The public inquiry into Nova Scotia’s shocking 2020 mass shooting will hear from its most anticipated witness yet Friday, as the killer’s spouse testifies.
Lisa Banfield, the gunman’s common-law wife, has kept a very low profile since the shooting rampage in which Gabriel Wortman, over the course of 13 hours on April 18 and 19, 2020, killed 22 people and torched multiple homes before being killed himself by police.
That rampage began with an assault on Banfield as the couple were celebrating their 19th anniversary.
Since those days, Banfield has eschewed all media interviews, though she did make a series of statements to police, beginning on April 19, 2020, and later to the Mass Casualty Commission conducting the current public inquiry.
She also participated with police in a walk-through re-enactment of the events of April 18.
Those testimonies formed the underpinning of a document presented to the inquiry Wednesday describing the commission’s investigations into the gunman’s habitual tendencies of violence toward Banfield.
Wortman has been described — in testimony by neighbours, friends and family, and by Banfield herself — to have been vindictive, violent, controlling and abusive to others, long before April 2020. Witness reported acts of violence toward family members, toward neighbours and even toward customers at his denturist clinic.
Banfield described a repeated pattern of physical and psychological abuse almost from the beginning of the 19 years they were together, ranging from jealous and controlling behaviour to punching and kicking to rape and holding her at gunpoint.
“(He would) pull me up by my hair to get me off the ground until my scalp felt like it was going to rip off — punch me (body, face, neck) and kick me. Though I remember he only raped me once. I felt that I was his wife and what could I do?” she said in a statement to the inquiry on June 22.
“He pulled a gun on me and came after me a couple of times, saying that we are ‘done.’ And I don’t even know how I talked him down,” she said.
“He would even beat me in front of his friends. They would watch and not do anything about it. I knew no one could help me. They were all scared of him, too.”
Despite entreaties from neighbours for her to leave him, and despite reports of the abuse to police, nothing was done. Banfield, focusing on coping with “what was in front of her at that moment,” never reported him to police, despite encouragement from her siblings to do so.
The evening the gunman began his killings, he and Banfield were in Wortman’s warehouse property in Portapique, celebrating their anniversary and video-chatting with some friends in Maine.
Banfield, upset by something said during the conversation, left the warehouse and returned to their home.
Enraged, the gunman later came home, dragged her out of bed and through the woods to the warehouse, then locked her in the back of his replica RCMP police car.
While he went into the warehouse to begin setting it on fire, Banfield, according to her statements to police, managed to escape from the back seat of the police car and run into the woods surrounding the warehouse.
She stayed there through the night, as the gunman killed 13 people in Portapique. She emerged in the morning to call the police from a neighbour’s house.
As she sits in front of the inquiry Friday, testifying in public view for the first time, Banfield continues to attract controversy.
Questions remain about her account of how she managed to escape from the back of the car where she was trapped, and about how she survived a cold night in the woods in Portapique after having — as per her testimony — thrown away her jacket.
The three commissioners of the inquiry have ruled that Banfield will only be questioned by the commission counsel and not be questioned or cross-examined by anyone else, on the grounds that doing so would expose her to being retraumatized by recounting the events of that night.
That has raised the ire of the families of the gunman’s victims and the lawyers who represent them.
“We are deeply discouraged by the Commissioners’ decision to deny our clients a meaningful opportunity to question Lisa Banfield,” said Patterson Law in a statement released June 30 after the commission’s decision. The firm represents the majority of the victim’s families.
“The Commissioners have acknowledged the importance of Ms. Banfield’s evidence and the necessity of her being questioned by counsel — but only if questioning is conducted by Commission Counsel. To the extent that there is any articulable reason … it has not been shared with us.
“Our clients are not confident that Commission Counsel will elicit all relevant evidence from Ms. Banfield. Today’s decision has significantly undermined the legitimacy of the process and our clients’ confidence in the Commissioners’ independence.”
For his part, Banfield’s lawyer contends that the purpose of raising questions about Banfield’s whereabouts on April 18 would be to suggest that she might have spent the night elsewhere, undermining her credibility. Toronto lawyer James Lockyer said that that kind of speculation will damage the inquiry’s work by fuelling conspiracy.
But according to one legal expert, not subjecting commission witnesses to rigorous independent cross-examination would have the same effect.
“We want to be careful about being sensitive to the impact on people, but not at the expense of getting to the truth,” said Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus at Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, in an earlier interview.
“That’s what people start to get concerned about. Is this too high a price when it comes to fairly critical information on matters that a lot of people have concerns and suspicions about?”
“Because if the commission basically has lost the trust of key players, then whatever they do is greatly reduced as far as its credibility and effectiveness.”
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