Crown prosecutors have begun painting a picture of the path they claim two murder suspects took after escaping a federal prison on Vancouver Island more than three years ago.
Zachary Armitage and James Lee Busch are charged with first-degree murder in the killing of 60-year-old Martin Payne on July 8, 2019. It was one day after the pair walked away from the William Head Institution, about eight kilometres from the victim’s home in Metchosin.
They each pleaded not guilty as their trial kicked off Monday in B.C. Supreme Court.
The Crown told a 12-member jury on Wednesday that it could prove Payne left his home for work early in the morning on the day he was killed.
A precise timeline has not been shown to the jury, but a digital forensics expert called by Crown prosecutors testified that someone logged into Payne’s computer just after 7 a.m. that day, and used a Chrome browser that had never been opened before.
The user began searching for terms related to a prison escape, said the expert. Between 6:57 a.m. and 1 p.m., searches for Victoria news, free pornography, the William Head Institution, two men escaping a Victoria-area prison, “private water taxi,” and “Zachary Armitage” were logged.
The computer went to sleep at 2:06 p.m. and was never used again, according to the digital forensics expert.
In cross examination, the expert testified that he had not searched the computer’s use in the days prior to July 7 — when Armitage and Busch escaped. Busch’s lawyer also asked whether the name, “James Lee Busch,” had been searched in the browser, and the expert said it hadn’t.
Armitage and Busch are being tried together, but earlier this week, Justice David Crossin told the jury that their guilt or innocence should be determined individually.
The Crown’s first witness was a woman who testified that she and Armitage met while he was incarcerated at Mission Institution in B.C.’s Fraser Valley around 2014, and they later fell in love. She said he called her on the morning of July 8, 2019 — the day Payne would later be killed.
That call came from the landline in Payne’s home, the Crown said.
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On Monday, Crown prosecutor Sofia Bakken said Payne was killed in his home after returning from his job as a mail carrier in Victoria the day after the two men escaped. Armitage and Busch escaped the William Head Institution by walking along the shoreline at low tide, according to the Crown’s theory.
Bakken has said she plans to call a forensic specialist to testify about finding three identifiable DNA profiles in the victim’s home: his own, and those of the accused. DNA matching Armitage’s was also identified on the butt of a cigarette found in Payne’s truck, she said.
The recording of a phone call from the landline in Payne’s home to a water taxi service will be played in court later in the trial, Bakken added, and an officer who worked at the prison is expected to testify about recognizing Armitage’s voice.
There was a “significant” amount of blood in Payne’s home, the Crown told the jury, and a pathologist is also expected to testify about identifying “chop wounds” to the victim’s skull that were consistent with those inflicted by a hatchet.
The prosecutor said Armitage and Busch were arrested after they approached a man walking a dog who happened to be an off-duty police officer.
At that point, she said, Payne’s body had not yet been found. Officers found the victim on the floor of his bathroom three days after he was killed, Bakken said.
The Crown’s second witness was Jeffrey Cashin, who testified that he worked at William Head Institution for close to 30 years before retiring, and he had been involved in searching for Armitage and Busch after their escape.
Under cross-examination by Armitage’s defence lawyer, James Heller, Cashin agreed that inmates had to earn some measure of trust in order to end up at the institution. He said they live in clusters of duplexes to which they are not confined during the day, and they participate in various work or rehabilitation activities.
Security measures include alarms that are activated on the duplex doors every night at 10 p.m., checks and counts throughout the day to ensure all inmates are accounted for, and cameras on the institution’s property, Cashin told the court earlier this week.
Cashin testified he reviewed security footage showing Busch and Armitage walking around the institution’s fence line around the time of their escape.
Heller asked if the men had weapons with them, and Cashin said he didn’t know.
Armitage’s lawyer suggested Busch may have had a hatchet, possibly taken from an Indigenous-focused program at the institution, and Cashin repeated that he couldn’t say, and he wasn’t aware of such a weapon being taken from William Head.
Crossin has explained to the jury that they must be sure of each man’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt if they are to deliver guilty verdicts. The trial is scheduled to last five weeks.
— with files from The Canadian Press’ Brenna Owen