Crime

EXCLUSIVE: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How Ignored Warnings at William Head Allowed A Killer to Escape

Our months-long investigation into the correctional system failures now alleged to have resulted in a Metchosin man murdered in his home

By Tori Marlan
June 13, 2020
Crime

EXCLUSIVE: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How Ignored Warnings at William Head Allowed A Killer to Escape

Our months-long investigation into the correctional system failures now alleged to have resulted in a Metchosin man murdered in his home

By Tori Marlan
Jun 13, 2020
Zachary Armitage (left) and James Busch (right) were charged Saturday with first degree murder in connection with the July, 2019 death of Metchosin man Martin Payne (Photo illustration for The Capital by Tristan Pratt)
Crime

EXCLUSIVE: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How Ignored Warnings at William Head Allowed A Killer to Escape

Our months-long investigation into the correctional system failures now alleged to have resulted in a Metchosin man murdered in his home

By Tori Marlan
June 13, 2020
EXCLUSIVE: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How Ignored Warnings at William Head Allowed A Killer to Escape
Zachary Armitage (left) and James Busch (right) were charged Saturday with first degree murder in connection with the July, 2019 death of Metchosin man Martin Payne (Photo illustration for The Capital by Tristan Pratt)

A week before James Lee Busch escaped from William Head Institution on July 7, 2019, a federal prison southwest of Victoria, one of his housemates had described him to a correctional manager as a “ticking time bomb.” The housemate told the manager that Busch had been threatening him, that he feared for his personal safety, and that his attempts to live amicably with the fellow inmate had failed. 

The manager later described the situation in a note to colleagues, writing that if the housemate’s information was found to be credible, Busch “should be relocated to a higher security until he is better prepared to reside and deal with life at William Head Inst.”

That never happened, and within seven days of the note, Busch and another inmate easily walked away from the minimum security prison and then, according to new RCMP charges, murdered a local man in his home. Their escape, and the subsequent murder, raise serious questions about how Busch and the other inmate wound up in a minimum-security prison—and why, in Busch’s case, he was allowed to remain there after exhibiting disturbing behaviours.

At William Head, prisoners can walk freely around most of the 87-acre property. Sometimes referred to as “Club Fed,” it is one of the most comfortable prison facilities in Canada, typically reserved for only the most well-behaved inmates in the Canadian correctional system. 

Surrounded on three sides by the Pacific Ocean, the only security features ever installed at the prison were guard towers, a line of 13-foot-high double fencing, and coils of razor wire that extended into the water. The razor wire is now gone, having been left unmaintained after William Head switched from a medium to minimum security prison in 2003. Last summer, a single 8-foot fence that stops short of the water replaced the taller double fencing.

On July 7 at 6:45 PM, Busch and another inmate, Zachary Armitage, simply walked around that fence and skirted just above the shallow surf. They passed an unmanned guard tower near the prison’s south shoreline before slipping undetected into the surrounding community. Days later, 60-year-old Martin Payne, a mail worker and father of two, was murdered in his Metchosin home, eight kilometres from the prison. 

Payne appears to have been a random victim, possibly killed in the course of a robbery; his truck was stolen around the time of his death and later recovered in Oak Bay. In a last Facebook post only one day before his accused killers’ escape, Payne posted an old photo of him with one of his now-adult daughters as a child.

Martin Payne in a June, 2019 photo posted to Facebook just a month before his death (Facebook)

Police have been reticent about the details of Payne’s death, saying only that his body showed evidence of “foul play.” Police would apprehend Busch, 42, and Armitage, 30, before Payne’s body was found. It was pure chance that they were returned to custody so quickly; they had been spotted after approaching an off-duty police officer to comment on his dog. 

On Saturday, after nearly a year of investigation and community anxiety, the RCMP finally said they’ve linked the pair to the crime, charging both with one count of first degree murder. As part of the announcement, Payne’s family wrote in a statement, “We have continued to mourn his senseless loss every day for the past 11 months.” 

The William Head housemate’s complaint hadn’t been the first indication that Busch wasn’t a good fit for a minimum-security institution, but upper management had ignored the warning signs, according to three William Head staff members who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the media. “We had continual problems with his behaviour,” said a correctional officer. “He had run-ins with staff and attitude problems. He punched another inmate.”

“I knew him well,” another correctional officer said. “He should never have been there in the first place.”

A satellite image of William Head Institution taken on July 20, 2019, only 13 days after the escape. The encircled area shows where Armitage and Busch needed only to step down to the beach in order to walk around the prison's front fence (Google Earth)

William Head is known as a releasing institution, where prisoners nearing the end of their sentences can gain skills and independence that will help them reintegrate into the community. They can enroll in vocational training programs, raise produce for food banks, join a fishing club, take escorted trips outside the prison, and participate in Indigenous programming. One of the most visible of these programs is William Head on Stage, a prison theatre that routinely stages professional-quality productions for the community. 

Both Busch and Armitage were transferred there from Mission Institution. In each case, the Mission warden overrode a security level assessment that otherwise would have prevented their placement in a minimum-security institution.

Busch and Armitage had spent most of their adult lives incarcerated. Busch wasn’t up for full parole until 2025. Armitage was nearing the end of a 14-year sentence. Both had committed violent crimes. In 2010, only two months after his release from prison on a prior charge, Busch fatally strangled a Saskatoon woman over a $20 drug debt and threw her body in a dumpster. In the course of a home invasion, Armitage beat the home’s sleeping resident so badly the man became a quadriplegic and died only four years after the attack at the age of 33. According to family, the only word Armitage’s victim could say after the beating was “mom.” 

Sandra Ramsay, murdered in 2010 by James Busch (Remembering.ca)

Busch and Armitage also had less-than-stellar behaviour behind bars. At previous institutions, Busch had been in repeated fights with inmates, verbally accosted a psychologist, and been found with a 5-inch metal shank in his cell. Armitage had escaped from custody multiple times.

Security classifications—which determine whether a prisoner is housed in a maximum, medium, or minimum security prison—can be reassessed at any time but must be done at least once every two years.

In Canada, being convicted for a violent crime doesn’t preclude a minimum-security placement. Correctional Service Canada’s security classification system is set up to allow prisoners to move from higher to lower levels of security before their release, on the premise that it reduces recidivism. But to reduce an inmate’s security level, CSC must first meet specific criteria. 

Sudbury man Shaun Dupuis, pictured before and after being attacked in his sleep by Zachary Armitage. Dupuis died in 2013 (Lougheed Funeral Homes).

CSC determines security classifications with the help of a Custody Ratings Scale when inmates are first admitted, and a Security Reclassification Scale for regular assessments once they’re already in prison. Both are automated tools that assign a numerical value for an inmate’s security level based on various criteria, including the nature of the offense, the inmate’s behaviour while in custody, and whether the inmate has solid interpersonal relationships. There’s also a human evaluation—by a parole officer in consultation with the inmate’s case management team—that considers three factors: the inmate’s risk of escape, risk to public safety, and institutional adjustment.

When a decision is made to give a prisoner a security classification that’s either a higher or lower than the one indicated by the automated tools, it’s considered an “override.”

Overrides allow the system to consider circumstances the automated tools would miss. Meagan Smith, CSC senior project officer, offers one example: If an inmate is assaulted, it will register in the automatic system as an “incident,” even though he didn’t do anything wrong. 

In the last fiscal year, 2018-2019, 27% of Canadian inmates’ security classifications were overridden; 14% of the overrides lowered the inmate’s security classifications while 13% raised it. In all cases, the warden of the sending institution makes the final decision about overrides.

A view of the edge of the William Head fence which can be breached simply by walking around it (Source)

“We see medium security overrides pretty regularly, but they’re usually just barely overridden,” said one of the William Head correctional officers contacted for this story. Busch’s override was unusual, because one of the three factors being assessed—his risk to public safety—was changed instantaneously from high to low, according to the officer and another staff member. Usually, they say, high risk would first drop to medium risk.

Armitage too received an override that seemed strange in retrospect. In his sentencing hearing for the William Head escape, Judge Roger Cutler said he was “perplexed” as to why Armitage had been placed in a minimum-security institution, given that he’d escaped custody on four previous occasions and the Security Reclassification Scale had assessed him as having a moderate risk to escape. An override had knocked his escape risk to low a week later, paving the way for his transfer to William Head.

“The public is entitled to expect that those incarcerated for violent criminal conduct and who have an extensive and recent escape history are rarely, and only with solid reasoning, placed in a position where escaping incarceration may be achieved by merely walking along the shoreline at low tide,” Judge Cutler wrote in a decision. “And, when such an escape occurs, the public ought to be provided a full explanation of the process leading to the decisions made by those responsible.”

Excerpt from a November document sentencing Armitage and Busch for their July escape. In it, Judge Roger Cutler expresses dismay that such dangerous inmates were put within such easy reach of the public (CanLII)

CSC has yet to provide that explanation. But after the RCMP announced charges against Busch and Armitage, CSC issued a statement saying it had “strengthened the assessment process and decision-making involving minimum-security inmates.” Some of the changes include requiring a recent psychological risk assessment for inmates whose offences have caused death or serious harm, as well as for those who have had an initial rating of maximum on the Custody Ratings Scale. Another change requires a warden or deputy to meet with inmates within five days of their transfer to discuss what’s expected of them at a minimum security institution. Parole officers also now must provide a “clear and detailed justification” for recommending overrides.

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Overrides have been a “bone of contention” between COs and management for years, according to one of the William Head COs. “Because we don’t have the same tools available to us as medium institutions have, it makes it more dangerous for us,” he says. “We don’t carry [firearms]. We don’t wear vests [body armour]. We don’t have pepper spray on our person. There’s only one in the unit and we have to go get it from behind glass.”

He says talks with upper management about problems with overrides have failed to adequately address the COs’ concerns:“They’re always saying, ‘Document, document, document,’ and so we do—we will document, document, document—but then it's not enough.’”

What happened with Busch, he says, is a case in point.

Satellite image showing the proximity of Martin Payne's home (top circle) to the site of Armitage and Busch's escape (bottom circle). Walking from the front gate of William Head to Payne's rural home would take only 90 minutes on a route covered almost entirely by the Galloping Goose Trail (Google Earth)

Armitage seemed to adjust to William Head better than Busch. Barney Keizer, a former prisoner who left William Head in December, first met Armitage at Mission Institution. At William Head, they spent some time together in sweat lodges for healing ceremonies offered through the prison’s Indigenous programming. “I was really shocked that he actually took off with Busch,” says Keizer, because Armitage was two months from a parole hearing and “doing really well working with the Elders” (two local First Nations Elders assist with rehabilitation programming at the prison). But Armitage struck him as having a “young mentality.”

At Armitage’s sentencing hearing for his escape, Judge Cutler noted that Armitage previously had been medicated for attention deficit hyperactive disorder and diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder. Cutler wrote “reports indicate his mode of speaking, his demeanour, and his inability to remain focused give the appearance of someone much younger than his 30 years.” From the start, Busch had trouble integrating at William Head. Although he worked in the wastewater treatment plant and records show he met individually with Elders (he didn’t participate in sweats), he didn’t get along with others and ”was intimidating with staff and inmates,” a staff member recalls.   

Keizer remembers Busch as “a very negative individual,” “a threatening little fellow,” and “definitely one of the ones that stood out as someone who shouldn’t have been there.”

Lewis the Great Dane. On July 9th, while walking through Esquimalt Armitage and Busch commented on the dog's size, causing Lewis' owner to recognize the fugitives and call in their arrest (West Shore RCMP).

He says that most inmates kept their distance from him, and that Busch once punched a housemate in a fight over domestic chores. Guys like that don’t usually last long at William Head, he says: “They’re there for a couple months and they get shipped back to medium security.”

Keizer doesn’t understand why Busch didn’t get shipped back to medium security too, especially after he went on to make threats against another housemate. “That’s not a minimum-security mentality at all if you’re making threats towards people or you’re fighting or telling somebody you’re going to beat the piss out of them or kill them,” says Keizer. “That’s just unacceptable.”     

The inmate Busch allegedly punched refused to report it to staff, explaining his black eye by saying he’d fallen down stairs. Staff said they heard rumors about the punch.

Not long before Busch and Armitage escaped, one staff member told The Capital,- “I provided my concerns to management” about Busch. “I felt that he no longer belonged at the institution—the risk was too great.”

William Head’s warden, Trent Mitchell, did not respond to The Capital's requests for comment on this story. Instead, all questions were forwarded to Correctional Service Canada, which cited the Privacy Act in declining to provide any information relating to Busch and Armitage’s behaviour at William Head.

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