Complaints made years before NS mass shooting were enough for search warrants: former Mountie, lawyer

Both a retired Mountie and a criminal defence lawyer involved in the public inquiry into Nova Scotia’s mass shooting say there was “more than enough” evidence for a search warrant given three public complaints about the gunman over three years.

They also say an RCMP officer who visited the gunman more than a dozen times in the years before the shooting should testify about their relationship.

Recent documents released by the Mass Casualty Commission examining the mass shooting that took 22 lives lays out the actions police took in response to complaints about Gabriel Wortman in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

Michael Scott of Patterson Law, whose firm represents the families of many of the victims, said details of these files might be spotty, but it appears there were “fairly specific complaints” where people raised concerns about Wortman’s illegal guns and his intent to use them.

“I would think in any normal circumstance that would be more than enough for the police to go to a justice of the peace and … get a search warrant,” Scott said in a recent interview.

Michael Scott, a lawyer representing some of the families, questions witnesses at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

In the first case, now-retired Halifax Regional Police officer Cordell Poirier learned the gunman had called his uncle in Alberta and allegedly threatened to kill his parents in New Brunswick. Poirier then spoke to the father, Paul Wortman, in June 2010 who said he believed his son had long-barrel weapons at the Portapique cottage and was an alcoholic.

He never had a firearms licence.

But his father hadn’t seen the guns in more than five years. Given that gap, Poirier noted in his report that “without recent knowledge a Public Safety Warrant could not be obtained.”

He also told Paul Wortman the threat file couldn’t go anywhere unless he got “some cooperation” from the uncle who reported the threat, but he never heard from him.

Poirier passed the case to Bible Hill RCMP Const. Greg Wiley, since the gunman’s Portapique cottage was in his jurisdiction. Wiley has said he developed a professional rapport with him beginning around 2008 and last saw him in 2017. 

Wiley said in a commission interview he recalled the threat situation as being a family disagreement over property, but the gunman “didn’t sound more disgruntled than anybody else.”

In May 2011, a Truro police officer issued a bulletin about how he’d received a tip from a stranger that Gabriel Wortman had guns and wanted to “kill a cop.”

Poirier recognized Wortman’s name, and called the Bible Hill detachment where he spoke with a supervisor to make sure he was aware of the new complaint. That Mountie said he’d speak with Wiley and get back to Poirier, but again the Halifax officer never heard anything more.

Wiley said he doesn’t remember talking with Poirier in 2010. He said the RCMP get a “gazillion threats complaints” so following every one isn’t realistic.

According to his interview with commission investigators, Poirier said the Truro police officer who originally filed the 2011 report couldn’t offer any more details about the tipster, which might have bolstered the case for a warrant.

“To the extent that it’s been suggested to us that ‘we receive those tips, but there’s nothing we could do about it’ … I can tell you as a lawyer, I don’t understand that,” Scott said. 

Anonymous tips common: lawyer

Scott, who primarily practises criminal law, said he frequently encounters search warrants in drug cases where police received judicial authorization based on tips.

Although the gap since Paul Wortman had seen his son’s guns was “certainly not ideal,” Scott said details like the 2011 tipster referencing firearms being stored in a compartment in the flue in the gunman’s cottage suggest first-hand knowledge — and that’s “pretty reliable information” for a warrant. 

When commission investigators asked Wiley whether the 2011 tip about the gunman wanting to kill a cop was alarming, he said he doesn’t remember getting something “that formal.”

He also said he doesn’t remember a conversation with the Bible Hill supervisor Poirier spoke with, or anyone else in the detachment, about followups around the gunman.

Sherry Benson-Podolchuk, a retired RCMP officer in Manitoba who left the force in 2009, said she remembers warrant-writing hinged on a Mountie’s personality. Some were “gung-ho” and always pushing for them, while others wanted to wait and make sure they had plenty of information.

Sherry Benson-Podolchuk is a retired RCMP officer of 20 years, living in Manitoba. She who left the force in 2009. (CBC)

But she said the bottom line is that if an officer is unsure about whether to request a warrant, they should call the Crown lawyer or someone else for their thoughts on a case.

“Just because we’re wearing a uniform doesn’t mean we have all the answers,” said Benson-Podolchuk.

She said if she’d been in Wiley’s position, the 2011 bulletin would have raised a major red flag with her, and been enough to ask for a search warrant when combined with the family threat a year earlier.

When asked about Wiley’s comments that it’s not realistic for RCMP to look into all the “gazillion threats complaints,” Benson-Podolchuk said “too freaking bad. That’s your goddamn job.”

She said the details of any visits Wiley paid to the gunman after the complaints should have been entered into the police system so if any later reports came in, these details would pop up.

Officer says warrant writing was ‘a big thing’

When the commission investigator asked about his experience requesting warrants, Wiley said he “didn’t really write any warrants” when he worked in Nova Scotia. 

He added the process was “a big thing” because someone would be taken off the road for a whole shift to complete one.

The National Police Federation, which represents RCMP members below the rank of inspector, has said it believes there was “insufficient evidence” to allow RCMP officers to secure a warrant to search for firearms at the gunman’s residence.

Wiley had only been an RCMP member for a couple years in Bible Hill when he first met the gunman around 2008, after investigating a case where tools had been stolen from his garage. 

He has said the gunman seemed like a helpful person who could tip him off about crime in the Portapique area, and dropped in to visit about 16 times over the years.

RCMP vehicles block the crime scene in Portapique, N.S., on April 26, 2020. (Olivier Lefebvre/CBC)

It’s unclear exactly when Wiley’s visits took place, but most appear to be between 2008 and 2011 before the Mountie was transferred to Advocate Harbour, in neighbouring Cumberland County.

The Mountie told the commission he had a “fairly good handle on” Wortman, who was always polite, and said “he doesn’t come across as a violent guy to me.”

“That’s sad because he’s looking at the gunman through a lens of friendship,” said Benson-Podolchuk. “He took off his cop eyes.

“You can still be friendly, get information. But when some information comes out that changes how you look at that person because … there’s danger — then you have to go in there with that mindset.”

Wiley said he didn’t have any other community sources in Portapique besides the gunman, but there were similar people in other areas he’d “stop and talk with.”

Former Mountie talks informant versus source

Despite the frequent visits and lack of followup on two complaints, Wiley has said he didn’t have a special relationship with Wortman.

The RCMP has always denied that the gunman was an informant.

Benson-Podolchuk said there’s a distinct difference between an informant and a source, usually depending on the information shared: informants can be paid or unpaid but there’s “more of a formal process, there’s paperwork to do.”

A source can be anyone, Benson-Podolchuk said, including citizens who stop to chat with an officer while out shopping and give them a tip about a big party, for example.

Wiley has told police and commission investigators he never learned anything important from the gunman, and they never had a formal arrangement. But, when asked to provide his notes from his time in Bible Hill for the commission, he was unable to locate them.

Benson-Podolchuk said the gunman sounded like a community source, but added, due to Wiley’s visits, it’s understandable that people in Portapique might have assumed he was close to police.

“And as a result, they … won’t say anything because they see ‘well, he’s already a friend of the police, no one would believe me,'” Benson-Podolchuk said.

Former informant says process very different

Paul Derry, who was a paid police informant and agent including in relation to a Hells Angels-ordered shooting in Halifax in 2000, said any time he provided the RCMP with information it was covert and never involved uniformed officers showing up at his home.

“Just your patrol car out doing your basic patrols, and especially being new [to the RCMP], my guess it was just him [Wiley] getting to know the community,” he said. 

Derry has written about his experiences, filed lawsuits against the RCMP and has spoken at conferences where police learn how to handle sources. 

“Nobody would love to see some dirt on [Nova Scotia RCMP] H division more than me … but I’m not convinced,” he said. 

Derry said interactions with specialized drug investigators or detectives would be more suspect than chats with a Mountie recently out of depot.

In his experience, there were specific protocols for dealing with paid informants, where they are assigned a coded number and only deal with their handler. 

“For the most part, the front-line officers, they don’t know much about the informant or source handling unless they want to go down that road, they don’t know anything about it,” he said. “It’s secret for a reason. It’s a very dangerous world.” 

Calls for Wiley to testify

Poirier also told the commission that Wiley had told him the gunman “was a good friend” of his, but Wiley said he wouldn’t have described Wortman that way.

This discrepancy is one reason Scott and other lawyers representing victims’ families and other groups requested that Wiley testify in person before the inquiry. 

Scott also said it’s important to find out exactly how, or if, Wiley ever followed up on the complaints with the gunman.

In his commission interview, Wiley said he’s reflected on whether he missed any red flags about the gunman.

“Was I asleep at the wheel here? Could I have somehow been on top of this better or whatever? And you got to live with your own conscience,” he said.

The commission has not yet said when or if Wiley will be called.

Complaint about abuse, weapons in 2013

A third complaint about the gunman did come in 2013, when Brenda Forbes, the gunman’s neighbour in Portapique, said she told the RCMP he was abusing his partner.

Forbes also told the Mounties that he had guns. But she said police wouldn’t act on her information, saying it wasn’t current or reliable enough.

According to the RCMP’s internal review of their records of Forbes’s complaint, the responding officer remembered it was around concerns the gunman was acting “aggressively in the neighbourhood.” The review found no indication in the records that it involved domestic violence.

No search warrant was ever requested after Forbes’s complaint.

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