Two suspects are accused of killing of a man after escaping a federal prison on Vancouver Island more than three years ago, but the trial has now ended for one of them.
Zachary Armitage and James Lee Busch are charged with first-degree murder in the death of 60-year-old Martin Payne on July 8, 2019. Payne was killed one day after the pair escaped the minimum-security William Head Institution, located about eight kilometres from the victim’s home in Metchosin.
Justice David Crossin told a 12-member jury this week, however, that while evidence against both men will continue to be presented, only Busch’s trial will continue. Armitage has been dealt with separately and jurors were instructed not to speculate as to why.
The murder trial at B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver began more than two weeks ago and is scheduled for a total of five weeks. Both suspects entered not-guilty pleas on Nov. 14.
The Crown’s theory is that Payne was killed in his home after returning from his job as a mail carrier in Victoria the day after the prison breakout, which Armitage and Busch accomplished by walking along the shoreline at low tide.
Armitage and Busch were arrested on July 9, 2019, after they approached a man walking a dog who happened to be an off-duty police officer.
Payne was found dead in the bathroom of his house, a pool of blood by his head and duct tape binding his arm and leg, on July 12, 2019. An RCMP forensics officer has testified that a hatchet, a Bowie knife and a tape dispenser were retrieved from the crime scene.
Victoria police officers testified Wednesday about the day Busch and Armitage were arrested.
Defense lawyers for the pair have not yet begun their arguments.
To date, jurors have heard that a fingerprint was recovered from the tape dispenser found in Payne’s bathroom. The print matched Armitage’s in a federal database and the Crown has argued that the tape dispenser was used to bind Payne’s arm and leg.
Crown prosecutor Sofia Bakken has also said DNA matching Armitage’s was identified on the butt of a cigarette found in Payne’s truck on July 12.
Armitage’s prints were recovered as well from a notepad found next to Payne’s computer in his master bedroom, jurors heard. On the notepad was written, “What is your pin for your cards.”
Earlier in the trial, a digital forensics expert testified that someone logged into Payne’s computer just after 7 a.m. on the day of the murder, and used a Chrome browser that had never been opened before on Payne’s computer.
The user began searching for terms related to a prison escape, the expert said on Nov. 16. 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.
Under cross-examination by Busch’s lawyer, the expert revealed that while Armitage’s name appeared in Payne’s computer search history, the name “James Lee Busch” did not.
The court has also heard that about 10 minutes after the search for “private water taxi” was logged from Payne’s Metchosin home, someone called the Gulf Island Water Taxi inquiring about ferry service to the Lower Mainland — a service the company does not provide.
Less than three hours after that, Armitage called former-inmate James George seeking money and a ride, George testified on Nov. 17. The pair had become friends behind bars, but George said he told Armitage on the phone that he “didn’t want anything to do” with him and later changed his phone number.
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A Crown witness who worked at the William Head Institution and helped search for the fugitives after their escape has testified that doesn’t know whether Armitage and Busch had weapons with them when they left.
Under cross-examination by Armitage’s lawyer, that witness agreed that inmates had to earn some trust in order to end up at the minimum-security facility, where they live in clusters of duplexes to which they are not confined during the day.
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, the witness testified.
The Crown expects to wrap up its arguments next Tuesday.
Payne’s daughters, Jessica and Calla Payne, have attended each day of the trial. They describe their father as a fun-loving “goofball” who was “caring and compassionate,” and beloved by friends, family, co-workers and community.
“We could call him when we were teenagers at any hour of the night … no questions asked,” Jessica previously told Global News.
“He was the best dad we could have hoped for and everyone that met him had a positive impression of him.”
— with files from The Canadian Press’ Brenna Owen