GUYSBOROUGH: Just two hours before retired Cpl. Lionel Desmond used a military-style carbine to kill his 52-year-old mother, 31-year-old wife, and 10-year-old daughter, before turning the gun on himself, the Afghanistan war veteran looked coherent and focused when he purchased the weapon.
The fatality inquiry looking into their deaths was shown a silent, 20-minute surveillance video recorded inside Leaves and Limbs Sports at 4:15 p.m. on January 3, 2017.
Lionel is seen walking calmly in front of a display case, sizing up four different rifles, and remained patient before purchasing the semi-automatic SKS-762.
After viewing the video, Dr. Faisal Rahman, a senior psychiatrist at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish, said “he appeared to be calm and composed,” and “saw little out of the ordinary.”
Provincial Court Judge Warren Zimmer requested the video be shown because he wanted Dr. Rahman’s professional opinion on Lionel’s demeanour and actions – trying to identify any signs of psychosis or agitation.
Dr. Rahman described the veteran as someone looking composed, calm, and able to get others to connect with him. The only thing he could determine about Lionel in the 20-minute surveillance video was that he seemed to be “relatively flat,” compared to the rather animated expressions he used during their 40-minute assessment two-days prior.
“He was coherent, he was decisive [and] he was not in a hurry. He made sure that the business owner was able to engage with him enough so that he looked [like a] serious buyer,” Dr. Rahman said. “He appeared to be a normal guy buying a gun in the right state of mind.”
The psychiatrist has faced questions from lawyers at the fatality inquiry as to why he focused on the veteran’s demeanour and not his combat history, mental illness, and marital strafes in deciding Lionel was healthy enough to be discharged from the hospital on January 2, 2017.
Earlier in the week, Dr. Rahman testified before the inquiry Lionel was “pleasant, forthcoming, composed and showed no signs of psychosis or thoughts of suicide or homicide,” during their 40-minute medical assessment.
“I heard some information, also, in terms of Dr. Slayter’s notes, which did have a lot of information,” the psychiatrist said. “Again, any information would [have been] helpful.”
Dr. Rahman also indicated he was aware of Lionel’s 2011 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis and major depressive disorder after serving in Afghanistan in 2007 with the 2nd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment’s India Company.
Tara Miller, counsel for Lionel’s estate, pointed out with mental health patients there is no visible evidence to show if someone is suicidal or a risk to others.
She also suggested despite Dr. Rahman wanting to speak with Lionel’s wife, there was nothing he could do when Lionel didn’t want that to happen, citing privacy laws preventing a physician from calling a patient’s family, or calling private counsellors “create barriers in cases like this.”
“In his case, according to my assessment, the safety aspect did not trump his personal health information [rights],” Dr. Rahman explained.
Miller implied if Dr. Rahman had been able to call Lionel’s social worker, he would have learned the Afghanistan war veteran had reported persistent and “frequent suicidal ideation” throughout December.
“It strikes me that if you’d had more information or were able to call Shanna Desmond… all of that would have helped you build a more accurate picture of what was going on,” she said. “We know that, based on your interview with Lionel, it appears he either under-reported on incorrectly reported things to you.”
Previous evidence showed Lionel made 90 weapons-related searches, and where to buy them before he checked himself into the hospital on January 1, 2017 – something that was never disclosed.
“If somebody doesn’t tell us the truth, our hands are tied,” Dr. Rahman said.
Arriving in mental distress, Lionel spent the night at St. Martha’s, mainly because he didn’t have anywhere else to go after Shanna asked him to leave following an argument, which the RCMP believe was the catalyst and which Lionel admitted to Dr. Rahman was part of a long-standing pattern of conflict with his wife.
Dr. Rahman indicated the 33-year-old veteran was discharged from the hospital the following day and returned on the morning of January 3, 2017 to book a follow-up appointment with Dr. Slayter for January 18, 2017.
Tasked with explaining how an otherwise “calm, coherent and forward-thinking man” could suddenly turn into a murderer, the psychiatrist suggested it was clear to him, Lionel’s “status” had changed during the subsequent stretch.
Dr. Rahman also testified he was unaware Lionel had sent several text messages to Shanna while he was being held for observation at the hospital, one of which that read: “I am sorry I put my hands up to you I would never hit you…”
Dr. Rahman agreed with Miller’s assumption the comment would have raised concerns about possible domestic violence.
Family members have longed described Lionel as a man who “came home changed” from the Afghanistan war. The then 24-year-old rifleman, was in direct combat with the Taliban as they ramped up their guerilla campaign in one of the Canadian military’s bloodiest combat missions.
Even treatment within the military in New Brunswick and again with a stint at Ste. Anne’s Hospital in Quebec, which houses an in-patient clinic offering veterans intensive therapy for PTSD – never provided him long-term relief.
Adam Rodgers, counsel for Lionel’s estate, questioned whether Dr. Rahman had enough medical information, whether Lionel should have received more care, and the ease of accessing his medical information.
“If Dr. Rahman had been able to immediately access at least some of the Veterans Affairs records that showed a bit of a different story, a longer history and some of the others complaints, [or] if he had been able to access some of the mental health complaints in the RCMP file that would trigger two things,” Rodgers said. “It would say, well, perhaps he has these other issues; secondly, he’s not being completely forthcoming with me, and what might that mean?”
As the health professionals who interacted with Lionel are called to testify at the fatality inquiry, Judge Zimmer will be looking at whether they were adequately trained to recognize the symptoms of occupational stress injuries or domestic violence.
The inquiry will also look at whether Lionel and his family had access to the appropriate mental health and domestic violence intervention services, as well as if 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 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 terms of the inquiry, go to: https://porthawkesburyreporter.com/terms-set-for-desmond-inquiry/.