Nova Scotia·DAY 3 OF INQUIRY

Minor truck crash triggered veteran with PTSD to kill himself and his family, investigator says

The triggering event that set in motion a tragedy seemed trivial to everyone except Lionel Desmond, the lead investigator into the deaths of the Afghanistan war veteran and his family tells a fatality inquiry.

Inquiry hears RCMP officer who investigated 2017 deaths in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S.

RCMP officers who arrived at this Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., home to find a former soldier had killed himself, his wife, his daughter and his mother will continue to testify at a provincial fatality inquiry into their deaths. (Dave Irish/CBC)

The triggering event that set in motion a terrible tragedy seemed trivial to everyone except Lionel Desmond, the lead investigator into the deaths of the Afghanistan war veteran and his family told a fatality inquiry Wednesday.

Desmond slid his wife's new truck into a ditch on a snowy highway after a happy New Year's Eve spent with friends and family at a cabin, RCMP Cpl. Jerry Rose-Berthiaume testified.

But although Shanna Desmond laughed off the small accident, her husband could not.

That moment was the catalyst — the one that led a former soldier with PTSD to kill his wife, his daughter Aaliyah, 10, and his mother Brenda and then himself, the officer said.

An inquiry into the deaths is underway in Guysborough, N.S., 30 kilometres from the family's home in Upper Big Tracadie where all four died on Jan. 3, 2017.

The CBC's Laura Fraser liveblogged from the inquiry todaySkip Scribble

It's the first time that the lead investigator has spoken publicly about piecing together the days before the fatal shootings, Shanna's request for Lionel to leave the house, and the level of planning that went into the shooting.

I'm sorry for yelling … I'm safe now. Good night xoxo. Love you, Shanna.- Text from Lionel Desmond to his wife

No one slept that New Year's Eve, Rose-Berthiaume testified. By the wee hours of the morning, Shanna had asked her husband to leave. And on Jan. 1, 2017, he checked himself in to St. Martha's Regional Hospital in Antigonish, N.S.

While in hospital, he texted his wife: 

"I'm sorry I put my hands up to you, I would never hit you," he wrote. "I'm sorry for yelling [our] business out there. I apologize to Aaliyah [to hear] my outburst. I'm safe now. Good night xoxo. Love you, Shanna."

It's unclear what she wrote in reply.

He told her he was sorry for his actions and asked if he could come home.

"I was out of my mind," he said. "I'm calm, I should have stayed calm and I said some hurtful things to you, I'm sorry."

Framed photos of Shanna Desmond and 10-year-old Aaliyah Desmond are displayed in the family home where they were killed on Jan. 3, 2017. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Violent plans

Lionel was released from hospital the next morning.

By then, there's evidence he'd already begun making violent plans — he made 90 web searches on his phone for weapons and gun stores between New Year's Day and the shooting, Rose-Berthiaume said. 

He didn't return to live with his wife after his release. Instead he packed some things from the house on Jan. 2 and crashed at a friend's home where he'd stayed before when his wife had asked for space, the investigator said. 

On Jan. 3, he texted his wife to see if their daughter had got to school. Rose-Berthiaume told the court that all evidence suggests that Lionel did not expect his mother or his daughter to be home with Shanna. 

"I think that his main reason to go there was Shanna and that unfortunately Brenda and Aaliyah were there."

The investigator said there was significant premeditation: Lionel went to buy a knife, ammunition and, after changing into camouflage, he drove to another hunting store and bought an SKS 762 semi-automatic rifle. 

RCMP Cpl. Jerry Rose-Berthiaume, lead investigator into the deaths of the Desmond family. (Laura Fraser/CBC)

'1st-degree murder'

Lionel parked his car on a rural logging road about a kilometre from the house, slashed the tires of his wife's car, and likely used "the element of surprise to get into the home," Rose-Berthiaume said. 

Had he survived, Rose-Berthiaume said he "would have likely been charged with first-degree murder" in his wife's death.

Investigators put a timeline together through extensive interviews with other members of Shanna's family, the Bordens, and Lionel's sisters, other members of the Desmond family and some of both families' friends.

Police "had a very fulsome picture" of who Lionel was —  a veteran of combat who had long been ill with PTSD — thanks to the frankness of his family and those who knew him, the corporal told the inquiry. 

"Family members talked to us and how he came back from the military as a changed person and his struggles over the years, they talked to us about his relationship with Shanna and his daughter, and how at times … there had been difficulties."

Lionel Desmond was part of the 2nd battalion, of the Royal Canadian Regiment. (Trev Bungay/Facebook/The Canadian Press)

Nightmares and flashbacks

Desmond had experienced nightmares and flashbacks after his return from combat, and he was at times manic and at others paranoid, the inquiry has heard.

He received treatment while in the Canadian Forces in Montreal and in New Brunswick, and sought help in Nova Scotia as a veteran. 

But the provincial medical examiner told the inquiry there were gaps in getting information from military health records to the civilian doctors who later treated him, creating "a barrier in his access to mental health care."

These barriers and other potential failures of the system are what Judge Warren Zimmer will probe during the next five weeks. At the end of the fatality inquiry, he will not lay blame but will instead make recommendations to prevent future deaths.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the rifle used was a Remington Model 760; in fact, it was an SKS 762.
    Feb 06, 2020 1:30 PM AT