GUYSBOROUGH: What started out as a call to a suicide in progress, responding officers dispatched to the Desmond residence in Upper Big Tracadie, discovered the former Afghanistan war veteran had fatally shot his mother, wife and daughter, before turning the gun on himself, an RCMP commander testified Tuesday.
Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum, former district commander of the Guysborough County RCMP, told the inquiry in an emotional testimony he was off-duty completing deskwork when they received the call shortly after 6 p.m. on January 3, 2017.
MacCallum recognized the address belonging to retired Cpl. Lionel Desmond, who he had interacted with on two previous occasions; once in November 2015 on a well-being check at the request of Desmond’s wife Shanna, as he had been experiencing manic episodes, and another two-weeks after that when he lawfully-seized a gun while Desmond’s firearms licence was under review.
On MacCallum’s November 2015 trip to the house, as Shanna’s reported, her husband had stopped taking certain medication and seemed to be having a mental health crisis. He said Desmond was located next door at his aunt’s and seemed to be calm.
He also advised to MacCallum his doctor had taken him off certain medication, prescribed him medical marijuana and that he was hoping to repair his estranged relationship with Shanna.
When MacCallum left, he felt satisfied Desmond wasn’t a threat to his family and instructed him if he ever felt out of control to contact him and he would help.
Desmond had been receiving psychiatric help following his diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after serving in Afghanistan in 2007 with the 2nd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment’s India Company.
Familiar with his history as an avid hunter and someone suffering with PTSD from serving as a rifleman with the Canadian military, MacCallum indicated en route to the residence, he requested back-up from Antigonish, to assist with a potentially volatile situation.
“Knowing that we’re dealing with someone who was with the Armed Forces, they were trained with a certain skill-set, also that he had been experiencing mental health issues, and that there had been an estranged relationship, those are all very high risk factors we take into consideration.”
Testifying what he saw as the first officer to arrive on-scene, MacCallum occasionally fought back tears as he described in grim detail the scene as he entered into the Desmond mobile home.
With the house fully illuminated and his gun drawn, MacCallum entered through the back door, where he found a set of keys still in the lock, the house was silent except for the muffled sound coming from two televisions inside the home.
After clearing the house from an active shooter, he turned his attention to the victims.
MacCallum’s voice cracked and he struggled to gain composure describing the moment he found each of the four lifeless bodies, in particular 10-year-old Aaliyah, who was still quite warm to the touch, but didn’t have a pulse.
“I noticed there was a child, she was laying face down in a pool of blood, and there was a small dog sitting beside her,” he said, as he took a deep breath. “I rolled her over, but I couldn’t help her; there wasn’t anything I could do.”
Near one of the female victims, MacCallum said he spotted a large pool of blood, but couldn’t identify the individual due to a serious wound on her neck or jaw. The other female victim was slumped against the wall near the front door of the home.
Both adult female bodies were still warm, but neither had any signs of life.
As he entered the kitchen, MacCallum believed to have located Desmond’s lifeless body on the floor, dressed head-to-toe in heavy camouflage, however identifying the body was difficult as the individual suffered a fatal wound to the face.
“The person was lying on their back with their arms in kind of a spread eagle almost, and a rifle was lying over his left arm, close to his chest,” he said. “It would be almost impossible to identify who the person was because of the extent of the injury.”
Six spent shell casings from a military-style carbine were scattered across the floor.
In addition, a large hunting knife was on the kitchen island and a box of red-tipped ammunition with seven missing bullets was also found. The rifle’s magazine with one live round inside was also located on the kitchen island.
As MacCallum emerged from the house, within minutes of arriving, he said a large crowd of approximately two dozen people had gathered onto the snow-covered driveway.
“It was extremely chaotic and obvious that everyone was completely distraught outside,” he said. “And it was belief that people were going to want to get inside, to find out more.”
Three of Desmond’s sisters described having a difficult time in the courtroom as MacCallum testified the grim details of the crime scene.
“As a family, I can say that we are experiencing a lot of emotions,” Cassandra Desmond told reporters as the second day of proceedings wrapped up. “Having to re-live the tragedy of three-years-ago, it puts a damper on the heart and mind.”
Cassandra said it’s been hard living without the answers as to why her mother, brother, niece, and sister-in-law are no longer here, but it also brings a sense of peace to know they have made it to the inquiry and hopefully they will get the answers to the questions they have so long have sought.
“In losing anybody in your life, you feel the heartache,” she stated. “But to lose four people that you love, and the fact we have to think losing our mother by the hands of our brother who was sick and fell in the gaps of the system that failed him – it’s not fair, and yeah it does hurt.”
Cassandra indicated she is interested in hearing from Dr. Paul Smith, because despite her brother having his firearm license revoked, Smith’s signature re-instated his license.
“I really cannot wait to get [Dr. Smith] on the stand to answer the questions as to why he felt the need to see no reasoning why my brother should not have had a firearm license,” she said.
The inquiry’s mandate will determine if Desmond and his family had access to the appropriate mental health and domestic violence intervention services; whether healthcare and social services providers were trained to recognize the symptoms of occupational stress injuries or domestic violence; and whether Desmond should have been able to retain, or obtain a license enabling him to obtain or purchase a firearm.
On Monday, the province’s chief medical examiner testified his investigation found Desmond and his family were victims of “systemic failures” that created barriers to accessing mental health care.
“We have to continue on to fight for change in hopes that no other family has to feel the way that we do,” Cassandra said. “With the strength our mother instilled in us, we continue to put one foot forward, and thank god for the days we do have ahead, and for the strength that we have to be able to fight and to be the voices for those who are no longer here.”
At the conclusion of the proceedings, which are scheduled to last five-weeks, Judge Warren Zimmer will file a written report with the Provincial Court containing his findings and recommendations, but his report will not contain any findings of legal responsibility.
For more on the victims, see: https://porthawkesburyreporter.com/desmond-family-laid-rest/.