaotic situation, they would remain the only team inside Portapique for the time being.

The officers took the children to the basement, told them to stay hidden and not answer the door, and went out again into the night to hunt Wortman.

They saw a flashlight moving toward them down Orchard Beach Drive.

The three officers took a prone firing position as Beselt called dispatch to confirm that no-other officers are in the area.

“Obviously we think it’s the suspect,” Beselt recalled.

“… My line in the sand is if this guy runs, I’m shooting … like I’m going to try and stop the threat.”

The flashlight turned off before reaching them and its holder fled into the woods.

The officers followed the man to the tree line, where Beselt halted them.

“Boys, this is suicide,” he recalled saying.

“Like we’re literally committing suicide if we go in here because, you know, like all he has to do is to turn around and wait and we can’t see him.”

Then they found another body beside the road.

They inspected it and kept moving in the direction of the explosions.

Then dispatch radioed that the children had called 911 saying they could hear someone walking above their basement hiding spot in the red house.

“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, we let them die,’ ” recalled Beselt.

The officers ran back to the red house, saw no sign of forced entry on the still locked doors, cleared the property and spoke with the children.

The noise they’d heard appeared to be explosions from Wortman’s burning storage building.

Then a call came in from Farris Lane, at the far end of Portapique Beach Drive, that residents saw a man in their yard with a flashlight who appeared to be trying to set their house on fire.

“So we’re like ‘OK, great. Somebody spotted him. Let’s go,’ ” recalled Beselt.

They gave the children the code word ‘pineapple’ to demand of anyone who came to the door and set out for Farris Lane.

As they walked cut through backyards toward where Portapique Beach Drive met up with Farris Lane, Beselt radioed his commander asking if officers could be sent to protect the children.

Two officers were already on the way having headed in without waiting for the orders.

Navigating in the dark

Navigating by the Google maps on their personal smartphones and the noise of what they couldn’t tell were explosions or gunshots, the officers arrived at Farris Lane to find a house burning that hadn’t been on fire when they first arrived in Portapique.

“So, you know, from our perspective, things are still active,” recalled Beselt.

He grew afraid that Wortman was lighting houses on fire to force the occupants to flee so they could be shot down.

At 11:16 p.m. Beselt radioed to dispatch, asking, “Is there some kind of emergency broadcast that we can make that – make people go into their basement and not go outside.”

He was told that officers were looking up numbers in the 911 director and calling people’s homes.

The Mass Casualty Commission investigation concluded that it appears plausible that Gabriel Wortman could have travelled along the blueberry field route without encountering a police checkpoint, an hypothesis informed by the fact that between 10:41 and 10:45 p.m., no police containment point was as yet established east of Portapique Beach Road. - Mass Casualty Commission
The Mass Casualty Commission investigation concluded that it appears plausible that Gabriel Wortman could have travelled along the blueberry field route without encountering a police checkpoint, an hypothesis informed by the fact that between 10:41 and 10:45 p.m., no police containment point was as yet established east of Portapique Beach Road. – Mass Casualty Commission

Though an emergency alert system exists that sends a warning to all cellphones in a selected geographic area, it was never used.

Unable to find Wortman, they went door to door, escorting people to their cars and directing them out toward the roadblock.

Of the two officers who had gone to retrieve the children from the red house, one had remained behind.

En route to meet up with him, Beselt’s team came upon a man with a rifle and a firehose determined to protect his house.

“And we’re like ‘No, get the hell out of here. Like, just go,’ ” recalled Beselt of their directions to him.

It was only when they got back to the red house and were told to hunker down and wait for the emergency response team, that they first felt the chill spring air.

While the two officers stood at each of the front and back doorways trying to absorb some of the home’s heat while looking out into the night, they heard what sounded like a lone gunshot from the forest.

It was 2:18 a.m.

April 19

The memory that hit Beselt that Sunday morning after learning Gabriel Wortman was still alive and still killing was that of the flashlight moving towards his team in the dark.

“I had my shot. I didn’t take it. So then I was like, I was a mess for like two days,” recalled Beselt.

It was only when a tactical unit member informed him that the man with the flashlight wasn’t Wortman, that Beselt’s shoulders could lighten. It was Clinton Ellison who had come down Orchard Beach Drive looking for his brother, Corrie Ellison.

The latter had been shot by Wortman after going to check on the fires and see if anyone needed help.

Clinton too noted having heard what sounded like a single gunshot to the tactical unit he emerged from the forest to approach at 2:31 a.m.

At the end of his interview, Beselt volunteered to testify at the ongoing inquiry.

He was also asked how he is coping with the memories of that night.

“There’s two things that really eat up police officers. A, you’re helpless or B, you have regrets,” said Beselt.

“I don’t feel helpless because I was in it. Right. Like I know speaking to a lot of members that were listening, you know, or if I would have been involved on Sunday, I would have felt helpless… (it) just have been like, I want to stop this as quick as I can…”

Having learned he never had a shot at Wortman that he passed on, removed a source of regret.

“I feel fairly content in knowing that I did everything I could,” he told the interviewers.

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