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, on Wednesday at the Fatality Inquiry.
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 January 3, 2017.
The triggering event, Cpl. Rose-Berthiaume said, seemed trivial to everyone involved except Lionel. 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.
“Lionel, by all accounts, was really bothered by this, and wouldn’t let it go. He was very upset, very embarrassed,” he said. “It carried on all-night to the point no one got any sleep, in relation to this truck going off the road.”
Cpl. Rose-Berthiaume testified family witnesses told him Lionel 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.
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.
A then 24-year-old rifleman, he was in direct combat with the Taliban as they ramped up their guerilla campaign in one of the Canadian military’s bloodiest combat missions.
“Certain things would just set [Lionel] off,” he told the inquiry. “Based on the investigation, I believe, and the investigators believe, this [crash] set this chain of events in motion.”
Through his investigation, Cpl. Rose-Berthiaume suggested tensions carried on throughout the night, to the extent Shanna asked her distressed husband to leave her home.
On January 1, Lionel checked himself into St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish; while being held overnight for observation he made sure to message his wife before he fell asleep.
“I am sorry I put my hands up to you I would never hit you….,” he texted. “I am sorry for yelling [our] business out there. I apologize for Aaliyah to hear me outburst… I’m safe now. Good night xoxo. Love you, Shanna.”
It’s uncertain what she wrote as a reply – but Lionel apologized and asked to come home.
“Please let me know if I can come home to you….,” he wrote. “I was out of my mind. I’m calm, I should have stayed calm and I said some hurtful thing to you. Please forgive me…”
Lionel 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, who concluded he was “pleasant, forthcoming, engaging, respectful, and a proud father.”
In his notes, Dr. Rahman indicated Lionel asked not to be placed on the mental health ward because his wife, a recently graduated nurse, worked on that wing and he didn’t want her co-workers to know their issues.
This detail goes against what friends and a family member told investigators that Lionel had told them directly, with the mental health ward being full and no beds available, he was forced to spend the night in the emergency department on a stretcher.
Cpl. Rose-Berthiaume testified by the time he was released, there was already evidence Lionel 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 at Leaves and Limbs Sports just outside Antigonish – only hours before the tragedy.
Lionel packed some of his belongings from the home in Upper Big Tracadie on January 2, and brought them to a relative’s home, where he had previously stayed when his wife asked for space.
On the morning of January 3, Lionel scheduled a follow-up appointment at St. Martha’s with Dr. Ian Slaytor for January 18; he messaged Shanna to see if Aaliyah had made it to school, and then later called the school to confirm.
At some point that day, it’s believed Shanna called the Naomi Society, a community organization that preserves and promotes the safety, dignity and human rights through direct services to women and their children who are victims of family violence.
“Shanna didn’t indicate there was any kind of violence or felt under threat,” Cpl. Rose-Berthiaume testified. “It was more a general info inquiry about what services were available to her and the family given she was going through a separation with someone who had mental health issues.”
Cpl. Rose-Berthiaume indicated all evidence suggests Lionel didn’t expect his mother or daughter to be home with his wife.
“I think that his main reason to go there was Shanna, and that unfortunately, Brenda and Aaliyah were there.”
In addition to purchasing the “military-style carbine,” Lionel 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.
Cpl. Rose-Berthiaume told the inquiry, in his professional opinion, this constituted first-degree murder as there was direct planning and deliberation in the murder of his wife.
Shortly after 6 p.m., Brenda, Lionel’s 52-year-old mother, 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.
Cpl. Rose-Berthiaume testified Lionel’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.
Lionel 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.
“In my mind, he was a firearms guy – he was a sniper, he was in the infantry,” Cpl. Rose-Berthiaume said. “The only person who would know is Lionel – but by taking out the magazine and placing it on the counter and leaving one round in the chamber, anyone else coming into that scene would know that he had made that firearm essentially safe.”
On Monday, the province’s chief medical examiner told the inquiry through his investigation, he identified systemic failures in the transfer of information between military health records and civilian doctors creating “a barrier in his access to mental health care.”
Among other things, the inquiry will examine these barriers, whether Lionel had access to mental health and domestic violence services, and whether he should have been able to buy a gun on the day of the killings.
At the conclusion of the proceedings, which are scheduled to last five-weeks, due to the extraordinary volume of evidence: 58,000 files, totaling about 120,000 pages, 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.