GUYSBOROUGH: The lead investigator into the deaths of Afghanistan war veteran and his family detailed the chain of events, including the steps the former soldier took and the level of planning that led to the triple murder-suicide.
RCMP Cpl. Jerry Rose-Berthiaume’s testimony focused on the four days leading up to retired Cpl. Lionel Desmond purchasing a rifle and using it to kill his mother Brenda, his wife Shanna, and 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah before turning it on himself in their Upper Big Tracadie home on Jan. 3, 2017.
The triggering event, Rose-Berthiaume said, seemed trivial to everyone involved except Desmond. On an icy New Year’s Eve, after spending the evening celebrating at a family cabin, he slid his wife’s new red Dodge Ram pickup truck into a ditch on the way home.
Rose-Berthiaume testified family witnesses told him Desmond struggled to cope with his PTSD ever since returning from combat, and had marital issues with Shanna, that seemed to “spiral out of control” after the incident on New Year’s Eve.
Through his investigation, Rose-Berthiaume suggested tensions carried on throughout the night, to the extent Shanna asked her distressed husband to leave her home.
On Jan. 1, Desmond checked himself into St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish.
Desmond was released the following morning after being cleared by Dr. Justin Clark and then the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s eastern zone chief of psychiatry, Dr. Faisal Rahman.
Rose-Berthiaume testified by the time he was released, there was already evidence Desmond was planning something violent. Phone records indicate he made 90 weapons-related searches on his phone in the final 42-hours of his life – which conclusively lead him to purchase a Remington Model 760 assault rifle only hours before the tragedy.
Desmond packed some of his belongings from the home in Upper Big Tracadie on Jan. 2, and brought them to a relative’s home, where he had previously stayed when his wife asked for space.
On the morning of Jan. 3, Desmond scheduled a follow-up appointment at St. Martha’s with Dr. Ian Slayter for Jan. 18.
At some point that day, it’s believed Shanna called the Naomi Society.
Rose-Berthiaume indicated all evidence suggests Desmond didn’t expect his mother or daughter to be home with his wife.
In addition to purchasing the “military-style carbine,” Desmond also bought a box of high-grade, red-tipped ammunition along with a hunting knife from Canadian Tire before he changed into full camouflage gear and parked his car on a logging road approximately one kilometre from the house, walked through the woods using a footpath, and slashed the tires of Shanna’s Dodge Ram, before entering the home.
Rose-Berthiaume told the inquiry, in his professional opinion, this constituted first-degree murder as there was direct planning and deliberation.
Shortly after 6 p.m., Brenda Desmond made a 20-second phone call to her brother George Desmond and told him, “you have got to get down here right away, the boy just shot his wife.”
By the time George arrived 10-minutes later, all four deaths already occurred.
Rose-Berthiaume testified Desmond’s lifeless body was on the floor, with a rifle lying across his outstretched arm with a single bullet wound. The body of his mother and 10-year-old daughter both had single bullet wounds, while his wife ultimately suffered three.
Desmond fired the initial five rounds and had emptied the magazine, he then loaded two rounds and removed the magazine with one bullet and placed it on the kitchen island.
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 on Jan. 28.
Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum, former district commander of the Guysborough County RCMP, told the inquiry that he was off-duty completing deskwork when they received the call shortly after 6 p.m. on Jan. 3, 2017.
MacCallum recognized the address belonging to 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.
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.
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.
GUYSBOROUGH: The emergency room doctor who assessed retired Cpl. Lionel Desmond two days before he killed his mother, wife, and 10-year-old daughter before turning the gun on himself, testified that the veteran wasn’t considering suicide and not thinking about harming his family.
Dr. Justin Clark told the fatality inquiry he met with Lionel on Dec. 1, 2017 after he was initially assessed by a triage nurse at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish. Desmond received a score of 2, which on a scale of 1 to 5, indicated he required treatment as soon as possible.
Inside the emergency room, Desmond told the physician, who at the time had only six-months experience in emergency rooms, that he was struggling with his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that he had an argument with his wife that resulted in broken furniture when he checked himself into the hospital at 6:51 p.m.
Weeks prior, in October 2016, Desmond checked himself into St. Martha’s during a crisis situation – he had an appointment with Dr. Ian Slayter.
Dr. Clark testified he never saw Dr. Slayter’s notes from the psychiatric assessment, in which Dr. Slayter suggested the former rifleman seemed aggressive and paranoid about his wife. He had been able to see a record of Desmond’s previous emergency room visit, but the database didn’t include the meeting with Dr. Slayter, nor an instance in New Brunswick where he was suicidal.
Dr. Slayter also found Desmond suffered from thoughts of jealousy that bordered on delusions.
Dr. Clark also indicated he was aware Desmond had been prescribed several medications, including an anti-psychotic drug, but he couldn’t recall noticing Dr. Slayter’s files in the province’s Meditech system.
Dr. Clark said if he had known there were past reports and emergency room visits, it may have helped his assessment.
He also testified after spending 21-minutes with Desmond and concluded he was stable and didn’t believe he had any suicidal or homicidal thoughts, he contacted a psychiatrist for consultation because he was uncomfortable managing the situation on his own – that assessment happened shortly after 7:30 p.m. by Dr. Faisal Rahman.
Dr. Clark indicated such an immediate response was impressive, as the majority of patients seeking mental health care after 5 p.m., usually have to wait until the following day to see a psychiatrist.
Dr. Rahman also determined Desmond showed no signs of suicidal or homicidal thoughts.
Dr. Clark testified Lionel was kept for observation in the emergency room for the night, because his wife worked on the psychiatric ward – something Dr. Rahman agreed to – however, the inquiry heard from police Desmond had told his aunt he begged to be admitted to the third floor but was told there were no beds; an allegation the hospital has denied.
ANTIGONISH: The Diocese of Antigonish officially installed Most Reverend Wayne Joseph Kirkpatrick as the 10th Bishop of the Diocese of Antigonish at St. Ninian Cathedral.
On Dec. 18, 2019, Pope Francis appointed Kirkpatrick to the Diocese of Antigonish, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year.
Kirkpatrick succeeded Bishop Brian Dunn, who was appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth.
PORT HOOD: Inverness Municipal Council made a rare decision to keep one of its members from attending in-camera meetings, using municipal e-mail, and serving on municipal committees.
The decision was made on Feb. 6 against district 4 councillor John MacLennan.
Inverness Chief Administrative Officer Keith MacDonald explained the motion to limit MacLennan’s involvement was made after EMM Law, the law office handling Inverness County’s legal matters, reviewed the municipality’s code of conduct and the Municipal Government Act and determined MacLennan violated both.
MacLennan was barred from in-camera meetings, but this could have been overturned if MacLennan agreed to abide by the rules and if his fellow council members agree to give him access again.
The motion went further to mandate that MacLennan lost his email privileges until he demonstrated to council, the CAO, and staff that he was willing to follow the code of conduct policy.
MacLennan also lost the ability to represent the municipality on committees.
There was no discussion of the motion, which MacLennan voted against. All other councillors voted in the affirmative.
GUYSBOROUGH: The psychiatrist who assessed retired Cpl. Lionel Desmond said the former rifleman didn’t show any signs of acute psychosis or suicidal idealizations.
Dr. Faisal Rahman, who has extensive experience treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), testified on Feb. 4 that Desmond came to the hospital in Antigonish on Jan. 1, 2017, because he was suffering from symptoms of PTSD following an argument with his wife, Shanna from the night before, in which she asked him to leave the home.
Dr. Rahman recalled his conversation with Desmond during a 30-minute medical assessment at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital led to him being admitted overnight.
Lionel told Dr. Rahman the dispute was part of a pattern of conflict between himself and Shanna, and he admitted to slamming his hand on the kitchen table that startled his daughter Aaliyah, and Shanna asked him to leave, something Dr. Rahman said Desmond felt remorseful over.
Dr. Rahman told the inquiry during his medical assessment, Desmond told him fights had strained his relationship with Shanna and each time she would call the police.
Dr. Rahman testified Desmond was “distressed over what had happened,” but otherwise he was “pleasant, engaging, forthcoming, calm, and composed.”
Dr. Rahman testified he made a clinical assessment and found Desmond’s demeanour, body language, and ability to make plans for the future as all to be positive signs.
Dr. Rahman told the inquiry he was aware of another psychiatrist’s assessment from only a few-months prior raising concerns about Desmond’s previous treatment for mental illness.
Desmond’s medical records indicated he had PTSD, post-concussion syndrome, depression, he had trouble sleeping, he suffered from nightmares and he was easily agitated.
Having skimmed through Dr. Slayter’s three-page report the night he first met Desmond, Dr. Rahman testified Dr. Slayter’s notes gave him a sense of relief because it was clear Desmond had sought help and was receiving treatment from the hospital’s outpatient mental health clinic and was being seen by a social worker from the Veterans Affairs Canada.
Describing these as “protective factors” in addition to his calm demeanour, Desmond convinced Dr. Rahman he wasn’t a risk to himself or anyone else and that these “protective factors” outweighed the risks.
Although Dr. Rahman didn’t believe Desmond was displaying any signs of acute psychosis, he agreed to keep him overnight as a “social admission” at Desmond’s request, since he didn’t have anywhere else to go for the night.
Dr. Rahman told the inquiry Desmond was given a comfortable bed in the emergency room for the night, and the morning after he offered him another night’s stay but said Desmond declined. He made a follow-up appointment with Dr. Slayter the following day.
GUYSBOROUGH: The first civilian psychiatrist to meet with retired Cpl. Lionel Desmond after he was released from the military’s care testified that the Afghanistan war veteran’s complex mental illness deteriorated “due to a gap in treatment.”
Dr. Ian Slayter, who assessed the 33-year-old on two separate occasions in the fall of 2016, told the Desmond Fatality Inquiry the former rifleman displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – but his mental health issues were far more complex – as he was also suffering from major depression, a probable traumatic brain injury, possible attention deficit disorder (ADD) and was “borderline delusional.”
“He was complex in terms of having several diagnoses going on at the same time,” he told the inquiry.
Slayter, who is a psychiatrist at the out-patient clinic at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish, has extensive experience studying suicide. Alongside his colleagues in 2010, he helped design a suicide risk assessment tool – which is why he considered Desmond a “low risk” in late 2016 and early 2017.
Dr. Slayter said he was “surprised and horrified” when he learned Desmond shot and killed his mother Brenda, wife Shanna, and 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah before taking his own life.
He testified his first interaction with Desmond occurred in an emergency room visit on Oct. 24, 2016 as the veteran was unable to leave the trauma and memory of combat behind, and was experiencing persistent problems with sleeping and nightmare.
Desmond informed the psychiatrist, while his PTSD symptoms were dwindling, his jealousy towards his wife Shanna and nightmares about her infidelity had progressively been getting worse.
However, Dr. Slayter testified he wasn’t informed about an incident a year prior in New Brunswick when Desmond was suicidal and police had to intervene.
Through their first interaction, Dr. Slayter determined the former infantryman had not received any therapy since returning home from the Quebec-based, in-patient treatment centre for veterans suffering from PTSD, at Ste. Anne’s Hospital in August.
Suggesting Desmond was “falling through the cracks” after returning home to Nova Scotia when the care he’d been receiving through the federal Veterans Affairs Department when he was living in New Brunswick stopped his services, Dr. Slayter told the inquiry that gap created barriers in accessing his medical records.
Dr. Slayter testified that Desmond deserved a higher level of care – and agreed to meet with him until he received treatment through the military or Veterans Affairs.
During a follow-up psychiatric assessment on December 2, 2016, that lasted approximately two-hours, Dr. Slayter concluded Desmond was prone to angry outbursts and his jealousy seemed “over-emphasized” and “bordering on delusional” but didn’t see anything concerning.
Dr. Slayter testified Desmond would have benefitted from a neuro-cognitive assessment to determine if he had a brain injury, and to see if that was the cause of his problems processing information or difficulty following instructions or long conversations.
Desmond didn’t attend their follow-up appointment on Dec. 21, 2016. He did book another appointment with Dr. Slayter on Jan. 3, 2017, but later that day, he carried out the tragic triple murder-suicide.
Dr. Slayter wanted Desmond to receive help from an occupational stress injury clinic but before those services could be arranged, he asked the former corporal to obtain his medical records from the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada, something he admitted would be difficult to accomplish.
GUYSBOROUGH: The Desmond Fatality Inquiry began hearing testimony from the nurses who oversaw Cpl. Lionel Desmond.
Mental health crisis clinician Heather Wheaten, who assessed Desmond two months before the 2017 tragedy, says his symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) appeared to get worse during a period of time in 2016 when he wasn’t receiving any treatment.
A “situational crisis” and “worsening of PTSD symptoms,” she told the inquiry, resulted in Desmond and his wife, Shanna, attending the emergency room at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital on Oct. 24, 2016 as a last-ditch effort to receive therapy.
Wheaten filled out a mental health assessment form, noting at the time the former rifleman was suffering from interrupted sleep, nightmares, loss of appetite, aggression towards objects, conflict with his wife, and increasing anger, depression and anxiety.
In addition, she noted Desmond was having paranoid thoughts about his wife, lacked concentration and was “not sure how to live as a civilian.”
Wheaten asked to speak with Desmond alone, something both he and his wife declined, preferring both to be in the room.
In notes she took during that assessment, Desmond seemed “downcast and unkempt” and was “having trouble navigating the Veterans Affairs system and worried about what they will offer and what they will cover.”
In the hour-long assessment, Wheaten concluded Desmond had “frequent, passive suicidal ideations,” but she didn’t believe he had a plan or any real intentions to act on them.
After learning about the tragedy, the mental health crisis clinician testified she decided to change her interview approach.
Speaking with both Cpl. Desmond and Shanna, who was also a psychiatric nurse, Wheaten suggested Shanna appeared to “manage and advocate” her husband’s care.
Wheaten ultimately helped the struggling couple make a plan to deal with Cpl. Desmond’s “anger issues.”
Wheaten told the inquiry Cpl. Desmond and his wife were awaiting correspondence from Veterans Affairs to confirm a new case worker in Nova Scotia and were hoping the department would make arrangements for him to see a private therapist.
Wheaten, a nurse with more than 20-years experience, told the inquiry she did not receive any formal training regarding domestic violence.
Wheaten had trouble remembering details of her interaction with Desmond outside of her notes, and lawyers identified problems with the lack of details in the medical assessment notes, and undecipherable writing.
Evidence presented to the inquiry already has suggested the attending nurses may have seen a much different version of Desmond that night – one who “slept poorly” and was “restless,” which they indicated in his medical chart.
Leanne Watts and Maggie MacDonald oversaw Cpl. Desmond’s emergency room stay two-days before the triple murder-suicide.
MacDonald, who conducted Desmond’s discharge after she received the order from Rahman by phone, testified the veteran had a “flattened affect” when she spoke to him, but “otherwise seemed normal.”
Watts, who observed Desmond overnight in the emergency room, indicated she recorded his demeanour as “calm and cooperative,” and her notes also suggested there was “nothing out of the ordinary.”
GUYSBOROUGH: Feb. 12 was the first time the Desmond Fatality Inquiry heard that Shanna Desmond requested a divorce from her husband.
Previous testimony indicated, after his discharge in 2015, the Afghanistan war veteran and his wife would frequently argue to the point she’d ask him to leave for a night or two.
Catherine Chambers, a private psychotherapist based in Antigonish, who specializes in treating veterans and first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), testified she was contracted by Veterans Affairs Canada in the fall of 2016 to provide counseling services to Desmond.
Chambers told the inquiry she conducted two assessment sessions with the 33-year-old war veteran in 2016, on Dec. 2 and 15.
She described the individual she first met as “meek and childlike” who slumped in his chair, giving her the impression of hopelessness and had issues speaking in a liner manner. Despite being “polite, well-groomed and soft-spoken” Desmond displayed a “flat affect” when talking about troubling or emotional issues.
While she told the inquiry Desmond admitted there was ongoing conflicts with his wife, Chambers truly believed he “deeply loved his wife and wanted a happy life with her.”
Chambers also testified during her assessments with Desmond, he spoke about being the best father and husband that he could be.
When Chambers asked Desmond about suicide, he didn’t appear to have a plan or any real intent, so he was deemed as a low risk. He did however engage in “frequent, passive suicidal ideation,” by claiming he wished he’d been blown-up in Afghanistan.
The psychotherapist testified Desmond told her the only reason stopping him was he wanted to stay alive was so he could be there for his wife and daughter.
Chambers testified she received a call from Desmond’s Veterans Affairs case manager in late September – early October 2016. She then left him a voicemail, but didn’t hear back from him for four weeks.
She explained Veterans Affairs didn’t indicate to her there was any urgency in meeting with Desmond.
On the morning of Jan. 3, 2017, Chambers indicated Cpl. Desmond, despite having an appointment with her in two-days, called to inform her he was involved in a car crash, which resulted in a fight with Shanna and her asking for a divorce. He didn’t make his next appointment with Chambers.