Pathologist details final moments of Desmond family

GUYSBOROUGH: The Afghanistan war veteran who shot and killed his mother, wife and 10-year-old daughter in their Upper Big Tracadie home on Jan. 3, 2017 did so from approximately one-metre away, a pathologist testified on January 30.

Dr. Erik Mont, Nova Scotia’s deputy chief medical examiner,  provided autopsy reports of Lionel Desmond, 33, Brenda Desmond, 52, Shanna Desmond, 31, and Aaliyah Desmond, 10, which shed light into the final moments of their lives.

Mont testified Brenda, Shanna, and Aaliyah were all found to be victims of homicide, before Lionel turned the Remington Model 760 on himself and fired a bullet “between his eyebrows.”

“The wound itself was associated with devastating injuries,” he said. “This was essentially instantaneous.”

Mont also told the inquiry a toxicology report indicated Lionel had trace amounts of the antidepressant drug trazodone, which offered few clues into his state of mind. Lionel was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after serving in Afghanistan in 2007 with the 2nd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment’s India Company.

Asking about other potential drugs detected in the toxicology report, Stewart Hayne, the lawyer representing the doctors who interacted with Lionel, questioned whether medicinal marijuana or quetiapine, an anti-psychotic, were detected.

Mont confirmed Lionel hadn’t taken marijuana within the “three-days” prior and “there was no detectable quetiapine in his body at the time of his death.”

He said Lionel’s autopsy determined that he had a contact wound on his forehead and the self-inflicted gunshot made it almost impossible to test for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), more commonly known as post-concussion syndrome.

The degenerative brain disease caused by repeated concussions or blows to the head may cause rapid mood changes, depression, suicide or dementia. Adam Rodgers, the lawyer representing Lionel’s estate, said the former rifleman had suffered three concussions and that the discussion and research into CTE hasn’t extended into the military.

The issue of CTE has come up several times at the inquiry as a possible illness Lionel was experiencing, but due to his “devastating injuries,” Mont indicated it made it impossible to test whether his brain showed signs.

Examining for CTE isn’t something Mont carries out on a regular basis, he said it’s quite time consuming and expensive and there is no institute in Nova Scotia that does this.

“The answer is that right now I have not had a case that has been worked on for CTE in my career.”

Rodgers told the judge he hopes in his recommendations he will suggest to medical examiner’s office’s to routinely carry out CTE exams during post-suicide autopsies, and if a there is a correlation between the two – public policy could target prevention.

“Our military [are] in difficult situations, whether it’s a direct head contact or even a blast or explosion of some kind might affect somebody’s brain activity,” Rogers said. “So I think it’s something worth studying.”

In a Facebook post from 2016, Lionel said he had hit his head on a light armoured vehicle, and also experienced back spasms after falling off a wall and had been told he had post-concussion disorder, as well as PTSD, and also suffered ADD/ADHD from thrashing his head.

Mont testified Shanna’s autopsy indicated she had been shot three times; in the neck, chest, and abdomen. One bullet severed her cervical spine and spinal cord; another injured her heart, lungs and liver.

“It [the bullet] would sever any connection between the brain and the body,” he said. “She would have died within seconds.”

Brenda and 10-year-old Aaliyah were each shot once, both dying within minutes, according to Mont’s testimony. Aaliyah was shot in the face; the shot entered through her jaw and caused injuries to her neck and chest. Brenda’s autopsy suggests she was shot from behind.

Mont couldn’t identify the order in which the three were shot, except noting the 20-second phone call between Brenda and her brother George asking for help that “the boy just shot his wife.”

During cross-examination, Brenda’s counsel, Tara Miller asked whether she could have potentially made a phone call after she was shot.

While only speculating, Mont indicated it’s possible she might have been able to make a phone call, because her injuries wouldn’t have been to her central nervous system.

The inquiry’s mandate is to determine the circumstances under which these deaths occurred, as well as some specific issues, including; whether Lionel and his family had access to the appropriate mental health and domestic violence intervention services; whether healthcare and social services providers who interacted with Lionel were trained to recognize the symptoms of occupational stress injuries or domestic violent; and whether Lionel should have been able to retain, or obtain a license enabling him to obtain or purchase a firearm.

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.