Lost emails and unexplained delays: Mass shooting inquiry uncovers new RCMP snags

HALIFAX — An RCMP officer said Tuesday she worked as fast as she could to warn the public on social media about a killer on the loose in Nova Scotia on April 19, 2020, but there was a crucial delay she can't explain.

"Look, I wish I could have gotten (tweets and Facebook posts) out earlier," Jennifer Clarke, a former Halifax-based public information officer, told a public inquiry in Truro, N.S. "I don't know if I could have saved someone. I don't know that I could have worked any faster."

The inquiry has heard the gunman — disguised as a Mountie and driving a replica RCMP cruiser — fatally shot 13 people in Portapique, N.S., on the night of April 18, 2020. Having escaped from the community, he resumed his rampage the next morning, killing another nine people at various locations in northern and central Nova Scotia. He was later shot dead by two Mounties at a gas station north of Halifax.

Earlier that morning, the RCMP had obtained a photo of the killer's vehicle, which looked exactly like an RCMP patrol car. Clarke emailed her superior, Lia Scanlan, about the photo just before 9 a.m. and was told to write a tweet to alert the public. She said Scanlan told her to seek approval for its release from Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum.

Clarke testified that she made several phone calls to ensure the accuracy of the tweet and she used a computer program to highlight the car's call sign, which the public could use to distinguish it from legitimate RCMP cruisers.

"We have to check every detail," she said. "We can't be wrong."

By 9:40 a.m., Clarke sent a draft tweet with a photo of the vehicle to MacCallum, but he had already left the command post to join the pursuit of the killer in Wentworth, N.S., and did not respond.

Clarke then contacted Staff Sgt. Steve Halliday, who approved the tweet at 9:49 a.m. She then sought approval via email from Scanlan, director of the Nova Scotia RCMP's strategic communications unit. But there was a delay of nearly half an hour, and Clarke said she sent three emails to Scanlan to draw her attention to the proposed tweet.

"I was pacing the floor," Clarke told the inquiry. "It was the longest 27 minutes of my life."

The tweet wasn’t sent until 10:17 a.m., almost three hours after the Mounties first obtained the photograph. Inquiry documents do not provide an explanation, and Clarke did not offer one.

Scanlan, who is scheduled to testify Wednesday, told commission investigators in February that she had instructed her team on the morning of April 19 to release immediately whatever information they received. "My whole message was: 'When information comes in, it goes out .... Just get it out,'" Scanlan said.

Under cross-examination Tuesday, Clarke was asked why she sought approval from Scanlan when Halliday had already given his OK. "The rules aren't written down," she said, adding that critical incidents typically require more oversight. "The rule was understood."

Lawyer Tara Miller, who represents a relative of victim Kristen Beaton, suggested that seeking multiple approvals probably slowed down the release of information. Clarke said she wanted to make sure nothing had changed that could have increased the risk to RCMP members. 

"It wouldn't have been productive to anyone to start going rogue, so to speak, and trying to get approval from different sources," she said.

At the time, the Mounties were dealing with a full-blown crisis. Shortly after 9:30 a.m., a series of 911 calls confirmed the killer had resumed his rampage. Soon after the RCMP learned Lillian Campbell had been shot in Wentworth, they were told a body had been found next to a burning home in nearby West Wentworth.

And just after 10 a.m., police learned of the shooting deaths of Beaton and Heather O’Brien, both of whom worked for the Victorian Order of Nurses. Another three people, including an RCMP officer, were fatally shot later that morning.

In an evidence summary released Tuesday, the inquiry disclosed for the first time that the photo of the suspect's car was supposed to be immediately forwarded to Scanlan early on April 18, but something went wrong.

In a previous interview with commission investigators, MacCallum said he forwarded photos of the killer and his car to Scanlan before 8 a.m. He also recounted how he specifically asked if she had a photo of the car.

The commission later determined the photo of the killer made it to Scanlan, but the picture of the car went elsewhere. The evidence summary, known as a foundational document, says investigators found that MacCallum sent a second email with both photos at 8:10 a.m. 

"It is unknown whether the 8:10 a.m. email and attachment were received by Lia Scanlan," the document says. "Ms. Scanlan told the Mass Casualty Commission that she was not aware of the perpetrator’s replica RCMP cruiser before 8 a.m." Notes that Scanlan took that day say nothing about the photo of the car. 

At 8:54 a.m., the RCMP posted a tweet that included a description and a photo of the killer, as well as confirmation that the 51-year-old denture maker was armed and dangerous. There was no mention of the vehicle. 

Previously released documents and testimony have confirmed there was discussion among senior Mounties who believed that releasing information about the replica vehicle could cause public panic and put police in danger.

"Whether or not there was a decision made at the command post to delay the release of information about the replica RCMP cruiser, it appears the preparations for such a release were underway shortly before 9 a.m. on April 19, 2020,” the foundational document says.

When the hearings opened Tuesday, the chairman of the commission, Michael MacDonald, announced the RCMP had been issued a subpoena to compel them to provide a list of all the changes made to prevent a similar tragedy from happening.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2022.

Michael MacDonald and Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press