Legal battle in Nova Scotia mass shooting shifts to gunman’s spouse

The partner of mass shooter Gabriel Wortman has hired high-profile Toronto criminal defence lawyer James Lockyer as media legal challenge over RCMP documents drags on

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      It’s been almost a year since the Nova Scotia mass shooting. The deadliest killing spree in Canadian history claimed the lives of 23 people (including the unborn child of one victim).

      Despite the magnitude of the events that took place on April 18 and 19, 2020, we’re still not much closer to understanding all the circumstances that triggered denturist Gabriel Wortman’s rampage.

      In that regard, the focus has shifted more recently to the version of events offered to the RCMP by Wortman’s common-law partner, as well as the emergence of an internal RCMP memo suggesting some documents related to the shooting may have been destroyed.

      Most of what has informed the RCMP’s investigation into the killing spree remains under a court seal.

      A consortium of more than half a dozen media outlets has been in court since May seeking access to hundreds of pages of information in documents used by the RCMP to obtain search warrants related to the case. But the bulk of those (some 20 or 27 search warrant documents in all) remain under wraps.

      Documents that have been released so far by the courts have been heavily redacted so as not to prejudice the ongoing RCMP investigation—or so provincial and federal prosecutors say. So what has been publicly disclosed so far has been what the RCMP and prosecutors want the public to see.

      It’s not clear if the public will ever see the contents of the documents that remain under seal.

      The Canadian Press and Post Media, two of the larger members of the media consortium bankrolling the current court challenge, have dropped their financial support.

      The narrative provided by the RCMP documents made public so far paints a portrait of Wortman as a gun-loving cop hater (or cop wannabe, depending on who you believe) who was growing increasingly paranoid about the pandemic in the weeks before his killing spree. The documents suggest an argument between Wortman and his common-law partner Lisa Banfield during an anniversary celebration is what set him off.

      Much of that version of events has been provided to the RCMP by Banfield herself, but that’s been coloured by the fact that Banfield was charged in December along with her brother and brother-in-law with unlawful transfer of ammunition. It’s alleged by the RCMP that the three provided Wortman with the ammunition used in the crime.

      The RCMP says the three had “no prior knowledge” that the ammunition would be used in Wortman’s crime. But the families of the victims have recently added Banfield’s name and those of her co-accused to a class action seeking financial compensation from Wortman’s estate, which is reportedly valued at some $2.1 million.

      Banfield has told RCMP that Wortman tied her up that night but that she managed to escape into the woods.

      In newly unredacted sections of search warrant documents released to the public last month, she is quoted as expressing feelings of guilt to the RCMP over the killings, suggesting Wortman may have been looking for her when he set about gunning down strangers and acquaintances—and burning down everything in his path—while tearing around Portapique and the surrounding area in a lookalike RCMP cruiser.

      She’s also quoted in the newly released information as telling the RCMP that she feared leaving Wortman because of threats made by Wortman about “hurting her family”.

      Wortman’s alleged history of physical violence toward Banfield (she reportedly never went to the police about it) has become a larger part of the backdrop of the ongoing legal battle over access to RCMP documents.

      The media consortium is seeking to have other sections of those documents unredacted, but lawyers representing Banfield say that doing so would prejudice her right to a fair trial on the ammunition charges.

      Banfield has hired the Toronto firm of high-profile criminal defence lawyer James Lockyer to represent her in those proceedings. Lockyer’s legal resume includes his involvement in a dozen well-known wrongful conviction cases, including accused Christine Jessop killer Guy Paul Morin.

      On Monday in a hearing held via teleconference, Lockyer’s associate Jessica Zita argued that Banfield’s is a special case: “Ms. Banfield is not just simply an accused before this court. She’s also a victim.”

      David Coles, the lawyer representing the media consortium, rejected the argument. He countered that the release of information related to Banfield would not affect her right to a fair trial. That trial is scheduled to take place before a judge, not a jury, Coles argued, and there is no “serious risk” a judge would allow what may be published in media stories to colour evidence in the ammunition charges. “That’s not how it works,” says Coles, who has already made public his concerns about the legal wrangling surrounding efforts to keep RCMP documents from being made public. It will be another two months before a court will decide if the information related to Banfield should be released.

      Banfield’s lawyers are also seeking to prevent details of a conversation outlined in RCMP documents that Banfield had with Wortman’s friend, Toronto-based lawyer Kevin Von Bargen, from being released to the public. Zita says that conversation should be covered by solicitor-client privilege. (It’s unclear what legal matters Banfield would be discussing with Von Bargen; his online profile suggests a specialty in real estate law.)

      Von Bargen, who provided a statement to the RCMP just days after Wortman’s rampage, also shows up in unredacted portions of documents released by the courts back in February. In those, he is quoted as saying that he had a “normal” conversation with Wortman two days before the mass shooting. Nothing seemed amiss, Von Bargen told the RCMP, save for Wortman’s preoccupation with the pandemic.