Nova Scotia

Spouse of N.S. gunman describes how he unravelled weeks before mass killing

Lisa Banfield spent hours recounting her relationship and impressions of Gabriel Wortman to RCMP officers in the days after he went on his murderous rampage in April, 2020.

Warning: details in this story are distressing

The remains of the Nova Scotia gunman's home after it was destroyed by fire in May 2020. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

In the weeks leading up to the Nova Scotia mass shooting that killed 22 people, the gunman drank excessive amounts of alcohol, buried hundreds of thousands in cash and made unusual comments about evading police and wanting to die, according to his spouse.

Lisa Banfield spent hours recounting her relationship and impressions of Gabriel Wortman to RCMP officers in the days after he went on his murderous rampage in April 2020. The couple had been celebrating their 19th anniversary on the night he first attacked her at their cottage in Portapique, then started randomly killing neighbours and strangers.

She repeatedly told police she believed he was hunting her down after she managed to escape from the replica police car where he had barricaded her to gather more weapons. 

"I could hear him yelling my name, I think he was yelling my name and then I could hear him whistling, like, just weird," Banfield said in her police interview on April 20. 

"And then all these bang, bang, bang and explosions, and it just seemed like it was getting closer to me."

Banfield described how she hid under a tree all night, too frightened to move. She knew first-hand what he was capable of doing. 

Banfield at provincial court in Dartmouth on March 9. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Hints about committing crimes

While Banfield was still in hospital, she spoke at length with Staff Sgt. Greg Vardy about how her common-law spouse was a loner with few friends and he was "broken inside." It's one of three police interview transcripts released by the Mass Casualty Commission, which is the public inquiry looking into the context and circumstances of the tragedy. 

In her statements, Banfield provided insight on her partner's fascination with police and his plans to evade them, in the event he would ever need to flee. 

"He used to always want to talk about if he, you know, if 'I was gonna commit this crime, this is what I would do and I'd direct the police over here and I'd have something going on over here so that they wouldn't even know where I'm at'," she said.

Banfield said her partner never liked police, even though when he was younger he wanted to become a police officer.

She said how she often pushed him to report his decommissioned cars to ensure they were legal, since they weren't registered or licensed. Banfield said he always assured her the replica car with decals and lights was for display only.

During their manhunt on April 19, 2020, Nova Scotia RCMP tweeted this picture of the mock police vehicle used in the shootings. The tweet said "There's one difference between (the suspect's) car and our RCMP vehicles: the car number." (Nova Scotia RCMP)

But then she described how he'd make comments about having the safest vehicle, if they ever had to leave town quickly. She said similar references were made about the radio system he purchased, and how he'd use it to be steps ahead of the police.

"I just, I thought nothing would come out of it, to be honest," Banfield said.

The shooter dressed in what looked like a police uniform and drove a mock RCMP cruiser across rural Nova Scotia, killing people in their homes, and others who crossed his path. He also set several homes, including the cottage he shared with Banfield, on fire. 

It wasn't until Banfield emerged from the woods in Portapique around 6:30 a.m. on April 19 that RCMP officials say they realized he was in disguise and likely still on the move. The gunman went on to kill more people in the communities of Wentworth, Debert and Shubenacadie.

In her statements to RCMP, Banfield was open about the troubling comments her partner made over the years, such as how he thought about digging holes for bodies and how he could kill people but never animals.

"He always used to say, like, 'When I go out I'm going with a bang. It'll be in the news,' that's what he said."

She said every time, she brushed it off and thought he was being "ridiculous." She often chalked it up to his dysfunctional upbringing and the fact he didn't know how to be normal.

"It was really, really good or it was really bad and there was nothing in between," said Banfield.

The RCMP blocks the path to Gabriel Wortman's property in Portapique during a criminal investigation into the shootings. (Jonathan Villeneuve/Radio-Canada)

Pandemic paranoia

Banfield also told police about Wortman's growing paranoia in the weeks leading up the rampage, which was at the height of the first COVID-19 lockdown.

He stockpiled gas, cleaned out bank accounts and hid more than $700,000 in cash on their properties in Portapique.

She explained how $475,000 was in a "haversack bag in the garbage bag underneath the ground."

Banfield and her partner had been staying at their Portapique cottage for five weeks before he eventually snapped, according to her police statements. She described him as negative during that time, lying around and watching the news — fixated on Donald Trump.

"Normally Gabriel was one that was always active, meaning he would get up after breakfast and he'd go over to the warehouse and he'd always have the initiative to work on this or work on that. And the whole time we were there, most of the time, he didn't get out of bed," Banfield said.

She said Wortman was an alcoholic who drank upwards of 16 beers on any given day. On April 18, 2020, he had at least six drinks before starting his 13-hour rampage, according to Banfield.

Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19, 2020. Top row from left: Gina Goulet, Dawn Gulenchyn, Jolene Oliver, Frank Gulenchyn, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins. Second row: John Zahl, Lisa McCully, Joey Webber, Heidi Stevenson, Heather O'Brien and Jamie Blair. Third row from top: Kristen Beaton, Lillian Campbell, Joanne Thomas, Peter Bond, Tom Bagley and Greg Blair. Bottom row: Emily Tuck, Joy Bond, Corrie Ellison and Aaron Tuck. (CBC)

In her interview with police the day following the mass shooting, she asked questions about who died. At that point, officers were not disclosing information about victims. 

Banfield mentioned numerous times she wished she had done more to stop the violence.

"Part of me felt really guilty 'cause I thought I, maybe I could've saved them by going, you know, maybe they were still alive and I could've got them, I don't know. But I was just so scared," she said.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Angela MacIvor is CBC Nova Scotia's investigative reporter. She has been with CBC since 2006 as a reporter and producer in all three Maritime provinces. All news tips welcome. Send an email to cbcnsinvestigates@cbc.ca

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