GUYSBOROUGH: The psychiatrist who assessed retired Cpl. Lionel Desmond – just two days before he fatally shot his mother, wife, and 10-year-old daughter before taking his own life – says 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 February 4 that Lionel 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.
“It just kept on escalating until next morning,” Dr. Rahman recalled of his conversation with Lionel during a 30-minute medical assessment at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital – which lead 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 Lionel felt remorseful over.
“There’s a long-standing conflict between him and his wife, which affected his relationship with her, and then he told me about this incident that happened the night before, and [the] truck went into a ditch,” he said. “But he became very remorseful. I asked him if he was remorseful and regretful of [his] actions and he said ‘yes.’”
Dr. Rahman told the inquiry during his medical assessment, Lionel told him fights had strained his relationship with Shanna and each time she would call the police.
Dr. Rahman testified Lionel was “distressed over what had happened,” but otherwise he was “pleasant, engaging, forthcoming, calm, and composed.”
Facing cross-examination from Tom Macdonald, the lawyer representing Shanna Desmond’s family, questioned how Dr. Rahman could have missed the warning signs of violence.
Macdonald questioned Dr. Rahman repeatedly why he didn’t consider Lionel’s combat history, his diagnosis of PTSD or his admission that his wife had called police on him numerous times as “red flags.” He also asked Dr. Rahman why he didn’t consider it concerning when Lionel told him police had seized his gun in the past.
“Wouldn’t those be red flags in terms of taking everything he tells you at face value when, the next morning, he says he wants to go home?” Macdonald questioned.
Dr. Rahman testified he made a clinical assessment and found Lionel’s demeanour, body language, and ability to make plans for the future as all to be positive signs.
“I did explore this inter-personal conflict and relationship, it just appeared to me as a mixed picture,” he said. “It gave me an impression that it could have been more of an inter-personal conflict, possibly but not necessarily related to PTSD.”
Dr. Rahman told the inquiry he was aware of another psychiatrist’s assessment from only a few-months prior raising concerns about Lionel’s previous treatment for mental illness.
The inquiry had already learned in October 2016, Dr. Ian Slayter, was worried Lionel’s case wasn’t getting the proper attention from military and veterans’ programs.
“Given the complexity of [Lionel’s] case, and given that he seems to be falling through the cracks… I said I would follow him for a short while to help him get connected,” he wrote in his notes.
Dr. Slayter’s report also stated despite identifying a low suicide risk, he was concerned about Lionel being “borderline delusional” regarding his wife’s fidelity.
Lionel’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 Lionel, Dr. Rahman testified Slayter’s notes gave him a sense of relief because it was clear Lionel 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, Lionel 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 Lionel was displaying any signs of acute psychosis, he agreed to keep him overnight as a “social admission” at Lionel’s request, since he didn’t have anywhere else to go for the night.
Despite Lionel telling his family the psychiatric ward was full and he had to sleep on a stretcher in the emergency room, staff at St. Martha’s have suggested the veteran asked not to be put in the psychiatric ward because Shanna worked there.
Dr. Rahman told the inquiry at Lionel’s request, he was given a comfortable bed in the emergency room for the night, and the morning after he offered Lionel another night’s stay but said Lionel declined, but made a follow-up appointment with Dr. Slayter the following day.
“There’s always a risk,” the psychiatrist said. “But [Lionel] did not meet the criteria to stay in the hospital against his wishes.”
After being discharged on Jan. 2, the following afternoon Lionel purchased a Remington Model 760 from Leaves and Limbs Sports in Antigonish at 4:15 p.m., changed into full camouflage, parked on a remote logging road behind his wife’s house, slashed the tires on her truck, and entered the Upper Big Tracadie house with a rifle and a box of ammunition.
Within minutes, 52-year-old Brenda, 31-year-old Shanna, and 10-year-old Aaliyah would become victims of homicide, before the 33-year-old Afghanistan war veteran took his own life.
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, 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 preliminary stages of the Desmond Fatality Inquiry, see: https://porthawkesburyreporter.com/preliminary-phase-held-for-desmond-inquiry-evidence-to-be-heard-in-september/.