1. The killer’s uncle
“I wasn’t surprised,” said Chris Wortman, a week after his nephew Gabriel killed 22 people in Nova Scotia.
“I knew he was always capable of killing somebody or serious harm, but not to this extent. Like, come on! Wow! I always thought, well, maybe his parents or maybe Lisa. I just didn’t think he’d go on a rampage, you know, pulling people over and just shooting, like, Jesus Christ! somebody walking on the side of the road.”
Chris Wortman was a retired RCMP officer when the murders happened. He was living in British Columbia, and was interviewed by Sgt. Corey Kilbourn, on April 28, 2020, in the very interview room in which he used to interview people when he was a cop.
Chris had grown up in New Brunswick, living near Gabriel and his parents, Paul and Evelyn. Chris was seven years older than Gabriel, and when Gabriel was about seven years old, Chris was entrusted to watch him for days at a time in the summer.
Chris said Gabriel was “always a strange little guy, never known to have a friend. He had a difficult upbringing… his father and mother… they’re very bizarre, very strange. And a result, Gabriel was too. You know, there’s a lot of dysfunction in the family in total. His father, maybe he shouldn’t have been a father is the best thing to say.”
In the interview, Chris related already reported incidents about Gabriel’s life; for example, when Gabriel was seven, Paul handed Gabriel a loaded pistol and said “shoot me.”
Chris knew that Gabriel paid his way through university by smuggling alcohol and tobacco across the US border and selling them to students at the University of New Brunswick.
“He was almost a career criminal,” said Chris.
Chris had spent his career as a cop in British Columbia, retiring in 2009. In 2014, he and his wife bought some property on Prince Edward Island, with the idea of living out their years there. But moving to PEI was “probably one of the worst mistakes I ever made,” said Chris.
Over the next few years, Chris and his wife interacted with Gabriel and his common-law spouse, Lisa Banfield. Chris said his wife and Lisa became close, but Chris didn’t know Lisa so well. Still, Gabriel and Lisa stayed at their house on PEI once or twice, and he and his wife travelled to Portapique to visit as well.
During one of the trips to Portapique, Chris gifted Gabriel with a pair of his old RCMP boots. Gabriel put them on display in the cottage.
Gabriel had collected as many as 30 motorcycles in the warehouse he owned in Portapique. Chris speculated that Gabriel was smuggling the motorcycles into Canada from the United States:
Probably four or five years ago, he started collecting motorcycles and these little three-wheeler trikes, but he was buying them from all over the States. Some of them had titles, some of them didn’t.
So they were always being shipped to, um, Gabriel had an associate, somebody that, you know, crawled out from underneath the rock, that was willing to accept all these motorcycles, put a new title on and I guess that’s how you do it, I don’t know.
So now all of a sudden, a clean title because this is the guy that owns it. Gabriel would go down and retrieve it. So, he’d be going down and getting three or four of these motorcycles at a time… if you can figure out who that guy was that was cleaning these titles, that’s probably your guy that’s helping him bring the weapons across.
In 2016, Chris and his wife went to the Dominican Republic with Gabriel and Lisa. On the trip, Gabriel told Chris that he (Gabriel) had “beat the crap” out of his father on a previous trip.
Gabriel went to the Dominican Republic quite often, said Chris — sometimes twice in the same month. Chris didn’t think Gabriel was dealing drugs, but rather doing denturist work; he’d take teeth impressions, travel back to Dartmouth to make the dentures, then return to the Dominican Republic to deliver them. He’d also bring cell phones to the staff at the resort he stayed in, and then updated them with new cell phones on the next trip.
On the 2016 trip they took together, Gabriel “ended up getting hooked up with four Dominican prostitutes,” said Chris. “And he’s telling me this like I should be impressed with that and it just kind of made me sick.”
Chris said Gabriel was very controlling of Banfield, “to the point where he would recommend Lisa get you know liposuction on her thighs or get bigger boobs or whatever… I always knew there’s a little potential there, you now, and we knew that Lisa was kind of afraid of him.”
“I didn’t like his mental state and I didn’t like his criminal element,” said Chris. “There was a time where, you know, we could kind of look beyond that, but it got to the point where I can’t look beyond this anymore. I gotta get away from it. It wasn’t a great holiday in the Dominican… it was such a holiday that my wife and I agreed that would never happen again.”
“It was just my sixth sense,” said Chris. “I just knew I had to get my distance. And then there’s other family dynamics going on… all this dysfunction crap and the bullshit that was going on… even though I was in another province and a 13-kilometre bridge keeping us separate, it was still too close.”
“So I had a doctor, and he told me, ‘you know, you got to get the hell out of here.’ And within six months our house was listed. Within a year we sold it and left.”
Chris and his wife returned to British Columbia.
“And so after that, I never saw him again.”
Two weeks into the public inquiry into the mass murders of April 18/19, 2020, here are some random thoughts and observations:
Despite arguments from the police union and RCMP lawyers to the contrary, the commissioners have made it clear that “being trauma-informed does not mean not hearing from a person.”
Therefore, the commissioners ruled that many police officers and some civilians, including Lisa Banfield, will be required to testify under oath before the commission and be subject to cross examination from the lawyers representing victims’ families.
Had they ruled the opposite, the families and the public generally would have lost all faith in the inquiry. For myself, while I still have concerns about information being potentially withheld, for now I’m in a wait-and-see mode.
Through her lawyers, Banfield had resisted testifying before the inquiry because of the separate criminal charge against her for supplying ammunition to the killer.
But an elegant solution was found to that problem: the crown and Banfield agreed to a restorative justice process, and if Banfield successfully completes that process, the criminal charge will be withdrawn.
I don’t know, because the terms of restorative justice are not made public, but it seems possible that testifying before the commission is one of the requirements of the process for Banfield. In any event, she has already met with the commission’s staff, which lays the ground work for her testimony later in the spring.
Testifying in public is both the right thing to do and the right thing for Banfield personally. There’s an awful lot of rumour-mongering and unfair speculation about her role in the tragedy, much of it flat-out misogynistic, and Banfield speaking plainly will put much of that to rest.
Banfield should explain lots of things, but one particular issue stands out.
In her statements to RCMP investigators after the murders, Banfield gave a detailed account of her day before the murders started: She got up, went for her daily hour walk. Then, she and the killer drove the back roads around the province, looking at a penitentiary, visiting with a fellow denturist, driving by Gina Goulet’s house. They returned to Portapique and had drinks in the warehouse, celebrating their anniversary. They then FaceTimed with a couple of friends in Maine, Sean Conlogue and Angel Patterson, and during the call, Patterson told Banfield not to get married, which upset her, and started a dispute between Banfield and the killer that led to the murder spree.
But last week we learned that there were earlier calls — one around noon with both Conlogue and Patterson, and a second mid-afternoon with Conlogue alone. Why did Banfield omit those calls in her narrative of the day?
More importantly, Conlogue recalled that in one of those calls that afternoon, Banfield and the killer were clearing brush in the woods. It’s the suggestion that they were clearing the rough road or trail on his property that connected the “cottage” to the “warehouse.” This is the very trail that commission staffers suggest on which the killer drove his look-alike police car through mid-murder spree. If so, clearing the trail the afternoon before suggests a significant degree of premeditation. Banfield should speak to this.
Why go straight?
The first three RCMP officers responding to Portapique that night — Cst. Stuart Beselt, Cst. Adam Merchant, and Cst. Aaron Patton — will testify at the inquiry on March 28, the next day of public proceedings. There are many, many issues they should be asked about; one of them I raised last week:
The first 911 call from Portapique was from Jamie Blair at 10:01; she reported that her husband had been shot while on the front deck, and two or three minutes into the call, the call-taker heard Jamie Blair get shot before her phone went dead. The Blairs lived at 123 Orchard Beach Drive.
The Blairs’ two children soon left their house and went next door to 136 Orchard Beach Drive, which was Lisa McCully’s house. McCully had left the house to investigate the fire at the killer’s warehouse across the road, but her two children remained in the house and were joined by the two Blair children. The kids called 911 at 10:16.
Both those 911 calls came in before Beselt arrived in Portapique, and while he was en route to Portapique he was given at least some of the details of the calls, most notably that there were people killed and the calls came from the two houses on Orchard Beach Drive.
But when Beselt and Merchant went into Portapique, they went straight south on Portapique Beach Road rather than turning left (east) onto Orchard Beach Drive. They were soon joined by Patton, who likewise went south on Portapique Beach Road.
Why didn’t the three go directly to the site of the 911 calls?
Two kids and one of the kids’ stepfather said they saw a RCMP car driving around Debert the night of the murders, but those sightings don’t connect with the surveillance videos collected by the commission. It doesn’t seem likely that all three people are lying or mistaken, so what explains the discrepancy?
Plains Road murders
On April 30, 2020, a woman named Sharon Mollins (I suspect “Mollins” is a misspelling of “Mullins”) left a message on the RCMP’s tip line. Here is Cst. Aaron Lawless’s summary of her call:
She called OCC on Sunday at 11:30am Sunday, April 19th, 2020 and spoke with dispatch but didn’t hear anything back since.
She and Ralph Ellis left their house at 10:00am and traveled to Debert. They were on Plains Road at approximately 10:10am on Sunday, April 19th, 2020. On the side of the road there is a turn off/wider section and she noticed a silver SUV/van stopped by a RCMP police car (no houses or landmarks to identify the area). The police car was looped around facing the opposite way (toward Wentworth) and she is unsure of which direction the silver vehicle was facing. It appeared to be an RCMP officer speaking to the driver on the driver side of the vehicle. Just as they were passing him the RCMP officer ran and got into his police vehicle. The RCMP appeared to be male, bald, not hat, light shirt, dark pants.
The RCMP car followed them on Plains Road travelling toward Highway 104 and he stopped at the second car that she thought may have been gold in color. The car was on the side of the road. She didn’t see what the RCMP officer did there. Ralph said he could see something. There was a pause and the RCMP car caught up to them again. The RCMP car drove very fast and made a right turn onto Highway 104 travelling toward Amherst without its emergency lights on. Her and Ralph continued toward Truro.
She does not recall the RCMP vehicle having a black push bar on the front of it. If she had to estimate she would say the RCMP vehicle was stopped at the second vehicle or (sic) under 10 seconds.
She did not hear any shots fired. She did not remember seeing anything in the RCMP officer’s hands. She did not see the number on the car.
Ralph Mullins has spoken to investigators that evening in Debert near the first vehicle.
This chilling account suggests that Mullins may have witnessed the murders of Heather O’Brien and Kristen Beaton without fully realizing what she saw until later. Moreover, Sharon and Ralph may have come very close to being victims themselves.
There are some points in Mullins’ account that don’t line up perfectly with the understanding we currently have of the murders of O’Brien and Beaton — she missed the detail of the push bar, and at least in early press conferences, the RCMP claimed the victims were not “pulled over” by the killer (albeit, it wasn’t explained how they were targeted otherwise) — but her description of the “RCMP officer” matches that of the killer.
There’s an additional odd detail in Mullins’ account: the RCMP car drove from Plains Road and onto Highway 104 travelling west. We know, however, that the killer soon ended up to the east, in Truro.
I’m just going to throw this out there because I think the commission should look into it: Why was Cst. Heidi Stevenson moved from the RCMP’s Cole Harbour detachment, where she worked as a school resource officer, and transferred to the Enfield detachment, where she was ultimately placed in the path of the killer that fateful day?
2. NS has abandoned meaningful COVID reporting
I wrote this last night…
There’s been a months-long degradation of COVID reporting in Nova Scotia.
Through November 2021, the data provided were relatively fulsome, and as a result I was able to produced quite detailed presentation of that data, which included:
• the number of new cases by health zone, age cohort, and gender
• deaths by health zone, age cohort, and gender
• the number of people hospitalized because of COVID, and how many were in ICU
• total number of PCR tests administered at Nova Scotia Health labs, and the positivity rate of those tests
• the daily status of the vaccination program, with the exact number of first and second (and then third) doses administered
• the vaccination status of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths
• a detailed list of COVID exposure sites, including school exposures
When Omicron hit in December, the province stopped reporting the age cohort and vaccination status of new cases. This was somewhat understandable, as the case numbers were so large that the labs were behind on entering that data into the database, but the vaccination status data of hospitalizations and deaths were also not provided, until I made a public issue of it, and the province reversed that decision.
Then, with pressure from Dr. Lisa Barrett, the hospitalization data were expanded to include those in still in hospital after contracting COVID but who were no longer contagious and those who contracted COVID in hospital.
As the wave increased, the province stopped reporting exposure sites. When school started in the new year, school-based cases stopped being reported.
On Jan. 3, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang said that he personally was leading a national charge to stop reporting daily case counts:
I brought that issue forward on my last national call, on Thursday. There was lots of support from the other Chief Medical Officers of Health around moving away from the daily case counts, but also doing that in a consistent way in terms of timing and what that looks like. And there was a commitment from the Public Health Agency of Canada, which chairs those meetings, to have this as an ongoing agenda item — we have two calls a week, so I look forward to that conversation unfolding with my colleagues across the country.
The last few weeks have seen record COVID death counts in Nova Scotia, greater even than during the first wave, long before vaccines existed. But the daily COVID reports ended Friday.
To be honest, I was looking forward to the change. I have spent an awful lot of time over the last two years reporting daily COVID numbers, and it seemed a bit much, and besides, a weekly report would allow me to relay the same information to readers while better representing overall trends.
But we didn’t get the same information.
The province issued the first weekly COVID report today. Weirdly, the reports issued on Thursdays will now cover the period from the Wednesday the week before to the previous Tuesday, so it’s dated on arrival, but besides that, it omits data about:
• demographic (age, gender, health zone) of those who have died in the reporting period
• demographics (age, gender, health zone) of those hospitalized (although a median age is provided)
• how many people in hospital who have or had COVID are in ICU
• how many people are still in hospital even though they’re no longer contagious
• how many people contracted the disease in hospital
• demographic data (age, gender, health zone) of new cases
• PCR tests administered at Nova Scotia Health labs, and the positivity rate of those tests
• the exact number of first, second, and third doses of vaccine administered
This might have made sense had COVID been receding into the background, but again: the past few weeks have seen record COVID death counts in Nova Scotia.
Welcome to “living with COVID.”
3. MSC Kim
The container ship MSC was en route from Montreal to Halifax when it lost engine power in the Gulf of St. Lawrence Wednesday.
The Coast Guard icebreaker Terry Fox had to clear the harbour at Stephenville, Newfoundland to allow the tug Atlantic Kingfisher to depart, and yesterday the tug successfully tied to MSC Kim. the pair will arrive in Sydney harbour this afternoon.
“No injuries or pollution [are] reported,” tweeted the Coast Guard. “Our #EnvironmentalResponse specialists are in contact with the owner to ensure they have a response plan in place in the event that pollution would occur. We will continue to monitor the MSC Kim and the tow vessel until any threat to the environment has passed.”
Budget Committee (Friday, 1pm) — virtual meeting
Challenging nickel-catalyzed cross-couplings enabled by ligand design (Friday, 9:30am) — PhD Chemistry defence by Ryan Thomas McGuire
Finite Economies and Alms Competition: Bequests to the Friars and the Poor in the Court of Husting Probate Records, c.1260-1430 (Friday, 3:30pm, Room 1170, McCain Building and online) — Hannah Wood from the University of Toronto will talk
Making Room for Wetlands: In Review (Friday, 11am) — Zoom webinar
Black Mother, Black Daughter (Friday, 5pm) — online screening of the film by Sylvia Hamilton and group discussion
In the harbour
00:30: Atlantic Sail, ro-ro container, sails from Fairview Cove for New York
05:15: Oceanex Avalon, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from St. John’s
06:00: East Coast, oil tanker, sails from Irving Oil for sea
09:30: Asterix, replenishment vessel, moves from Dockyard to Irving Oil
13:00: Nolhanava, ro-ro cargo, sails from Fairview Cove for Saint-Pierre
13:00: Augusta Unity, cargo ship, sails from Pier 31 for sea
14:00: MSC Kim, container ship, with Atlantic Kingfisher, tug/supply vessel, arrive at Sydney anchorage (see News #3 above)
17:00: Algoma Integrity, bulker, arrives at Aulds Cove quarry from Tampa, Florida
I got the Chris Wortman document early this morning, so sorry for the lateness and shortness of this Morning File.