Inquiry learns details of abuse, control suffered by spouse of N.S. mass shooter

·11 min read
Lisa Banfield, common-law spouse of Gabriel Wortman, puts on a facemask at Nova Scotia provincial court in Dartmouth on Wednesday, March 9, 2022. The inquiry has heard more details about how Wortman abused Banfield throughout their 19-year relationship, before he killed 22 people in April 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press - image credit)
Lisa Banfield, common-law spouse of Gabriel Wortman, puts on a facemask at Nova Scotia provincial court in Dartmouth on Wednesday, March 9, 2022. The inquiry has heard more details about how Wortman abused Banfield throughout their 19-year relationship, before he killed 22 people in April 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press - image credit)

The first time Lisa Banfield says she was physically abused by her partner was a terrifying assault where she ran into the woods in the early 2000s.

"He was running after me and I was screaming my head off, and then he caught me and then he … you know, I had blood all over me and he was dragging me back," Banfield recalled to police.

It's a scene she said played out again years later, the night her common-law spouse Gabriel Wortman began a shooting rampage in Portapique, N.S., that would leave 22 Nova Scotians dead.

The gunman's violence, emotional abuse and other controlling behaviour toward Banfield throughout their 19-year relationship are outlined in a new foundational document released Wednesday by the Mass Casualty Commission. The document is based on interviews with Banfield, her family and other witnesses.

The commission is leading the inquiry into the mass shootings on April 18 and 19, 2020, examining the tragedy and the factors that led up to it, including the violence in Wortman's family and his history of harassment and attacks on others.

Banfield, who is set to testify before the inquiry for the first time Friday, gave four police interviews following the massacre and five interviews with the commission itself in recent months.

Physical abuse began after party

The documents show that Banfield met Wortman in May 2001 at the now-defunct Halifax pub, the Thirsty Duck.

On their first date, he showed up with a dozen long-stemmed roses. Banfield felt that was "too showy," and said she wasn't impressed. But later in the evening, she was impressed by the gunman's calm demeanour when his car was rear-ended.

Things moved quickly after that. Three months later, Banfield had moved in with the gunman.

Initially, she described Wortman as "sweet and caring." That was before the first time she was physically abused, following a party at a cottage in Sutherland Lake, about a half-hour drive north of Portapique.

Although witnesses differed on when the incident happened — Banfield said it was in 2001, others suggested it was as late as 2007 — the commission said it was likely after October 2002 when the gunman bought his Portapique cottage.

Steve Lawrence/CBC
Steve Lawrence/CBC

Banfield said Renée Karsten, a denturist who worked with Wortman at his Dartmouth clinic, invited the couple up for the night. But when Banfield wanted to leave and offered to take the gunman's Jeep home so he could stay, this "set him off."

As she left, the gunman jumped in the car and began hitting her in the head as she continued trying to drive. Banfield said she was crying so hard she couldn't see, so she stopped and fled into the woods.

The gunman soon caught Banfield and dragged her back to the car, but she ran away again when a group of people from the party arrived.

Karsten told police she saw Wortman dragging Banfield by the hair in the driveway, so she "lost it" and tried to intervene.

"His face and just the look in his eyes … it scared the hell out of me," Karsten told police.

Police involved, no charges laid

Karsten brought Banfield back to the cottage, and police came and drove the gunman back to his Portapique home. Banfield said that was the only time police were involved, and nothing came of the incident.

The commission said in the document it's unclear exactly why police were called and what they knew about the situation. While police records from this time "may have been purged" by now, the commission continues to investigate.

When Banfield eventually returned to the Portapique cottage that night, she saw the gunman pulling the tires off her car and throwing them over a bank. He told her to come inside, but she went to a neighbour's and waited for her niece to pick her up.

The niece, Stephanie Goulding, said Banfield was bloody and scraped up, with torn clothing. Goulding wanted to stop into the Truro police station to report the assault, but Banfield "begged" her not to, so instead a sister took photos of her injuries.

Banfield moved back into her sister Maureen Banfield's home after this, but Wortman soon began visiting and apologizing, saying he'd been drinking and he would never hurt her again — and they got back together.

This pattern would continue through the years, both Banfield and two of her sisters told police. The few times her family knew of the abuse and urged her to report it or leave the relationship, Banfield didn't want to take that step.

The gunman would often kick and punch the parts of her body that could be covered by clothing, Banfield said, like arms and legs. If he left marks on her neck while choking her, Banfield said she would use makeup to cover them.

On at least two occasions, Banfield said he put a gun to her head.

"He would say afterwards, 'If I didn't love you, I wouldn't do this because that's how much I care about you,'" she told the commission.

One sister, Janice Banfield, called the gunman a "sociopath" and said she thought "we're gonna have to bury our sister one day."

But Banfield said she felt she had nowhere to go, because the gunman frequently threatened to kill her or her family if she ever left him.

"He would be like, 'I know where your family lives,' and look at me a certain way," she said.

Violence more prevalent than first reported

While Banfield originally told RCMP officers there had been around 10 incidents of physical abuse over the years, she has since told the commission there were actually far more.

"I just don't trust very well, and I was scared to say anything," she told the commission this May.

She originally told police years would go by between attacks, and the last time had been three years before the mass shooting. Upon reflection, Banfield told the commission that was part of her coping mechanism.

Banfield would write a journal entry about an incident but never revisit it, so she believed an assault hadn't happened in years even though it was happening "all along."

"I would just have to block it out because … I needed to deal with whatever is going on in that moment, so I couldn't think about what's gone on," Banfield said.

Only one neighbour reported abuse

There were at least two instances of abuse witnessed by other people in Portapique.

One day, the gunman's uncle Glynn Wortman and another neighbour saw him choking Banfield on the front lawn of their cottage. The uncle yelled, "You're just like your father, get off of her," Banfield recalled.

Earlier this week, the inquiry heard accounts from several of the gunman's uncles describing incidents of his father, Paul Wortman, abusing his wife, Evelyn.

One Portapique neighbour, Brenda Forbes, heard about the incident Glynn Wortman saw and reported it to the RCMP in 2013. Nothing came of her complaint, and Forbes said no one else in the community believed her or wanted to get involved.

Banfield said she never told her family doctor about the abuse, and was careful to schedule visits only when she had no visible injuries.

Psychologist urged her to leave

But at one point, Banfield said things were "so bad" she saw a psychologist in Bedford who told her she was in an abusive relationship. This professional provided support and encouraged her to leave, but the gunman found out about it and made her stop.

The gunman also threatened to confront the doctor, Banfield said, and she felt "trapped."

Although Banfield said she was always "on eggshells" around the gunman, never knowing what would set him off, she consistently forgave his behaviour and tried to show him he was loved because "everybody always left him."

In a statement to the commission, Banfield wrote she felt bad for the gunman when he told her about how his father abused him as a child, especially because she had such a large and loving family.

"I thought I could help him if I just loved him unconditionally," Banfield said.

Controlling, isolating behaviour 

The range of abuse the gunman inflicted on Banfield fits into the definitions of intimate-partner violence and coercive control, which are laid out in an inquiry report from Dr. Katreena Scott on interventions to address abuse.

Scott writes that intimate-partner violence includes a range of behaviours besides physical violence, like unwanted sexual activity, threats, humiliation, and economic abuse which deprives a victim of the ability to provide for their own needs.

Coercive control is a set of behaviours that disempower someone in a relationship, Scott said, like removing their liberties, threats to their family, and limiting access to loved ones or transportation.

"Very early on there were so many signs of his controlling or bullying behaviour, but somehow, I was able to block it out and justify to myself how badly he treated me," Banfield wrote in a statement to the commission.

"Gabriel was jealous, controlling, possessive, extremely degrading, and piggish; it was 'his way or the highway.'"

CBC
CBC

Banfield said within the first couple of years, the gunman was able to convince her to quit her bank job at RBC so she could come work for his denturist business, which would make it easier for them to take time off and travel together.

"I realize now that he just wanted to control my entire life," Banfield wrote to the commission.

He urged her to sell the car she'd had throughout her previous marriage, and he eventually bought her a Mercedes under his name.

Banfield was in the gunman's will by 2011, but her sister Maureen Banfield was worried she'd be left with nothing if they broke up because she had no other income or investments of her own.

By 2020, Banfield said she believed she was making around $25 an hour, but the clinic didn't have a regular payroll system. Instead, the gunman would write her cheques from a business account or give her cash, sometimes deducting a percentage from her cheques "for retirement," she said.

"He dealt with all the money things, so I trusted whatever," Banfield told the commission.

'He wanted me to know that without him, I had nothing'

Besides her work at his clinics, Banfield said she would wait on the gunman "hand and foot" by making all the meals and handling the cleaning and organizing of the household. She told one of her sisters it was the way she was raised and she wanted to take on these tasks.

Banfield said in her written statement the gunman controlled everything in her life, so when she didn't obey, he could take things away to "punish her," including her car keys, phone and salary.

"He wanted me to know that without him, I had nothing. I believed that," she wrote. "Made me feel so stupid and incapable of doing things on my own even though I did everything for him."

The gunman also often groped Banfield in front of her family because he thought "it was funny," she said, and their sexual relationship was always defined by his wants and needs, not hers.

Sex between them did not involve intimacy or tenderness, Banfield wrote to the commission, and said the gunman was "addicted to pornography."

Despite his many affairs, including with Portapique neighbours or his own patients, Banfield said she forgave him every time — and "I am so ashamed of that."

Unhappy with Banfield socializing

While Banfield said the gunman would often become mad at her for wanting to see her siblings or other family, Banfield said he also didn't like her becoming too friendly with people in Portapique.

If he saw her having fun at neighbourhood parties, Banfield said the gunman would put her down in front of others for "acting like an idiot" and drag her away by the arm. If she refused, he would become violent and slap her or pull her hair.

At work, Banfield said he also belittled her and screamed at her in front of patients. When out for dinner one night, the gunman threw a glass of water in her face and left her alone in the restaurant.

The gunman's controlling behaviour and jealousy appeared to weigh on Banfield's mind. One time, Banfield saw another denturist while out drinking with her sister, and was terrified they might tell the gunman because she wasn't supposed to be out.

When her mother died, her high school boyfriend attended the funeral, but Banfield ushered him out, saying the gunman disliked him and would be upset he was there.

The violence and control from the gunman lasted until April 18, 2020, when he attacked Banfield on the night of their 19th anniversary. He threw her in his mock RCMP cruiser, but she said she escaped through an opening in the car's partition and hid in the woods overnight.

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