Was Nova Scotia mass shooter’s replica RCMP vehicle intended for an undercover sting?

Speculation about Gabriel Wortman's alleged connection to the RCMP and organized crime resurfaces as common-law partner pleads not guilty to ammunition charges

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      The common-law partner of Nova Scotia mass murderer Gabriel Wortman has pleaded not guilty to charges she supplied him with the ammunition used in the April 18 to 19, 2020, shooting spree that ended with 22 people dead.

      Lisa Banfield entered the plea through her Toronto-based lawyer Jessica Zita during a hearing by teleconference on May 5. Her brother, James Banfield, and brother-in-law Brian Brewster pleaded not guilty earlier to the same charges of supplying ammunition used in Wortman’s rampage.

      The original plea hearing in March was adjourned after Banfield’s defence team requested a private meeting with the judge and Crown to discuss the charges. The request was denied by a judge. The charges against Banfield and her alleged accomplices won’t be heard until March and April of next year. By then, a public inquiry into the deadliest massacre in Canadian history is expected to be well into its work, with a final report scheduled for release in November 2022.

      But more than a year after Wortman’s killing spree, the tragedy has largely faded from public view for most but the families of the victims. National coverage of the event has all but disappeared.

      And a year-long and costly legal battle launched by a number of media outlets to gain access to information used by the RCMP to obtain search warrants related to the case has ground to a crawl in the wake of charges against Banfield.

      The Nova Scotia RCMP, meanwhile, has stopped commenting on the case publicly since charges were laid against Banfield back in early December, saying they did not want to prejudice legal proceedings.

      But the charges against Banfield—and the fact her lawyers are now seeking to keep other details contained in unsealed court documents under wraps—has only cast more doubt on the original version of events offered by the RCMP as a possible motive for Wortman’s rampage.

      That version suggests Wortman was a serial abuser and that an argument with Banfield during a virtual anniversary celebration with friends triggered his rampage that involved the burning of a number of buildings and cars over a 13-hour period and covered more than 130 kilometres in a replica RCMP vehicle. Banfield reportedly was able to get away and hide in the woods.

      But other details already released by the courts have added a different blush to the RCMP narrative, including the possibility that Wortman was a confidential informant for the RCMP involved with organized crime figures and outlaw motorcycle gangs.

      It’s a theory that’s been floated by Paul Palango, a former Globe and Mail editor and author of a number of books on the RCMP, who reported back in June in Maclean’s (with Stephen Maher and Shannon Gormley) that Wortman had withdrawn around $475,000 in cash from his bank accounts just weeks before his onslaught. (Some $700,000 in cash was found at one of his properties.)

      Palango has been the most prolific writer on the case—primarily for the Halifax Examiner—from his base in Nova Scotia. In a recent open line call-in show on YouTube, Palango suggested that Wortman may have been involved in the planning of a sting operation with the RCMP, and that he went rogue on the night of his killing spree.

      He points to actions of the RCMP as the events of April 18 and 19 were unfolding, including the force’s failure to issue an amber alert or set up roadblocks, as evidence they didn’t want information about Wortman getting out—and the possibility the RCMP knew more about him than they are letting on. The RCMP had identified Wortman as the shooter and knew he was driving a replica RCMP vehicle early on.

      Palango says the RCMP’s handling of questions surrounding its actions in the crucial moments points to a larger problem—a force that has a history of operating in secrecy and sees itself as above scrutiny.

      The RCMP has denied any connection to Wortman. Halifax District RCMP public information officer Cpl. Lisa Croteau also told us back in July that “the RCMP is not aware of any ties between the gunman and members of organized crime groups”.

      But information used by the RCMP to obtain search warrants related to the case was sworn by Sergeant Angela Hawryluk, an expert in “outlaw motorcycle gangs, drug trafficking, and confidential informants”.

      Portions of the documents released so far by the courts suggest another motive than the one ascribed to Wortman by the RCMP. Those documents include information that Wortman was running guns and opioids back and forth over the Canada-U.S. border for years and that Wortman had a special clearance to skip the usual customs protocols. 

      The documents also reveal Wortman associated with known organized crime figures, including one Peter Griffon, who was just out of jail on drug charges and working at the printing shop where Wortman ordered the decals used to outfit the replica RCMP vehicle he used during his shooting spree. Griffon, who has been linked to a Mexican drug cartel, was doing odd jobs for Wortman on his properties.

      Was Wortman’s replica RCMP vehicle intended as part of an RCMP sting operation? It’s another question that hangs over the case as once seemingly disparate pieces of the puzzle are put together.

      At the time of Wortman’s killing spree, for example, the Nova Scotia RCMP had been monitoring increased motorcycle gang activity in the province, in particular, efforts by the Hell’s Angels to set up operations in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

      While Wortman’s targets during his killing spree seemed arbitrary or a product of personal grievances, one of the victims, Sean McLeod, was a corrections officer at the nearby Springhill Institution, a medium security prison. He was also a cousin of Griffon’s. Wortman had driven by the facility on a drive with Banfield in the days before the mass shooting, according to court documents, but it’s unclear why.

      It’s been suggested in court documents that the RCMP’s initially slow response on the night of the shootings had to do with the misimpression on their part that Wortman had committed suicide.

      Few details have been released so far on the circumstances leading to Wortman’s death. The version offered by the RCMP to the province’s Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) is that two tactical squad officers just happened upon Wortman at a gas station in Enfield, more than 90 kilometres away from Portapique, where his shooting spree began the day before.

      He was driving a Mazda stolen from his last shooting victim when he was recognized by one of the officers, who reported that Wortman had blood and a “noticeable hematoma” on his forehead. Wortman reportedly raised a gun to fire at one of the officers when he was shot and killed by police.

      Speculation is that he was on his way to Halifax airport some 30 kilometres down the road.