Nova Scotia

Lionel Desmond's sister tells N.S. inquiry of finding crime scene after veteran killed family and himself

Cpl. Lionel Desmond's family members continued to testify at a Nova Scotia fatality inquiry into the circumstances leading up to the veteran's fatal shooting of his wife, daughter, mother and himself four years ago.

Chantel Desmond said she now has PTSD and has empathy for her brother's decade-long battle with it

On Jan. 3, 2017, Cpl. Lionel Desmond shot and killed his wife, daughter, mother and then himself in a home in Upper Big Tracadie, a community in Guysborough County, N.S. A fatality inquiry is looking at the support services available to the Afghanistan war veteran. (Dave Irish/CBC)

The details seem seared into Chantel Desmond's memory: a truck with four flat tires sitting in the driveway. The smells she noticed — blood, cooking onions and curried chicken — as she stepped into the house. That her sister-in-law wore a white tank top and pyjama pants as she lay motionless on the floor, a pool of red beneath her.

Chantel Desmond was the first to find the bodies of her brother, Lionel Desmond, and his wife, Shanna Desmond, on Jan. 3, 2017, after the Afghanistan war veteran killed Shanna, his mother, Brenda, his 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, and himself. 

Chantel left the house before she knew about the deaths of her mother and her niece, she testified Wednesday at the inquiry into the tragedy in Guysborough County, N.S.

"I have flashbacks thinking about this, having to come up here and talk about it," Chantel said of the shootings.

WATCH | Hearing examines lack of support for veteran before he killed family:

Lionel Desmond inquiry examines lack of psychological support before veteran killed his family

The National

2 months ago
2:03
An inquiry into the deaths of Canadian veteran Lionel Desmond and his family hears from his sisters, who say he wasn't getting the help needed after being diagnosed with PTSD. Desmond killed his family, and then himself, in 2017. 2:03

"When I explain the story, the smell of the blood, the smell of what they're cooking in the house goes through my head… It's something I'll never get over, but I'm trying to work with it and [this inquiry] is a step in my healing."

That day has left her with post-traumatic stress disorder, and, she said, a better understanding of her brother's illness.

Desmond served one tour in Afghanistan, beginning in January 2007. His struggle to find successful treatment for the complex PTSD he developed after returning in August 2007 is one of the focuses of the inquiry.

CBC reporter Laura Fraser was live blogging the hearing:

Happier memories

Chantel and her lawyer represent her mother's estate. Before recounting the details of the tragedy, Chantel's voice lightened as she spoke of the happy memories she carries of Brenda and her niece, Aaliyah.

Brenda, the family matriarch, was also a mother to the community. She was a tomboy with a twin sister who loved her work in construction, her daughter testified. She cherished her children and her grandchildren, loved a good game of bingo and never went to bed without saying her prayers, Chantel recalled. 

Brenda Desmond, Lionel Desmond's mother, worked in the construction industry. (Facebook)

Those prayers often touched on her only son, both for his safety when he was sent overseas, and for his recovery after his return.

Aaliyah, meanwhile, was "just a great kid."

At 10, she wanted to be a veterinarian. She adored horseback riding, her dog and cat, and playing with her cousins.

Chantel said she and her niece shared a special bond. Occasionally, Aaliyah would open up about the turmoil she experienced at home.

"She'd tell me, 'I love my daddy, but he's angry a lot,' " Chantel told the inquiry. "And I told her, 'Oh, baby, it'll be OK.' "

Aaliyah Desmond loved spending time with her cousins and her pets. (C.L. Curry Funeral Services)

'Dark and distant'

The memories she shared of her brother fall into distinct "before and after" categories, an observation echoed by her sister, Cassandra, in her testimony Tuesday.

Growing up, Lionel was the family clown, Chantel recalled. 

"He made me laugh so much," she said. "It's what I miss the most about him."

But she noticed a change in her brother as soon as the family picked him up from the Halifax airport when he came back from his tour in Afghanistan.

He worried about every bump on the drive home, she said. Where he used to be full of laughter, he was now reserved, and his eyes "were dark and distant."

Shanna Desmond had begun working as a registered nurse shortly before her death. (C. L. Curry Funeral Services)

Getting access to health records

The former soldier never fully reintegrated to military or family life, according to evidence presented at the inquiry. He wasn't diagnosed with PTSD until 2011. While he got treatment within the military, his caregivers found he "made minor progress." 

He was medically discharged from the military in 2015 and treated in New Brunswick, before being sent to a Veteran's Affairs hospital in Quebec for in-patient treatment. 

Much testimony has circled back to why Desmond had a months-long gap in treatment after he was released from the residential psychiatric program in August 2016.  

A simple step that could prevent another tragedy would be to give military members their health records when they're medically discharged, Desmond's cousin, a retired soldier, testified Wednesday.

Retired warrant officer Albert (Junior) MacLellan said that had Desmond been able to give those records to the doctors in his community of Guysborough County, N.S., they would have known the extent of his illness.

"So that [when] they can go home, see their family doctor, they have somebody in the know," MacLellan testified. "That could be a step to keep this from ever happening again.

"Four people are dead because they didn't make one simple step."

Desmond was part of the India Company, 2nd battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment in Afghanistan in 2007. He is one of eight soldiers from that battalion to die by suicide since their return from combat, the inquiry heard Thursday. (Facebook/The Canadian Press)

It's the type of bureaucracy that Judge Warren Zimmer has questioned throughout the inquiry.

Zimmer continues to preside over the fatality inquiry in Port Hawkesbury, N.S., which was delayed due to the pandemic. Unlike a public inquiry, it does not seek to lay blame.

Instead, Zimmer's role will be to hear from the witnesses and the recommendations of the various lawyers in trying to determine why this happened — and to then put forward recommendations to the province about how policy changes regarding health care or domestic violence can prevent future deaths.

Desmond has two more sisters who will testify Thursday.

Where to get help

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (Phone) | 45645 (Text, 4 p.m. to midnight ET only) crisisservicescanada.ca

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

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

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