The common-law wife of the man responsible for the Nova Scotia mass shooting told an inquiry Friday that she lied to police about his illegal weapons and failed to report earlier violent behaviour because she was deeply afraid of him.
Lisa Banfield struggled to maintain her composure as she described how her partner beat her in 2003 as witnesses looked on, and she offered new details about what happened when her spouse threatened to kill his parents in 2010.
The inquiry has heard she was beaten and badly injured by the killer on the night of April 18, 2020, immediately before he began a shooting rampage that would claim 22 lives. She told investigators that she escaped into the woods and emerged the next morning to tell police that her partner, Gabriel Wortman, was still at large and driving a vehicle that looked exactly like an RCMP cruiser.
Banfield’s testimony on Friday was the first time she has spoken publicly about the tragedy. The commission of inquiry has agreed to let Banfield testify without facing cross-examination from lawyers representing other parties, mainly because she could be traumatized by having to relive the violence she endured.
Still, Banfield’s testimony was at times painful and dramatic, as she described what happened in June 2010 when Wortman’s uncle alerted Halifax police that his nephew had threatened to kill his parents over a property dispute.
Banfield recalled how the killer had been drinking heavily when he fired a bullet into the wall of their home in Dartmouth, N.S., terrifying her. When a Halifax police officer arrived at their door, Banfield admitted she lied when asked about the death threats and whether her spouse owned any weapons.
When commission lawyer Gillian Hnatiw asked why she lied, Banfield sobbed as she explained.
“He had the handgun by the nightstand, and he said. ‘If any police come, I’m shooting,’” she said. “So, when they asked me that, I didn’t want them to go in, because I didn’t want them (police) to get hurt.”
Banfield confirmed there were other times when Wortman threatened her with a weapon.
“There was a couple of times that he … put the gun to my head to scare me. He’d say the he could blow off my head. So I was scared. I’m sorry, I’m not going to say anything …. I was scared of what he would do.
“Grown men knew that he had guns and what he did. And they were scared of him. So what am I going to do?”
When an RCMP officer showed up at the couple’s summer home in Portapique, N.S.,after the death threat was reported, Wortman insisted he didn’t own any firearms, aside from an old musket and another antique weapon suspended near the fireplace and “filled with wax,” Banfield testified.
She confirmed that the officer in question was Const. Greg Wiley, who had known Wortman for years and later told investigators that he had visited his Portapique home 16 times.
Hnatiw also asked Banfield about a violent assault at a gathering in Sutherland Lake, north of Portapique. In earlier interviews with the inquiry, she indicated the attack took place in 2001 or 2002, but she confirmed Friday the actual date was 2003.
She testified that when she tried to leave the bush party, Wortman became irate. As the pair drove away in his Jeep, he started punching her, she said.
“And as I was driving back on the back road, he’s yelling at me,” she said as the hearing room fell silent. “He started smacking me in my face. I’m thinking, ‘I’ve never had anybody hit me before … and I’m trying to drive. He just kept whacking me in the head.”
She said she jumped out of the vehicle and ran into the woods. He ran after her and caught her.
“He grabbed by the hair and was punching me, and I’m trying to protect myself,” she said. “I’m screaming. He pulled me out by the road … and then I could see these two (all-terrain vehicles) and their lights were on me. He looked up and he dropped me.”
Banfield said Wortman was later placed in the back of a police cruiser and taken back to their home in Portapique.
Asked why she declined to report the assault to police, Banfield replied: “That’s the first time anybody hit me, and I didn’t want to get anybody in trouble. I just thought, ‘I’m walking away.’”
Hnatiw also asked Banfield about the early stages of the couple’s relationship, which started in 2001 after they met at a bar in downtown Halifax. Banfield said that on their first date, he showed up with two dozen long-stemmed roses. “I thought that was over the top,” she said.
But later that night, she was impressed by his reaction when his car was rear-ended by a vehicle driven by a young woman. “He approached the two young girls in the vehicle. He was smiling,” she said. “He said, ‘It’s OK.’ He was very calm. I thought, ‘He’s a good guy.’”
Some members of the victims’ families attended the hearing Friday. Banfield was accompanied by two of her sisters, Janice and Maureen.
Earlier this week, the commission released a document based on evidence provided by Banfield during interviews with the RCMP and the inquiry detailing the killer’s long history of violence toward her.
Lawyer Michael Scott, whose firm represents families of 14 of the victims, says the inquiry’s decision to limit questioning will leave lingering doubts about Banfield’s testimony.
During the 13 hours he was at large, the killer fatally shot 22 people, including a pregnant woman and a Mountie. He was shot dead by two Mounties on the morning of April 19, 2020.
—Michael Tutton and Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press