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Nova Scotia mass shooting: RCMP officers cleared of wrongdoing in firehall shooting

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HALIFAX -

No criminal charges should be laid against two Mounties who mistakenly shot at a bystander outside a Nova Scotia firehall as police were searching for the man responsible for a mass shooting that would claim 22 lives, Ontario's police watchdog says.

In a report released Friday, the independent Special Investigations Unit said RCMP constables Terry Brown and Dave Melanson acted reasonably when they opened fire outside the Onslow firehall on the morning of April 19, 2020.

No one was hurt, but some people inside the firehall, including two firefighters, were left traumatized. In all, five shots were fired. Bullet fragments hit an outside wall, the firehall's garage door and a fire truck.

Onslow was one of more than a dozen largely rural communities the killer drove through during a 13-hour rampage that started in Portapique, N.S., on the night of April 18, 2020. Disguised as a Mountie and driving a car that looked exactly like an RCMP cruiser, Gabriel Wortman fatally shot 13 people on the first night, and the next day he killed another nine people, including a pregnant woman and an RCMP officer.

He was shot dead later that day by two Mounties at a gas station in Enfield, N.S.

The SIU's report marks the second time Brown and Melanson have been cleared of wrongdoing.

In March 2021, Nova Scotia's police oversight agency, the Serious Incident Response Team, found that the "totality of the evidence" led the officers to believe the killer was standing just 88 metres away when they stopped their unmarked car in front of the firehall.

At the time, Brown and Melanson had been told about the gunman's replica RCMP cruiser and that he was wearing a high-visibility orange safety vest.

The officers later told SIRT investigators that as they drove past the firehall, they spotted an RCMP cruiser in the parking lot and a man in a reflective vest standing next to the vehicle. The SIRT report says the two officers repeatedly tried to advise other RCMP officers by radio of what they were seeing but couldn't get through because the radios were jammed by too many transmissions.

Both officers exited their vehicle with their rifles, and the report says they yelled, "Police!" and "Show your hands!" That's when the man in the vest ducked behind the car and ran toward the firehall, the SIRT report says. One officer fired four shots and the other a single shot.

The Nova Scotia watchdog concluded the officers had a "lawful excuse" to fire their guns.

"They discharged their weapons in order to prevent further deaths or serious injuries," SIRT's report said. "The (officers) had reasonable grounds to believe the person they saw, who was disobeying their orders, was the mass murderer who had, in the preceding hour, killed three more persons."

But questions were raised about the report by Nova Scotia's police oversight agency soon after it was released.

The two firefighters who were in the firehall, Chief Greg Muise and deputy chief Darrell Currie, have pushed for a further investigation, saying the officers should be held accountable for endangering lives, damaging property and causing mental health issues for many of the people involved.

Calls for another investigation grew after a federal-provincial public inquiry released its final, 3,000-page report in March of last year. The report was intensely critical of the RCMP's overall response to the mass shooting and its near-miss at the firehall.

"The RCMP command group did not recognize the gravity of the Onslow firehall shooting," says one of the inquiry report's main findings. "They failed to take the necessary steps to evaluate the circumstances of the shooting, secure the scene, or evaluate the involved members' capacity to continue with the critical incident response."

As well, the inquiry found that after the shooting, "the RCMP failed to adhere to its policies and the Serious Incident Response Team regulations with respect to the procedures that must be followed after a serious incident that attracts SIRT jurisdiction."

In April 2023, the Nova Scotia watchdog asked its Ontario counterpart to determine if the inquiry had unearthed evidence that could have affected SIRT's previous decision not to charge Melanson and Brown.

The SIU report released Friday says the inquiry heard that the man police mistook for the killer -- emergency management co-ordinator David Westlake -- had denied the Mounties' assertions that he had ducked and ran just before the officers opened fire.

Westlake told inquiry investigators that at no time did he hear anyone yelling at him to show his hands. As well, of the eight people living near the firehall who spoke to inquiry investigators, none reported hearing anyone say, "Show your hands!"

The SIU report notes that the Mountie who was inside the parked RCMP cruiser, Const. Dave Gagnon, told the inquiry that he did not hear any police commands even though his window was down.

The Ontario watchdog's report says the new evidence, if true, could change SIRT's decision "because (Westlake's) ignoring commands and ducking was part of the basis for the (officers') belief that (he) was the gunman."

"If they did not issue verbal commands, there is also an argument that resorting to lethal force was unnecessary because they did not try lesser tactics to gain compliance," the report says.

The SIU, however, concluded that this evidence falls short of justifying criminal charges partly because it was deemed unreliable. The report found that Westlake's assertions were at odds with notes he took later that day.

According to the SIU, Westlake's notes say that as officers in a grey car yelled "get down," he then "ducked and ran into main entry" of the firehall as shots rang out.

As for the others who said the officers did not issue commands, the report says it's possible they simply did not hear them.

"The new material evidence is not so cogent as to tip the balance in favour of the more incriminating scenario as far as the officers' potential criminal liability is concerned," the report concludes.

"The totality of the evidence, including the new material evidence, does not give rise to a reasonable belief that either officer acted without the justification."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2024.

For more Nova Scotia news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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