Nova Scotia

Veteran Lionel Desmond became controlling of wife before murder-suicide, inquiry told

Afghanistan war veteran Lionel Desmond became more controlling of his wife — taking away the keys to her car and changing their banking information — in the months before he fatally shot his family and himself at a rural eastern Nova Scotia home, his sister-in-law has testified.

Fatality inquiry in Port Hawkesbury, N.S., will issue recommendations to prevent further deaths

The fatality inquiry into the deaths of the Desmond family resumes Monday. Lionel Desmond, a veteran, shot his wife, his daughter, his mother and then himself inside this home on Jan. 3, 2017. (Dave Irish/CBC)

Afghanistan war veteran Lionel Desmond became more controlling of his wife — taking away the keys to her car and changing their banking information — in the months before he fatally shot his family and himself at a rural eastern Nova Scotia home, his sister-in-law has testified.

The fatality inquiry examining the circumstances leading to the 2017 murder-suicide heard Monday from Shonda Borden, sister to Desmond's wife, Shanna, and aunt to the couple's 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah.

"He would just do little spiteful things to make her life more difficult," she said. "Quite regularly, if it wasn't the car, he'd change the finances, like change the banking information."

Desmond killed Shanna, Aaliyah, his mother, Brenda, and then himself after he entered his in-laws' home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., on Jan. 3, 2017.

The inquiry will make policy recommendations to prevent future deaths as it examines whether the family had access to domestic violence intervention and whether Desmond had access to mental health services as he moved from the military to civilian health-care system. 

Lionel Desmond spent 7 months in Afghanistan in 2007; he was diagnosed 4 years after his deployment with severe PTSD. (Trev Bungay/Facebook/The Canadian Press)

Desmond had exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a seven-month tour of Afghanistan in 2007 that his friend and fellow soldier described as "like going to hell." A military psychiatrist would diagnose Desmond with PTSD in 2011 — something that, according to testimony from friend Cpl. Orlando Trotter, many others on that tour have been treated for.

Seven other members of their battalion have also died by suicide, Trotter told the inquiry earlier this year. 

Domestic violence intervention

While many witnesses have testified about the gaps in Desmond's care after his PTSD diagnosis, another core focus of the inquiry is whether his family had the support it needed.

Borden now lives in Regina, but she spent several years living with Lionel and Shanna Desmond in New Brunswick. She said that they talked to her when they argued and, at times, she would mediate.

At first, the arguments were typical of marriage — squabbles over how the dishwasher got loaded — but they devolved into larger concerns about finances, Shanna Desmond's decision to go to school, and her husband's uncertainty about his future in the military.

He would be medically released in 2015.

As his mental health worsened, he began to worry that his wife would leave him, Borden said. 

Changed banking information

It was around that time that Desmond started to hide the keys of his wife's car, one that he'd purchased as she prepared to attend St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., where she was studying nursing. Without it, she had to rely on her parents for a vehicle to get to class or to take their daughter to school or appointments, Borden testified.

In one case, Borden recalled that Desmond changed the banking information so that his wife was unable to pay their bills — and both of their cellphones became disconnected. 

It worsened as time went on, to the point where Borden's parents gave Shanna Desmond a down payment to buy her own truck.

Shanna Desmond and her daughter, Aaliyah, shown here at Shanna's graduation from nursing school. (Facebook)

Borden's parents, Thelma and Ricky Borden, entered affidavits earlier in the inquiry, which began in January 2020, and each touched on how Desmond's mental health deteriorated and its effect on their daughter and granddaughter.

Borden's testimony echoed incidents that they had referenced, including two times when Shanna awoke to find her sleeping husband with his hands wrapped around her throat. 

The first time it happened would have been around 2010 and Lionel seemed more disturbed by it than her sister did, Borden testified. He'd had a nightmare about being in Afghanistan.

His nightmares shifted, however, as the years progressed to images of his wife cheating on him — and himself breaking into the room and stabbing her and the man to death.  

He revealed those violent nightmares to psychiatrists and psychologists who have testified at the inquiry that he was bothered by the dreams and showed no sign of acting on it. 

The military gave Desmond a medical discharge in 2015 and referred him to the Occupational Stress Injury Clinic in Fredericton for outpatient treatment. But as Desmond's condition worsened — and he routinely missed appointments as he was living in both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick — he was sent to an in-patient program in Montreal designed for veterans with PTSD. 

Although Desmond spent 2½ months at the residential treatment facility, staff there have testified that he would have needed ongoing treatment after his release in August 2016. 

Gaps in treatment

But he went months without follow-up treatment when he returned home to Nova Scotia, seeing six different physicians during that time to try to get help.

Veterans Affairs did not connect him to a counsellor in his community until November of 2016; he had two meetings with her in December 2016 before the triple-murder suicide. 

The inquiry will hear from the Desmond's Veterans Affairs case manager Tuesday.

The gap in care after Desmond's discharge from in-patient treatment is an issue the inquiry judge repeatedly returned to in questioning — and an issue that lawyers at the inquiry have said will certainly be part of his recommendations. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Fraser

Social Media Editor

Laura Fraser is an award-winning journalist who writes about justice, health and the human experience. Story ideas are welcome at laura.fraser@cbc.ca

now