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More evidence emerges of N.S. mass shooter's long history of domestic abuse

HALIFAX — The former wife of the man responsible for the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia says he once pinned her to the floor during a fit of rage, confirming that the killer’s violence towards women extended back to the 1990s.
A fire-destroyed property registered to Gabriel Wortman at 200 Portapique Beach Road is seen in Portapique, N.S. on Friday, May 8, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX — The former wife of the man responsible for the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia says he once pinned her to the floor during a fit of rage, confirming that the killer’s violence towards women extended back to the 1990s.

The woman, who is not named in documents recently released by a public inquiry into the mass shooting, talked to police on April 29, 2020 — 10 days after the killer’s rampage claimed 22 lives in northern and central Nova Scotia.

The woman’s statement, which includes details about a second violent outburst, is now part of a growing narrative detailing Gabriel Wortman's decades-long pattern of violence towards women.

That chronology includes a statement from a former neighbour who said she told RCMP that the man attacked his spouse, Lisa Banfield, when they were living in Portapique, N.S., in 2013.

Some lawyers are calling on the inquiry to ask the neighbour, Brenda Forbes, to provide in-person witness testimony as the commission explores the role gender-based violence played in the tragedy.

In the case of the killer's first wife, the interview with police also includes her description of incidents in the 1990s when her husband’s drinking would contribute to violent rages.

During one incident at the couple's home in Dartmouth, N.S., the former wife recalled how he used a hammer to smash a collection of shelves and expensive figurines when he was triggered by the sight of dust on the shelves.

When she fled from the home, he threatened to smash her car windows with the hammer, she told police. 

"There was another time he got very upset when he was drinking ... he actually pinned me down on the floor that day,” she said. “I was very scared that day, too." 

After the 2020 killings, several of the gunman's neighbours in Portapique came forward to describe the man as jealous, controlling and abusive. And police confirmed that on the night the murders started, he had bound and attacked his longtime partner.

The next day, Banfield told police that her spouse had devolved from a "loving, kind and generous" man when they first met, to a moody partner who since 2003 had routinely assaulted her.

"In the past, he was abusive and I would appease him and say whatever I could to make it stop," she told RCMP Staff Sgt. Greg Vardy during an interview at the Colchester East Hants Health Centre in Truro, N.S.

Banfield told the RCMP she didn't report the abuse because she "didn’t want to get him in trouble. And in hindsight, I wish I would’ve, because maybe this wouldn’t have happened."

At the time of the interview, Banfield was being treated for injuries she suffered on April 18, 2020, when Wortman attacked her at their home in Portapique.

Banfield, then 51, described other beatings at the cottage, saying her spouse’s explosive anger was typically triggered by small disputes. Before the assault in April 2020, Banfield said the last time she experienced intimate partner violence was three years earlier.

Among other things, the public inquiry’s mandate includes investigating the role of gender-based violence.

In a research report commissioned by the inquiry, two professors at Monash University in Australia found that all mass shootings in western countries in recent decades have been carried out by men.

The paper concludes that there is a "significant minority" of mass shootings that also involve the targeting of specific women, "often an intimate partner, as the first victim," and that there is growing evidence of the linkages between gender-based violence and mass shootings.

"In order to better understand, prevent and respond to mass casualty attacks, there is a need to better understand, prevent and respond to gender-based violence," the report says.

Meanwhile, participating lawyer Anastacia Merrigan has told the inquiry there are discrepancies between the evidence provided by Forbes — the killer’s former neighbour — and the RCMP's description of how they responded to her complaint.

In a summary of evidence, the inquiry said a responding officer took "minimal notes" at the time of Forbes's complaint and that other information had been purged from RCMP files.

The inquiry's summary says a constable who responded to the complaint in 2013 is quoted in an RCMP report saying he didn't remember Forbes reporting a domestic assault.

Merrigan, who represents the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia, said she wants the inquiry to provide a more critical view of what happened with Forbes’s complaint.

"To date, the foundational document has adopted the evidence provided by the RCMP almost without question," she told the inquiry last week.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2022. 

Michael Tutton and Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press