Partner of N.S. mass shooter says she understands families' anger but 'he did this and I didn't'
Lawyers of victims’ families concerned about lack of ability to ask questions
The partner of the man responsible for the Nova Scotia mass shooting in 2020 says the idea that he killed their neighbours while looking for her "haunts" her constantly.
Lisa Banfield testified Friday before the Mass Casualty Commission leading a public inquiry into the rampage across April 18 and 19, 2020, when her common-law spouse Gabriel Wortman killed 22 people as he drove a mock RCMP cruiser across the province.
Banfield, who was questioned only by commission counsel, spoke with two of her sisters by her side.
She has previously told police and the commission that the gunman threw her in his mock RCMP cruiser, but she was able to escape and hide in the woods overnight.
When Banfield was asked about victims Greg and Jamie Blair, who lived near the gunman's property, Banfield said she had no idea why he would go to their home.
"I feel like he was targeting me and my family, and if I didn't get out of that car, I often think, 'Would any of those people have died?'" Banfield said through tears.
"That's something that haunts me all the time, because I feel that they weren't targeted — that he was looking for me in the beginning."
The gunman killed 13 people within the small community of Portapique on April 18 and burned some homes, before fleeing the community in the replica cruiser. He would kill nine more people the next day, including a pregnant woman and an RCMP officer, as he drove south through the province.
Banfield was also asked about the various firearms the gunman owned. Although she said she knew he didn't have a gun licence, Banfield said she never considered reporting him to the police.
"If we had a fight, he put the gun to my head to scare me and said he could blow off my head," Banfield said through tears.
"So I was scared. I'm not going to say anything."
Banfield said she was aware other men also knew Wortman had these guns and were afraid to say anything, "so what am I gonna do?"
Wanted to protect police from gunman
She was also asked about what happened when two Halifax Regional Police officers arrived at the Dartmouth home she shared with the gunman in June 2010, investigating reports that he had threatened to kill his parents.
At the time, Banfield told officers there were no guns in the house. She testified Friday that wasn't true, but she said she lied to protect the officers.
"[Wortman] had the handgun by the nightstand and said if any police come, 'I'm shooting,'" Banfield said.
Soon after this, Banfield said RCMP Const. Greg Wiley came by the Portapique cottage to see whether Wortman had any firearms.
Wiley in house for 10 minutes: Banfield
The inquiry has heard that Wiley visited the gunman's cottage more than a dozen times in the years before the mass shooting, since the officer went to him for tips on local crime.
During that 2010 visit, Banfield said Wiley asked Wortman if he had any guns. The gunman showed the Mountie an old musket and one decorative gun above a fireplace that was filled with wax.
Wiley was only in the cottage for about 10 minutes and didn't seem to take an official statement from the gunman, nor did he search the home, said Banfield.
She couldn't remember if Wiley visited the gunman's warehouse or if it had been built by then.
The commission also asked Banfield about the gunman's process of building one of his decommissioned Ford Taurus cars into a replica RCMP car. She said she urged him to check into whether he was allowed to own it, and offered to call someone herself.
The gunman eventually told her he'd heard from some type of authority that he could have it as long as he didn't drive it around, Banfield said.
But Banfield said she knew the gunman did drive another of the decommissioned white cruisers that still had a few vinyl stripes on the rear bumper, and draped a neon jacket over the driver's seat to give the impression he was an officer. Wortman told her he liked to speed along the highway and tailgate others in the passing lane until they moved over.
"He got a thrill off of thinking that they think he's a police officer," Banfield said.
Banfield repeated what she has maintained for two years — that she had no idea Wortman was planning any kind of rampage, even as he stockpiled gas, food, and talked about being prepared to protect his property when the end of the world came during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She said she never heard him threaten other Portapique neighbours, and in fact had good relationships with many of the people he would kill on April 18.
In the wake of the mass shooting, Banfield said she has had lots of support from services like the Red Cross, women's advocacy groups, and mental health professionals. Other strangers reached out in support as well at first, until the RCMP laid charges against her "and then it stopped," Banfield said.
In December, 2020, the RCMP charged Banfield with supplying ammunition to the gunman. She stopped co-operating with police at that point.
Banfield also initially refused to speak at the inquiry under the advice of her lawyer. That stance changed when her charge was referred to restorative justice in March.
When asked if she needed more support, Banfield said she did — and paused to gather her breath.
"If it wasn't for my family, I don't know where I'd be living, what I would be doing. And it's hard for me to say this because I know I'm here, and my family's here, and there's so many people that aren't here," Banfield said.
"I don't want to complain about what I don't have."
Many of the victims' families attended Banfield's testimony Friday, including Ryan Farrington. His parents, Dawn and Frank Gulenchyn, were killed on April 18 in Portapique.
Farrington, who lives in Ontario, said he came to the inquiry in Halifax to learn more about any connections the gunman had with his parents and get "some closure."
Banfield said she didn't know of any connection between Wortman and the Gulenchyns beyond seeing Frank around the neighbourhood, and there was no conflict the gunman had with them.
"The rest of it is just a show to me," Farrington said, adding that the commission was only questioning Banfield about things that had been heard before.
Farrington also said he wanted to hear Banfield talk about everything she saw the night of April 18, because he didn't believe the account she gave to police through a video walk-through months later, calling it "fake."
As of Friday, Banfield has completed four interviews with police since the massacre, that video walk-through, and five recent interviews with the commission itself.
Banfield said Friday it's been hard knowing some people think she or her family had anything to do with this massacre, and they feel for those who lost loved ones.
"We're not angry that they're angry, because if it was my family I would feel the same way. But it's just angering because he did this and I didn't. And I would never contribute to anything like that," Banfield said.
"It's scary to think that people are angry, and then somebody could come after me or my family."
The idea that Banfield has been lying about what happened on April 18 is a "conspiracy theory," her lawyer James Lockyer said on Thursday.
He said the fact the commission decided against allowing participant lawyers to ask Banfield direct questions was "wise" to avoid this theme that "takes us to south of the border.
"You know, these shootings happen south of the border and the next thing we hear from the Alex Joneses of this world is that the shooting never actually happened, it's completely phony and was made up," Lockyer said.
"We don't need that kind of nonsense in Canada or in Nova Scotia."
The gunman began his rampage on April 18 after attacking Banfield during a celebration of their 19th anniversary. The gunman's long history of violence, emotional abuse and other controlling behaviour toward Banfield was outlined in a foundational document released earlier this week.
According to a commission release, the decision to not allow questions from other participant lawyers is based on the volume of information Banfield has already provided, and her position as a "survivor of the perpetrator's violence."
Many of the victims' families walked out of Banfield's testimony early on Friday in protest of how the commission handled her testimony.
Michael Scott of Patterson Law, the firm representing the families of most victims, said they hadn't heard any answers to questions they had about the events of April 2020 and there was no point in waiting until the end of the day.
"We don't know how we can make it any more clear — but Ms. Banfield has critically important evidence and we've been denied an opportunity to get that information from her," Scott said.
When asked about Lockyer's comments that some of Patterson Law's proposed questions veer into conspiracy theories, Scott said he doesn't see how asking Banfield more about how she escaped from an "armed madman" and survived a night in the woods is doing that. He said it's important to have thorough questions exploring the story Banfield has told to date.
"It certainly doesn't help in dispelling any misconceptions about what happened in refusing an opportunity to ask reasonable, relevant questions," Scott said.
He said their legal team felt it was important to ask Banfield to go over various inconsistences in her statements to police and the commission. When asked if he thought Banfield was lying, Scott said he doesn't know whether she's lying, telling the truth, or mistaken.
But Scott said there are "several formats" that might be better avenues to get the answers they want from Banfield, adding that he couldn't talk about what their clients are considering but they would be separate from a civil lawsuit against Banfield and her two family members underway.
"We are in the process of discussing a few procedural options that we may ... invoke to try to remedy where we are," Scott said.
This is not the first time the issue of lack of direct questioning has been raised by victims' families and their lawyers. In May, the commissioners decided that only their lawyers would question RCMP Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill and Sgt. Andy O'Brien in pre-taped interviews. Rehill was in charge of the police response during the first hours after 911 calls began to come in. O'Brien helped communicate with officers at the crime scene early in the crisis.
This drew a temporary boycott of the inquiry by many victims' families, who did not show up during the Mounties' testimonies and instructed their lawyers to do the same.
With files from Catharine Tunney and Kayla Hounsell