Victims’ families ask Portapique inquiry to subpoena deceased gunman’s wife

Everybody wants to talk to Lisa Banfield. But she doesn’t want to talk to them.

Unless, perhaps, the charges against her go away.

Banfield was the common-law wife of Gabriel Wortman, perpetrator of the worst mass killing the country has ever seen.

Wortman, in a 13-hour period over April 18 and 19, 2020, killed 22 people, torched multiple houses and terrorized much of Colchester County in northern Nova Scotia. All of which began on the couple’s 19th anniversary with an assault on Banfield.

She, more than anyone else, could shed light on the gunman’s state of mind, his motivations and more. And while she has spoken to police four times, she steadily declines to speak to media and — through her lawyers de ella — has refused to address the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry.

On Wednesday, her lawyer seemed to suggest that if the criminal case against her — she’s charged with supplying ammunition to Wortman — were to go away, Banfield would be free to testify under oath to the inquiry.

“If her legal jeopardy were to be gone, Ms Banfield will co-operate fully,” said lawyer Craig Zeeh. “(She) will subject herself to further interviews on questions that commission counsel may have, or other counsel may have to get a better understanding of what the big picture is.”

Zeeh said that if the commission had questions in the meantime, her counsel would be willing to take them in writing and determine if Banfield had a response.

No fewer than five lawyers lined up at the inquiry podium Wednesday, urging the commission to subpoena Banfield to testify.

“Ms Banfield is a critical witness,” said Sandra McCulloch, who represents the majority of the families of the victims in a lawsuit against the RCMP and the Nova Scotia attorney general. She called Banfield’s accounts included in the inquiry’s first foundational documents “woefully inadequate to any semblance of a completed narrative.”

“In our view, it would be unfathomable for the commission to proceed without a fulsome exploration of Ms Banfield’s account, including a proper testing of that evidence.”

McCulloch said having Banfield testifying under oath for the commission could provide details missing in the RCMP interviews, and provide context and clarity as to what took place immediately prior to the gunman’s rampage.

Specifically, McCulloch mentioned concerns about a lack of detail in Banfield’s account of the first few hours of Wortman’s rampage, when she escaped his captivity and hid in the woods in Portapique. Banfield, it seems, managed to crawl out of the back seat of a locked police car and then weather a night outside in freezing temperatures, with no shoes or coat.

McCulloch said Banfield might also be able to shed some light into a drive that she and the gunman took earlier in the day, wherein he pointed out the house of Gina Goulet, who was to become his final victim.

Banfield’s counsel has said that she will refuse to speak to the inquiry as long as her case is before the courts. That could mean waiting until mid-April to hear from her, with the inquiry’s deadline for an interim report looming in May.

“Our power to subpoena is just that, a power to subpoena. And we don’t have the right to force her to meet with us,” said commission chair Michael MacDonald.

A subpoenaed party that does not attend court may face an arrest warrant. If they attend, but refuse to testify, they can face contemplated charges.

It might be better to drop the criminal case, argues one legal expert. The charges she faces are relatively minor, and police said she had no advance knowledge of how that ammunition would eventually be used.

“The prosecution has the discretion (to drop those charges), if they consider it in the public interest, which some might well argue it would be,” said Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus of the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Compelling Banfield to testify could have chilling effects for future victims of violence, said Anastacia Merrigan, who spoke on behalf of the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia, the Be the Peace Institute and Women’s Shelters Canada.

“We think that subjecting Ms Banfield at this point to that so early in these proceedings will send a message to victims of intimate-partner violence that they could be subject to the same thing,” she said.

The inquiry resumes on Thursday.


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