Today, more than two years after the Nova Scotia mass shooting, the common law spouse of the killer has finally spoken in public, as she gave evidence in the Mass Casualty Commission proceedings. Lisa Banfield spent 19 years with Gabriel Wortman before he went on a rampage and killed 22 people over the course of 13 hours on April 18-19, 2020.
It is difficult to know what to make of Ms. Banfield. She has had two years to prepare her answers, considerable preparation time and help from her high-profile lawyer, and the benefit of knowing everyone else’s versions of events before having to give evidence. On the other hand, multiple other witnesses have confirmed her accounts of having been the victim of domestic violence over an extended period of time. On yet another hand, she had no children to protect, and seemed to be enjoying a comfortable lifestyle built on criminal activity of which she must have been well aware, and now has a clear financial interest in denying knowledge of those criminal activities as she tries to retain entitlement to Gabriel Wortman’s estate.
The questioning of Ms. Banfield was led by Gillian Hnatiw from the MCC. I was somewhat surprised that lead MCC counsel, Emily Hill, was not the lawyer chosen to question Ms. Banfield. I doubt that Ms. Hill would have done anything differently than Ms. Hnatiw, but this strikes me like a team putting their backup goalie or third-string pitcher into a big game, in case things do not go well and an excuse is needed.
One of the first things noted, by Commissioner Fitch, was that no questions would be asked about Ms. Banfield helping acquire ammunition for Wortman. The reason given is that the criminal proceedings against Ms. Banfield on charges of supplying ammunition to Wortman have not yet concluded, and part of the MCC mandate is to not interfere with other proceedings.
It is strange that four months after Ms. Banfield’s charges were referred to Restorative Justice, the process has not been completed. Most often, three months are given by the Court to complete an RJ process, and that is usually plenty of time. Considering the high profile and public interest in this particular case, it breeds suspicion that this process has not yet been completed, so as to allow Ms. Banfield to speak more freely at this time.
Many of Ms. Banfield’s answers were very short, and she denied knowledge of anything that might have been incriminating, or which would generate further questions. We did not learn much of anything new from Ms. Banfield’s testimony today.
Very early in her testimony, she downplayed any knowledge of the people in and around Portapique, suggesting that Wortman would spend days and weeks up at their cottage while she remained in Dartmouth. She denied really knowing about Lisa McCully, for example, though statements and emails suggest that they had direct run-ins over Ms. McCully’s dogs, and that she was aware that Wortman and McCully had a short affair.
She also denied knowing much of anything about Wortman putting together the pieces of his mock police cruiser, and specifically denied ever driving in it or knowing of Wortman ever driving it, though she also described him having it outside to wash it, and the manager of the Halifax Mercedes dealership adamantly stated that Wortman dropped her off to the dealership in the fully marked version of the car.
There was no sense from Ms. Banfield that she had any concern about the potential danger of Wortman having a mock cruiser in his possession, despite his propensity for violence and his access to an arsenal of guns and police uniforms and badges. She simply denied that she thought he would do anything like that.
Though Ms. Banfield did not identify this, there seems to be a property, or property grievance, theme connecting some of the early killings by Wortman. When asked about some of the victims who were known to her, Ms. Banfield noted that Wortman had tried to buy the Tuck property, and that she had complimented the Gulenchyn home to him. We heard from Brenda Forbes that Wortman had an issue with them, and seems to have taken it out on John Zahl and Joanne Thomas, who bought the Forbes’ home. Lisa McCully’s home had been owned by Wortman’s uncle, from whom Wortman had tried (unsuccessfully) to swindle ownership.
As to the events, Ms. Banfield was not asked very many questions, so as to avoid making her re-experience the trauma of them. No questions were asked as to who decided this would be the format, and no questions were asked about Ms. Banfield’s Restorative Justice commitments, and whether testifying here was one of them. One of the participants’ lawyers noted that it may have been less traumatic for Ms. Banfield to testify one time in a more fulsome manner, rather than doing four police and five MCC interviews about the events.
She seems to have overheard the shooting of Corrie Ellison from her hiding place in the woods, hearing voices and shots consistent with what we know of that shooting, but then did not hear the ERT armoured truck drive down the road and call out to Clinton Ellison, who must have been hiding nearby in the woods, from which he was rescued.
Amazingly, but not surprisingly, Ms. Hnatiw finished her questioning of Ms. Banfield after about three hours. This is arguably the most important witness of these proceedings, and yet many of the other witnesses, and even some of the panel discussions, have gone longer.
Ms. Banfield became emotional at times, thinking back to the violence she suffered and of how the thought that Wortman was looking for her while killing others haunts her. Her lawyer provided a report from Dr. Peter Jaffe, a domestic violence expert from Ontario, of how she has suffered, though Ms. Banfield did say that she is aware that others have suffered much more.
Ms. Banfield’s testimony will not satisfy many, I expect. She gave short answers for the most part, seemingly in an effort to protect her legal position in the ongoing civil proceedings over Wortman’s estate. To my eye, she did not display much emotional depth or empathy for others.
Crucially, she did not seem to have any real insight into why her spouse of 19 years suddenly went on a killing spree, or why he chose particular targets. She did not give much of an attempt to explain why she did so little in the face of Wortman’s inherently dangerous ownership of a car and paraphernalia that would allow him to impersonate a police officer. She gave no insight into how Wortman was able to smuggle guns across the US/Canada border. She did not give a compelling explanation as to why she did not come out of the woods much earlier.
There will be those who excuse all of that, given Ms. Banfield’s status as a victim of Gabriel Wortman. For those not already inclined to provide blanket understanding and forgiveness to victims of domestic violence, Ms. Banfield has likely not changed many minds. If one of her Restorative Justice commitments was to provide testimony during the MCC, she has fulfilled that, but certainly did so in a minimal fashion.
The MCC is back next week with another series of discussion panels. Cst. Troy Maxwell will testify on Tuesday, after a presentation of Wortman’s financial misdealings.