Warning: This story includes disturbing information.
Family members of one of the victims of April 2020's mass shooting believe their mother was alive for hours after RCMP officers on the scene declared her dead.
Heather O'Brien, a 55-year-old nurse and mother of six, was on Plains Road in Debert on her way to visit her grandkids when she was shot multiple times through her car window by the gunman shortly after 10 a.m. on April 19, 12 hours into the shooting and arson rampage that began in Portapique.
Her family provided data from O'Brien's Fitbit to the Mass Casualty Commission, the independent investigative body appointed by the federal and provincial governments to conduct public hearings and come up with recommendations to prevent similar tragedies.
The data on O'Brien's computer records her as having a heartbeat until 6 p.m.
After hearings last week, her family expressed disappointment the commission opted not to include details on the Fitbit in its document detailing the events on Plains Road, which also included the shooting of Kristen Beaton, a pregnant continuing care nurse who was parked along the side of the road on a break in between patients.
"We know this information is controversial," reads a statement from the family posted on Facebook by one of the victim's daughters, Darcy Dobson. "We also know that it has been used in cases in the U.S. to pinpoint time of death."
The commission said it's investigating whether the Fitbit can shed light on the events.
The family said the data supports other evidence O'Brien was left to die. As detailed in a document on the Mass Casualty Commission's website, two officers who approached the scene felt a pulse. A request went out for a critical care unit tobe dispatched but was denied over safety concerns because the shooter was still on the loose. O'Brien was covered in a blanket. One of the officers said he was later convinced it was his own pulse, strengthened by adrenaline, that he felt.
O'Brien's family said they are "gobsmacked" the information, much of itcontradictory, wasn't presented to the public. "You can read this information online through Mass Casualty Commissions website," their statement reads. "You will have to search for it, but it's there."
The statement added that it's in the public's best interest to know how first responders will act in the face of a life-or-death situation. "The truth is everything is so contradicting," the statement said.
The O'Brien and Beaton families have been vocal critics of the RCMP's failure to notify the public that the shooter was driving a mock police cruiser. O'Brien and Beaton both knew the shooter was on the loose but weren't aware of that critical detail.
Provincial legislation to make it more difficult for someone to impersonate a police officer is going into effect next month, two years after the 51-year-old denturist killed 22 people before he was fatally shot by an officer.
Last week's hearings included disturbing details on how the killer slipped by RCMP officers and shot more unsuspecting victims.
Also disclosed was how officers kept some family members of the victims away at gunpoint, including one of O'Brien's daughters, out of concern the killer might be near.
When Dan and Sue Jenkins of Pictou County learned their daughter's house was on fire and neighbours had heard gunshots, they drove to Wentworth to get answers.
The couple was stopped at an RCMP roadblock about 400 metres from Wentworth Provincial Park. When Dan Jenkins got out of his car, an officer pointed a rifle at him. He asked about his daughter and her partner, Sean McLeod, but the officer said she couldn't tell him anything and asked him to get back in his car. The couple drove home and learned the next day it was very unlikely their daughter was alive. An autopsy confirmed her death six or seven weeks later.
The public hearings are taking a break this week, part of the commission's approach to minimize trauma.
They are set to resume April 11 with documents on the RCMP erroneously firing shots at the Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade Hall and the death of Cont. Heidi Stevenson after she encountered the shooter in Shubenacadie.
Janet Whitman is the contributing editor and a staff reporter at Advocate Media.