The Portapique sign on Highway 2 was adorned with a NS tartan sash following the mass shooting that began there on April 18, 2020. Photo: Joan Baxter

On the night of April 18, 2020, a man methodically set fire to his prized possessions in Portapique: a seaside cottage and a large warehouse/man cave outfitted with a custom-made bar and filled with dozens of motorcycles and ATVs collected and repaired over many years.

The man then began shooting people.

Over the next 13 hours the worst mass murder in modern Canadian history unfolded. But the man responsible for the carnage was identified three times by three different parties within the first hour of the rampage. 

First was murder victim Jamie Blair, who dialed 911 as the killer entered her home. Second was Andrew MacDonald, a neighbour who survived two bullets the gunman fired as he drove past him in a replica police vehicle. Third were the Blair children, who hid behind the bed and identified the voice of the gunman. 

In other words, RCMP in Bible Hill knew the name of the prime suspect by shortly after 10pm on April 18, 2020 (the Halifax Examiner refers to him as GW.) 

On April 18, a routine check of the police computerized database found only one complaint, “that he had threatened his parents 10 years ago.” That complaint was phoned in to the RCMP’s Bible Hill detachment by the gunman’s father, Paul Wortman, who lived in Riverview, New Brunswick.

RCMP officers in New Brunswick were sent to Paul Wortman’s home that night in case their son came after his parents a second time. 

What the senior RCMP officers in Bible Hill tasked with responding to the multiple fires and murders in Portapique didn’t know was the extent of the violence of which the perpetrator was capable, or that GW himself was a survivor of abuse. 

The Halifax Examiner has studied the transcripts of lengthy interviews carried out with Lisa Banfield, GW’s common law partner for 19 years, and with Chris Wortman, GW’s youngest uncle who spent two summers babysitting his “strange” seven-year-old nephew. 

Those interviews offer disturbing insights into the violent history of GW’s relations with his own family and partner. 

‘Like father, like son’ is the portrait that emerges from a series of incidents, involving multiple beatings as well as repeated cheating on their spouses, both Paul Wortman with his spouse Evelyn, and his son Gabriel with his partner Lisa. Transcripts of those interviews conducted 10 days after the massacre are available on the website of Mass Casualty Commission. 

Beating in Cuba 

One of the most brutal incidents Lisa Banfield related to the investigator involved a beating GW laid upon his father Paul 15 years ago during a “family trip” to a Cuban resort. 

Both Paul and GW had been drinking earlier that evening when the women left the pool to get ready for supper. In her interview with Staff-Sergeant Greg Vardy, Banfield recalled what she witnessed on her return to the pool:

“I came down and Gabriel was smashing his father’s head against the concrete, like trying to tell him to say he was sorry for all he did … they started talking about Gabriel’s childhood and Paul was denying he did anything. And Gabriel was just trying to get him to admit it. Evelyn was screaming.”

Banfield also told Vardy what her father-in-law said in confidence to her later that same evening. According to Banfield, Paul Wortman, “looking like Daffy Duck, his face was unrecognizable,” invited her into his room to speak privately. She told Vardy that GW’s father said: 

I was a bastard to my wife, I was a bastard to my son, and Gabriel’s going to do the same thing to you and you need to leave. And don’t tell him I told you because he will do more damage to me.

Paul Wortman did not require hospitalization and Banfield did not heed his warning. 

Instead, she learned about a pattern of violence that eventually led to a permanent estrangement between his parents and GW, when he was in his mid-40s. Banfield told the officer about a conversation she once had with her partner. She said GW described being alone in the car with his father in a wooded area and fearing his father was about to kill him. Banfield’s account of that conversation with GW continued:

There was a time, he said he was about 10 or 14, that Paul gave him a gun and said, “Shoot me, I know you want to.” And Gabriel was like, Lisa, I was so close to shooting him but I didn’t.

Retired RCMP Sergeant Chris Wortman, brother to Paul and uncle to GW, confirmed hearing about that same incident involving a .22 calibre rifle, but the transcripts of his interview show that in his recollection, GW was even younger. 

“What kind of person does that to a kid?,” the person interviewing Chris Wortman asked Wortman replied:

Paul is unstable. He’s bizarre, dangerous. He probably should have sought psychiatric help a long time ago. His father is …maybe he shouldn’t have been a father is the best thing to say. And give Gabriel credit, he never had a child and he had no intention of having a child. He knew. The apple didn’t fall too far from the tree…he’s like that for a reason.

Cycle of family violence

A memorial at the Portapique church hall. Photo: Joan Baxter.

Chris Wortman confirmed that GW’s uncles (Paul Wortman had four brothers, Chris and Alan, both RCMP officers, Neil, and Glynn) were aware, or certainly suspected their brother Paul was physically abusive toward his wife and son. 

GW told Banfield his mother would often “tell on him” about some behaviour, and they would both get a beating. 

Chris Wortman said he never saw a mark on Banfield between 2014 and 2018, which was the period when he and his wife retired to PEI and had some visits with the couple, but he said he knew she was “trapped” and afraid. 

And Chris Wortman told his interviewer that he recognized certain personality traits in his nephew that should have been red flags. According to the transcript, Wortman said that GW: 

… was very controlling, like his father. Always telling Lisa when it’s time to leave. To the point where he would be recommending that Lisa should get liposuction on her thighs or get bigger boobs.

Chris Wortman said he felt Gabriel was capable of violence, but he figured “if he ever snaps, the victim would be Lisa or his parents.” He said he never considered that bystanders and total strangers could become targets of a monstrous rage.

The transcripts of interviews with Banfield tell other stories of GW’s youth. 

Banfield said GW had a dog when he was a boy, and he told her he resented his father who made him kill it, although she couldn’t recall if the father had him shoot it or drown it. Banfield also knew GW’s father was a womanizer, and said her mother-in-law once phoned her to find out if she was interested in her husband. 

Banfield also said GW told her about times as a kid that his father would make him wait in the car while he was visiting someone and cheating on his mother.

“He had no respect for his father and no respect for women,” Banfield told her interviewer. 

According to Chris Wortman, he stopped communicating with GW after a 2016 trip to the Dominican Republic, when his nephew confided that he hooked up with prostitutes on the island.

Banfield would eventually experience the same suspicions that had once driven her mother-in-law to falsely accuse her. 

“Gabriel cheated on me so many times that I didn’t trust him around other women,” she said. She also knew he spent a lot of time watching porn.

Banfield survives countless assaults

Banfield spent 19 years with an alcoholic partner, who she said hit her so many times she “couldn’t be sure” of the number. 

She also maintained that he occasionally humiliated her publicly in front of customers at the denturist office in Dartmouth, where she worked for him. Banfield had previously worked at a bank. 

The first time he beat her, she said her sister Maureen took pictures of the injuries and encouraged her to go to police and file a complaint. Banfield refused and said she never disclosed any other incident to her family. “When he was abusive, I wouldn’t tell my family in case I went back with him,” she said, suggesting that they might have tried to stop her from doing so.

And like GW’s mother with her own husband, Banfield always did go back to GW, no matter what he did to her. 

The relationship was “really good or it was really bad and there was nothing in between,” Banfield told the investigator. They enjoyed shopping, lots of travel, nice cars — Banfield had a Mercedes.

Banfield recalled an occasion as long as 15 years before GW’s murderous rampage, when he had her down on the ground and was choking her. She said it happened in front of a couple of drinking buddies and his uncle Glynn, who lived next door at that time. 

“Glynn said, ‘you are just like your father, get off of her,’” recalled Banfield. Glynn Wortman later told a former neighbour, Brenda Forbes, about the violence and Forbes reported it to the RCMP. 

Related: He was a psychopath. A former resident of Portapique says she called the RCMP to tell them the future gunman assaulted his domestic partner and that he had illegal weapons. The police took no action.

In an interview with Halifax Examiner reporter Joan Baxter after the massacre, Forbes, who at the time asked to be identified only as “Boe,” said that charges were never laid because Banfield wouldn’t make a complaint and Glynn Wortman was too intimidated by his nephew’s bullying to make a witness statement. 

Forbes said she and her husband decided to sell their house on Portapique Beach Road because she felt “threatened” by GW after a falling out that occurred when Forbes told Banfield about other women GW sometimes brought home when she wasn’t around.

Related: Canada is an “after-the-fact” country

Forbes told Baxter that she had her husband had both seen the “shitload of illegal weapons” that GW had stored on his property. She told the RCMP officer about the guns, too, but the officer said his hands were tied unless he could confirm that information through another source. 

Ironically and tragically, one of the witnesses to the choking incident was Richard Ellison, a neighbour whose son Corrie was shot and killed after he went outside to check on the fires set by GW on April 18, 2020.

Brenda Forbes’ complaint never made it into the RCMP database, but what about the one filed by GW’s father Paul in 2010? 

We don’t know, as the Mass Casualty Commission documents released to date don’t say what happened with that investigation. 

However, Sergeant Chris Wortman recalled getting a phone call from his older brother Glynn while he was still working for the RCMP in British Columbia.

This is from Chris Wortman’s account to investigators:

Glynn said Gabriel is drunk and he’s heading to Moncton to kill his parents. And I said, “Have you phoned the police?” And he said, No. I said, “You might want to do that.”

But Glynn didn’t do that. 

Banfield also recalled the occasion for her interrogators, saying that she told GW’s uncle Glynn, and he then called another uncle, Alan, who had by then retired from the RCMP in New Brunswick. 

According to Banfield: 

Alan called and told me I had better call the police. I was petrified and didn’t know what to do. I thought Gabriel had loaded the truck with guns and if he gets stopped, he’s going to get shot and I didn’t want him to get killed….I just let Alan go…. Then Gabriel called from a payphone and he came home. But we they notified them guys (the parents) Gabriel was going up there to kill them.

Family property dispute

Chris Wortman told investigators he believes the trigger for that episode was an ongoing dispute between GW and his parents over the ownership of properties in Dartmouth. The denturist owned two buildings on Portland Street in Dartmouth, including the office, as well as properties in Portapique. 

a building with giant teeth attached
The killer’s property in Dartmouth in 2019. The teeth were removed from the building days after the mass shootings. — Google Maps

“Gabriel was always worried about how much money he had in a certain account because, I guess, um paranoid; I think he thought Revenue Canada was hunting him down,” Chris Wortman told his interviewer:

So he put his properties in his parents’ names for a short time. Then when the crisis or whatever passed, he tried to get their names off. So that’s when that incident, where he was heading to Moncton to shoot his parents, that’s what that was all about. The parents, especially Paul, wouldn’t take his name off his property.

A long-lost brother

In yet another bizarre twist, Banfield said the parents only agreed to transfer back the property after a plea from GW’s long-lost biological brother. 

Banfield said when GW turned 40, his parents informed him he had a full brother named Jeff, whom they had put up for adoption after he was born in the United States. 

The parents and two siblings were briefly reunited (Jeff reached out to meet GW) and they were in sporadic contact over the next two years, long enough for GW to convince his brother Jeff to take his side in that property dispute. 

In her interview with the Mass Casualty Commission investigator, Banfield described a surreal event at a downtown Moncton hotel where GW’s parents rented a room and made her swear on the Bible before agreeing to complete the paperwork. (A check through Property Online confirms the two properties at 189 and 193 Portland Street were transferred from Paul and Evelyn Wortman to GW in 2010). After the signing, Paul and Evelyn Wortman invited both sons and their partners to their home for a modest celebration. 

According to Banfield, they didn’t stay long. She said once a lawyer verified the papers the following day, GW had no further meetings with his parents or his American brother. From then on, she says, they were dead to him.

As a final note, Chris Wortman recalled helping his brother Paul put siding on his house one summer. Chris said Paul was bragging about having stolen some plants from a local garden centre to help with the landscaping. A detail, in retrospect, but telling when one considers the role model GW had when it came to scamming material goods, that ranged from motorcycles to illegal guns.

 “With Gabriel, everything was about money,” said Chris to his interviewer.

Lisa Banfield recalled the moment on the night of April 18, 2020 when she realized her partner was out of control — before GW began a 13-hour murder spree that would brutally end 22 lives and that of an unborn child. She said that after GW dragged her from bed and kicked her hard enough to break two ribs, he made her look back and watch as flames started to lick their log home and burn everything he cared about. 

“I knew then he had lost his mind,” said Banfield.

With files from Joan Baxter.

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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