Jordan: In the aftermath of Canada’s worst mass shooting there were dozens and dozens of questions without answers. The list started with things as basic as how many victims? Who were they? Where were they? And the list ended with the biggest one of all: Why?
News Clip: Authorities in Nova Scotia are continuing the difficult task of investigating the shooting rampage. There are 16 crime scenes and experts say this. This may be one of the most complex police investigations the country has ever seen.
Jordan: From the beginning, police were clear that there would be no quick, neatly reported answers to any of this. Now, almost two weeks later, we know more, a lot more, but not enough.
We have answers to some of the evidence-based questions. We know who and what and where and mostly how. That’s what we can lay out for you today. The last one though, the why? We might never know. But as police and reporters dig into the trail of murders leftover a 13 hour period, some things at least are finally becoming clear. In the next few weeks, and yes, months, there are still trails to follow and we don’t know where they’ll lead, but our guests today will take us a little bit of the ways down some of them. As soon as Claire takes you inside Canada’s battle with COVID-19 today.
Claire: Canada’s parliamentary budget officer is warning that the federal deficit for the year could hit $252.1 billion because of COVID-19. A big chunk of that is based on the government’s emergency funding, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended that by saying, we need to invest now to make sure an economic recovery can happen as soon as possible. An Air Canada vice president says he expects the return of worldwide travel by Christmas time, but he says he knows it will be difficult to convince people that it will be safe to board a plane. He says the airline is rolling out new procedures, including disinfecting every part of the plane before passengers even board. Before, disinfecting was usually only done overnight. Ontario Premier Doug Ford says the province is very close to reopening the economy. He gave details earlier this week about how restrictions would be eased, but he offered no timeline, saying the government was taking the advice of medical experts. In his latest briefing he said good news is coming very shortly. He also unveiled a set of rules that some businesses will have to follow once they reopened, including installing plexiglass barriers, revamping the ventilation system, and holding meetings outdoors. And lastly, Nunavut has reported its first case of COVID-19. The territory’s chief public health officer says it was a matter of time before this happened and that there’s no need to panic because they’ve been preparing for this for weeks. As of Thursday evening, there have been 53,236 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada with 3,279 deaths.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Greg Mercer is the Atlantic Canada reporter for the Globe and Mail, a sadly very busy man these days. Hi Greg.
Greg: Hi Jordan. Thanks for having me on.
Jordan: No problem. Thank you for taking the time. When this originally happened, we did an episode the very next day, and it was as much about all the things we didn’t know as what we actually did know. And just how much have we learned in the past two weeks while you’ve been reporting.
Greg: So the puzzle is starting to come together. There is still a lot we don’t know, but you’re right. I mean, the day after this happened, we still didn’t have a full sense of the total number of victims. We didn’t know how this gunman got around. We didn’t know much about the incident that we believe sparked this killing spree. We began to piece some of that together. We know more about, about the man who is responsible now and we have learned that he left behind 22 victims in the span of about a 13 hour killing spree, basically. And we’ve learned that he was basically well prepared for this. He had, we now know, five police vehicles at his disposal. Four of them were former cop cars. One of them was never a police car, but he made it out to look like it was an authentic RCMP vehicle. We learned more about the weapons he used. We’ve learned about the timeline. So it’s slowly coming together, but there’s still a lot we don’t know.
Jordan: So what does that process of figuring out what happened been like? What has come from you and your team at the Globe investigating? And what has come out from the RCMP? Cause I know they were saying almost nothing originally.
Greg: Yeah. They didn’t reveal a whole lot in the early days of this. They have been getting better as this investigation has gone on. Their press conferences now are slowly revealing a little bit more. But it has been difficult to get a clear picture of exactly what went on. A lot of the digging we’ve done as reporters is to learn about victims, who these folks were, where they were when they were killed, whether they had any connection to the gunmen, because some people seem to have relationships with him, and seemed to have a grievance with him, if we can call it that. Other people were killed in a completely random manner, they were walking their dog or they were out driving to get furnace oil and just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. So we began to piece that together. And we’re learning more about the guy responsible for this. A 51-year-old denturist and some of his, you know, his history and how we got here, as best we can determine. But for a lot of folks who know him, they say this, this thing really came out of the blue and there were not a lot of warning signs. So we’re still trying to make sense of what happened two weekends ago.
Jordan: Can you now walk me through what happened that night and the next morning as best we can now?
Greg: Sure. As best we understand, this is the timeline. That Saturday night, later, Saturday night, after 10 o’clock, there was some kind of argument between the gunman and his common law wife, who lived with him. She was assaulted, she managed to escape, and after she escaped and went hiding in the woods the Portapique area, that’s when his rampage began. He, in the next span of an hour or so, killed 13 of his neighbours. He lit their homes on fire, he shot them when he ran out of their homes. In some cases, he shot people who came to help when they saw the fires, not knowing that there were homicides happening. Police arrived at about 10:26 according to the RCMP, and that was about nine minutes before he left the scene. He snuck away in an RCMP lookalike vehicle. He went to a neighbouring community called Deberdt where we believe he spent the night. And then he got up the next morning, early before 6:00 AM, and he continued his rampage. He then went up to a community called Wentworth where he killed a hunting buddy of his and his wife. He burned their house, he killed their neighbour when the neighbour came over to help. On his way out of the community, he killed a woman walking her dog. He then returned to Debert and we believe he pulled over two vehicles, who, those drivers thought they were being pulled over by a legitimate police officer. He killed the drivers in that case. And then he continued South. He went to Shubenacadie where he was confronted by an RCMP officer who he shot. The officer left and went to hospital. Another officer arrived within a minute or two and rammed his cruiser– so you have the fake cruiser and the real police cruiser hitting each other. A gunfight. That officer Heidi Stevenson, a 23 year veteran of the RCMP, she is shot and killed in an exchange. He begins burning both vehicles. When a passer-by stops by to help, that’s a young father out getting furnace oil, he kills him, takes his truck. He drives less than a kilometre away to the house of a woman who was also a denturist, and we’re not sure what their relationship was, but he kills her and takes her vehicle, changes his clothes. And he is able to keep going until he arrives at a gas station in a place called Enfield, Nova Scotia. That’s near the airport. It’s about half an hour North of the city. And the only reason he was stopped and the RCMP have said as much, is that he happened to be getting gas at the same time that other police officers were also fuelling up. They realize it’s him. They recognize him, confront him, and he is shot and killed. But it was complete happenstance. That is the truth of what happened here.
Jordan: Has the motive become clear at all since you started looking into it? I know you mentioned it began with a domestic situation.
Greg: No, the motive is not clear. I know a lot of people jumped to the conclusion that this was about a domestic incident, and certainly police say that was the first assault. That was the first violent event. But they don’t know if that’s what spurred him to kill the other people involved here. Some of them he had feuds with over money or other issues. It’s not clear why he would drive, in some cases 60 kilometres or more to a specific person’s home and kill them in their house. That part seems very premeditated, and that’s hard to understand. But no, the short answer is we do not have a full understanding of his motive, and we may never have that.
Jordan: It’s interesting because during the course of this chat, you said once that it was clear that he’d been really preparing for this. And then you also mentioned that, you know, a couple of people that you talked to had no idea that he would do something like this, that it was out of the blue.
Greg: There’s a lot of people who knew this guy for years, and they thought of him as a very friendly, very outgoing, very helpful neighbour, or a lot of people knew him as a denturist. He worked on their teeth. He had a lot of patients. You know, they said that he had his quirks. He was protective of his parking lot in Dartmouth. He would have a dark side when he drank too much. But everyone I’ve spoken to, they all go back to, they do not understand how this could happen, how he could do it.
Jordan: Can you tell me a little bit about his connection to some of the victims? You mentioned he knew them or had feuds with them and then others were random.
Greg: Yeah, so we’re still trying to get a good handle on all of the victims because there’s so many, there’s 22. Some of them were simply neighbours, right? They lived next door to his home in Portapique where he had a very extensive log cabin that he was quite proud of. Some of them were people who worked in his garage, he liked to tinker, he was mechanically inclined, he had a large collection of motorcycles, and one of the neighbours, a man named Aaron Tuck, would work in the garage with him. We don’t understand if they had a beef or not. Another woman who was killed, a neighbour, Lisa McCully, she was a local teacher. She had bought the house she was living in from the gunman and his uncle. So there was a financial relationship there. Some people had thought that they had dated in the past, but we’re not able to confirm that. Two of the people killed up in Wentworth, Sean McLeod and his wife, they were correctional officers. Sean knew him as a hunting buddy, and they had, through previous romantic relationships had a connection with women they had dated. And other people who were not killed, but there was a man who owns an excavation company who said the gunman showed up on his doorstep, banging on his door, trying to get in Sunday morning, said that he only knew that the gunman is a guy who shared interest in motorcycles with him, that they had never had a beef. He couldn’t understand why he would want to harm him. So we still don’t have a great understanding of why there would be some people that he would be targeting, but it certainly appears he was definitely targeting some of the people that he killed.
Jordan: Do you have a sense– well, I guess you would for your own reporting that’s going on, but also maybe from the RCMP– of what we’re still trying to figure out? And what kinds of things both you’re looking at and the police are looking at?
Greg: I think a big one is motive, of course. Why he would have done this, how much pre-planning was involved? I mean, he had a lot of weapons, he had a lot of ammunition and he had all of the equipment and the gear of a police officer. But does that mean he was planning this rampage? We don’t know that. The police would like to know where he got some of his weapons. They believe some of the assault rifles, the long guns that he used in this rampage, came from the US they don’t know any more than that. They want to know if he had help, and we’d like to find out the same. If you know, in the lead up to this attack, whether there were people who unknowingly helped him get some of the police equipment or police uniforms he had. He was driving around in a cruiser that had real police radio and a real police light bar. And where did he get that stuff? So these are some of the things we want to find out, if he had help.
Jordan: One of the things that sadly, we often do after these shootings is people dig in and they start to find out about the killer’s online presence and where he was going and who he was talking to on the internet. And I haven’t heard, and maybe I’ve missed it, anything about this guy’s online life. Do we know anything?
Greg: No, that is a big missing piece in what we know about him. We know he was fascinated with the police and we know that he told people that he was either, you know, a former RCMP, that he was retired, or he sometimes claimed he was in the auxiliary. He was obsessed, it seemed, with being a police officer with pretending to be a police officer, but it’s not clear that he took that obsession online. We just haven’t found that yet. So we don’t, we don’t know a whole lot about that part of his life.
Jordan: What’s it been like, if you can just describe it to just, be there in the community the past couple of weeks. I mean, I know last week there were also other active shooter reports that turned out to be nothing, and as we’re talking to you today, you’re also reporting on a helicopter crash. I just can’t imagine what that community is going through.
Greg: It’s been a difficult few weeks in Nova Scotia. There’s no question. I think people are trying to make sense of this. It felt surreal in a lot of ways to see these memorials spring up, you know, on telephone poles and mailboxes and fences around the province, because it’s in the middle of a pandemic, and people are being told not to gather together, not to mourn. So that adds an element to this, that makes it unlike any other shooting I’ve ever covered. It’s exhausting. It feels relentless. And I think that there’s a lot of people in Nova Scotia that are just kind of wondering what has happened to their province? And to the backdrop of this already really oppressive pandemic that we’re living in. So you’re right, last Friday, there was an emergency alert that someone thought they heard gunshots in an area called Hammons Plains. That’s about five minutes from where I live. As soon as that alert went out, my phone went crazy. And everyone who knows me was sending texts, asking if we were okay. I mean, ultimately there were no shots fired. Someone– it was a false alarm. But this is a province on edge. People are anxious. People are freaked out, frankly, about what’s happened here. And so what would be otherwise ordinary police calls are becoming something a lot more than that. And I just think that people’s nerves are frayed.
Jordan: How about the relationship between the public and the RCMP? I know there was some discussion of whether or not they should have been posting to social media versus sending out an alert, which they later did for other reports of shots, and this investigation’s taking a long time and there’s a lot we don’t know. What’s the dynamic there?
Greg: So it seems like people are splitting into two camps and there are a lot of folks who were saying, we need to defend the RCMP. You know, the RCMP are doing the best they can and responding to a shooting the likes of which we’ve never seen a Nova Scotia before. And I get that sentiment completely, that while the rest of us were locking our doors or in hiding, they were running towards this thing. I think the criticism that we’re hearing from most Scotians isn’t directed at the boots on the ground or the or the frontline officers. It’s more at the people at the administrative level who make the decisions around when emergency alerts are issued. And they want to know why in this case, over the course of 13 hours, was an emergency alert never issued in the province? And they believe that lives could’ve been saved if people knew, or more people knew, that this guy was on the loose, that he was dangerous and armed, and then he had killed a lot of people, and appeared to have an agenda. People saying, this is what emergency alerts should be used for. It’s been hard to understand, I think for a lot of people, why they only chose Twitter as a way to get the word out while this gunman was on the loose. Because Twitter as great as it is, does have its limitations in an emergency and has a lot of people in rural Nova Scotia who don’t use it. So there are a lot of questions about how the RCMP handled this.
Jordan: What’s going to happen in the next few weeks? I mean, I’m sure that there’s going to be an investigation into how it was handled, but also the investigation continues, and the RCMP said, you know, the day after the tragedy that this would be going on for months.
Greg: Yeah. So they’re slowly releasing some of these crime scenes, there were 16 of them spread around the province. They’re allowing people to go back to their homes in the community of Portapique, where this began. They are slowly allowing residents to return to their homes. But it’s going to be a while, I think before life gets back to normal in Nova Scotia. And I don’t know if people ever get back to feeling about the province the way that they did before the shooting. I think this has changed things for a lot of people.
Jordan: How so?
Greg: I just think they don’t feel as safe here as they used to. I think a sentiment, whether it’s accurate or not, that that mass shootings didn’t happen in Nova Scotia, and we now know that it can happen anywhere. I think that just changes the way you look at your province.
Jordan: Greg, thanks for explaining this to us and walking us through your reporting and stay safe out there and you can all of Nova Scotia, we’ll be thinking about ya.
Greg: Thanks Jordan. I appreciate it.
Jordan: Greg Mercer, Atlantic Canada reporter for the Globe and Mail. That was The Big Story. For more, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can always find us on twitter @thebigstoryfpn. And of course, you can email us or send us an audio clip or send us a video to thebigstorypodcastatrci.rogers.com. Claire Brassard is the lead producer of The Big Story, Ryan Clarke and Stefanie Phillips are our associate producers, Annalise Nielsen is the digital editor. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. Thanks so much for listening. Remember to give us a rating and give us a review. If you find us in your podcast player and please stay safe, be well this weekend. We’ll talk Monday.
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