British Columbia

Trial begins for 2 men accused of killing mail carrier after escape from B.C. prison

On the morning after Zachary Armitage and James Lee Busch escaped from William Head prison in July 2019, mail carrier Martin Payne left for work at his usual time. It would be the 60-year-old's last shift.

Zachary Armitage and James Lee Busch pleaded not guilty to killing Martin Payne in July 2019

James Lee Busch and Zachary Armitage are charged with first-degree murder in the death of Martin Payne. The two men had escaped from William Head minimum security prison the day before the killing. (West Shore RCMP)

On the morning after Zachary Armitage and James Lee Busch escaped William Head minimum security prison in July 2019, mail carrier Martin Payne left for his job at his usual time.

It would be the 60-year-old's last shift.

A Crown prosecutor told a B.C. Supreme Court jury Monday that while Payne was at work, his telephone and computer were active, being used to look up stories about the escape and to call a water taxi service.

Payne left work a little before 3 p.m.

"At some point after Mr. Payne returned home that day he was killed," Sofia Bakken told the jury.

"Three days later, police found Mr Payne's body on the floor of his ensuite bathroom. They quickly determined he was the victim of foul play."

'Guilt or innocence is personal'

Both Armitage and Busch are charged with first-degree murder in Payne's death. They each pleaded not guilty Monday morning as their joint trial began in Vancouver.

Justice David Crossin explained that although the men are being tried together, "each is a separate person."

A sign that reads 'Correctional Services Canada — William Head Institution'.
William Head Correctional Institution is a minimum-security correctional facility on Vancouver Island where two prisoners escaped before allegedly killing a stranger. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

"Guilt or innocence is personal and individual," Crossin told the jury, explaining that they would be the judges of fact, while he would be the judge of the law.

Bakken then outlined the Crown's theory of a crime that began on July 7, 2019, when Busch and Armitage walked away from William Head, a federal institution, which sits outside of Victoria — a short distance from the small community of Metchosin.

Armitage and Busch escaped by walking along the shoreline of the oceanfront prison at low tide.

Discarded inmate clothing was soon found in the woods nearby. A woman walking her dog that evening claimed she was approached by two men asking for directions.

The Crown plans to call a couple who said two men turned up on their doorstep late that same night, asking for directions and wanting the use of the phone — which they were not given.

Bakken said a video camera belonging to one of Payne's neighbours caught two figures walking north toward his property in the early hours of July 8.

'A significant amount of blood'

Payne left for work around 6:20 a.m.

"After he had left for work, someone used Mr. Payne's computer," Bakken said.

According to the Crown, Martin Payne's red truck turned up in Oak Bay after being stolen from his home in Metchosin. (West Shore Police)

RCMP analyzed the computer, finding searches for "Victoria news," "William Head," "wanted individuals" and "private water taxi," as well as news articles relating to the two men.

"The name "Zachary Armstrong" was also searched," Bakken said.

Prosecutors believe Payne was killed sometime after returning home. An autopsy found "chop wounds" to his skull consistent with strikes from a hatchet and sharp wounds to the neck that appeared to have been made by a knife.

"There was a significant amount of blood in the home," Bakken said.

She said DNA from Armitage, Busch and Payne was found in the home.

A chance encounter

While Payne's body was found in his home days later, his red truck was located in the community of Oak Bay the next day. Bakken said a witness saw two men park the truck.

A chance encounter with a police officer led to recapture for Busch and Armitage.

Court heard how off-duty police officer John Ferguson was walking his Great Dane when two men approached him to comment on the dog. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

"On the evening of July 9th, Sgt. John Ferguson was off duty and just happened to be walking his Great Dane when two men approached him and commented on his dog," Bakken said.

"During the interaction, Sgt Ferguson recognized them as the men who escaped from William Head."

According to the Crown, Busch was carrying Payne's backpack, which contained the keys to his house and car. Armitage was allegedly wearing Payne's hoodie and hiking boots.

Police took the two men back into custody shortly after Ferguson sounded the alarm.

In the following days, Bakken said Payne's co-workers became worried at his absence from work. His body was found after he was reported missing on July 12.

'I don't want anything to do with it'

After an overview of the case, the Crown called the first witness — a woman who Armitage allegedly called from Payne's number. 

The woman testified that Armitage had been a friend of her husband — who is incarcerated — and they met through a prison social.

Through cross-examination, she revealed that while Armitage first served as a kind of intermediary between herself and her husband, who has a bad temper, they later fell into a relationship with each other.

She said she was "groggy" at the time Armitage called because her father had just died and she was coming down from crystal meth.

"When I clued in that he wasn't in jail, I asked him why did he do it," she said.

The woman said Armitage asked her for another acquaintance's number. She also told a defence lawyer that she told him, "I don't want anything to do with it."

Bakken later asked the woman to clarify that statement.

"You told Mr. Armitage you didn't want anything to do with it," she said. "What was the 'it' you were referring to?"

"The escape," she replied. "I knew that was bad."

The trial is scheduled to last about a month.


Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and the justice system extensively.