Late in the evening of Saturday, April 18, 2020, a gunman embarked upon one of the deadliest killing sprees in modern Canadian history.
Thirteen hours later it was over, leaving scars on the rural community of Portapique, N.S., the province and the entire country.
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Twenty-two people lost their lives that weekend. Many more people lost someone they loved.
In Episode 8 of 13 Hours, Daybreak, we hear from police on the scene in Portapique through recently uncovered recordings of their radio communications.
We’ll also hear from family members of two of the victims and the first person to speak with the gunman’s common-law partner after she emerged from the woods, changing the course of the police investigation.
RCMP in Nova Scotia use voice encryption on their radio communications for their protection.
But between 1 and 4:30 a.m. on April 19, 2020, RCMP in Portapique used an unencrypted channel to communicate.
It’s not clear why police were using an unencrypted channel during the search.
The recordings reveal what police were doing that morning and where they were focusing their search for Gabriel Wortman, the gunman.
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Members of the RCMP’s emergency response team spent several hours in the neighbouring community of Five Houses, after a 911 caller reported seeing a person in their yard with a flashlight.
RCMP officers also reported seeing what they believed was a car flashing its lights at them repeatedly at around 1:09 a.m.
But a commanding officer told them not to approach.
“I’d say you just hunker in place. Don’t approach at this point. ERT’s on scene,” the commanding officer said.
The recordings show that police also had trouble navigating in the community. It’s unclear if they had access to GPS or whether any of the officers were familiar with the location.
Police were worried the gunman might be lying in wait, ready to ambush officers as they tried to locate victims and their family members, the recordings show.
“We’re wondering if someone’s trying to set it up for an ambush and they see the big truck here and they don’t (sic) they don’t want us to come out,” an officer said.
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After nearly six hours searching in the dark, RCMP officers then decided to regroup at the gunman’s burnt-out cottage to “come up with a plan.”
“Our mission here is to contain the area and locate and arrest our suspect,” an officer is heard saying in the recordings. “Our suspect is Gabriel Wortman.”
Nova Scotia RCMP moved to encrypted radio communications in 2014. That was the same year three RCMP officers were killed in a shooting in Moncton, N.B. A review of that incident found the officers searching for the gunman were worried about giving away key information over the radio because anyone could listen, including the shooter.
The RCMP refused to answer any questions about their radio communication during the manhunt and whether officers’ lives were put at risk when they used an unencrypted radio channel. The RCMP also refused to explain why officers were having difficulty navigating in the rural community.
Leon Joudrey woke up at his home in Portapique just before 4 a.m. on April 19, as the RCMP were gathering nearby at the gunman’s cottage.
Joudrey remembers hearing what he thought were gunshots before falling asleep, but the melatonin he takes prevented him from staying up, he said.
“So I turn on my phone and I usually go on Facebook, have a coffee, take my dogs out. My phone goes ding, ding,” he said.
Joudrey said his phone was being flooded with messages from friends in nearby communities who’d seen the fires nearby and were asking if he was OK.
Joudrey then got in his truck and started to drive. Within moments, he realized something was terribly wrong.
“I put my window down and made a left in Portapique Beach Road,” he said. “I seen a flicker of flame past the graveyard. I see f–king Gabriel’s house. I seen the SWAT vehicles sitting there. I said, ‘He burned his own house. Dumb son of a b–ch.’”
Joudrey then went home and grabbed his shotgun out of the closet. It was at around 6:30 a.m. when the gunman’s common-law partner banged on his door.
“So I take my shotgun. I run out, looked out, she’s by herself. Open the door, pulled her in,” he said.
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The gunman’s common-law partner was assaulted the night before, between 9 and 10 p.m., according to police.
Police say the gunman handcuffed her and locked her in the back seat of his mock RCMP cruiser.
She managed to escape and spent the night hiding in the woods, the court documents say.
When she arrived at Joudrey’s house, he called 911.
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Police said the gunman’s common-law partner was a key witness and that she gave them new information about him, including details about his mock RCMP cruiser and the uniform he was wearing.
It would be more than an hour and a half before police notified the public of this information via Twitter. This was also the first time police used the term “active shooter” to describe the gunman.
The gunman’s movements throughout the province were caught on surveillance cameras. Police have released still images from several locations, including a camera on Ventura Drive in Debert taken at 5:43 a.m on April 19.
They also released a still from a camera on Hunter Road in Wentworth taken at 6:29 a.m. The gunman was caught on the same camera leaving that area at 9:23 a.m.
It’s not clear what the gunman was doing during those three hours. Police have told Sean McLeod’s daughters that he killed Sean and his partner, Alanna Jenkins, at approximately 6:30 a.m. He didn’t leave their home, which he burnt to the ground, until after 9 a.m.
Sean McLeod and Alanna Jenkins loved having people around.
Their house by the banks of the Wallace River had an open-door policy — friends were always welcome.
Sean’s daughter Taylor Andrews said Alanna brought out her dad’s funny side.
“He was pretty serious before her,” she said. “She was all about fun all the time.”
Sean loved the outdoors and taught his younger daughter Amielia McLeod to hunt and fish.
The couple met through their work as corrections officers. Amielia plans to follow in their footsteps and pursue the same career.
“Dad and I talked about it a lot,” she said. “I went with them for ‘take your kid to work day’ and ever since then, corrections has kind of always been in my back pocket,” Amielia said.
Sean and Alanna were “the most excited” when Taylor’s daughter Ellie was born. They loved spending time with their granddaughter.
“The devilish grin that she gets out is definitely his,” Amielia said.
Alanna took pictures of everything, leaving the family with many happy memories to look back on.
“Every time they would take Ellie for the weekend, she would upload pictures on Monday, there would be, like, a hundred pictures of them,” Taylor said.
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