Nova Scotia

Lionel Desmond killed their daughter and granddaughter, but in-laws say they won't 'demonize' him

Sheldon Borden still speaks highly of Lionel Desmond — calling him "a big brother" — despite the tragedy that happened in the Borden family home after the Afghanistan veteran walked in on Jan. 3, 2017, carrying a gun. That evening, Desmond shot his family and himself.

Shanna Desmond's brother testified that he looked up to Lionel 'like a big brother'

On Jan. 3, 2017, veteran Lionel Desmond shot and killed his wife, daughter, mother and then himself in a home in Guysborough County, N.S. An inquiry into the deaths continued on Friday. (Dave Irish/CBC)

Sheldon Borden still speaks highly of Lionel Desmond, calling him "a big brother," despite the tragedy that happened in the Borden family home after the Afghanistan veteran walked in on Jan. 3, 2017, carrying a rifle.

That evening, Desmond burst into the house in Upper Big Tracadie — a community in Guysborough County, N.S. — and shot his wife, Shanna, his 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah, his mother, Brenda, and then himself. 

But when the Bordens addressed the inquiry looking into the circumstances that contributed to the triple murder-suicide for the first time on Friday, none of them laid blame on Desmond.

"My evidence is not intended to demonize Lionel Desmond or destroy his character," Thelma Borden said in an affidavit presented to Judge Warren Zimmer and the inquiry happening in Port Hawkesbury, N.S. 

Her son echoed that sentiment, saying that Desmond's post-traumatic stress disorder, and the trauma he experienced during his seven-month tour in Afghanistan, were more worthy of blame.  

Sheldon followed Desmond into the military, inspired by his brother-in-law's service. But, he testified, bouts of racism he experienced led him to leave the Canadian Forces less than a month ago, also exhibiting PTSD. 

CBC reporter Laura Fraser was blogging the hearing:

Empathy for Desmond

He said that experience has given him empathy for Desmond, noting that the military does "a good job of keeping you busy" when you're in service, but leaves soldiers vulnerable after discharge.

It's then, he said, when they have time to process what happened, that they need the most help. 

Sheldon noted that he has a good support system. 

But Desmond, meanwhile, saw a gap of roughly three months in care when he transitioned from the military health-care system to the provincial. 

From left to right, Shanna Desmond's family, Thelma, Ricky and Sheldon Borden. They try to continue day-to-day life but say it's difficult because they still live in the home where the tragedy occurred. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

In hindsight, Sheldon said that there were signals Desmond was capable of violence.

"When him and Shanna were fighting one day … I'm like, 'Shanna, you gotta kind of be there for him,'" he recalled. Desmond had stormed out and Sheldon told his sister that he would go and check on his brother-in-law. 

She tried to stop him, however, saying, "Do you want him to come back here and kill us all?" Sheldon testified.

Shanna's mother shared similar recollections, recalling a couple that was happy before Lionel shipped out.

"Lionel and Shanna got along well before he went to Afghanistan," Thelma said in her affidavit. 

The couple began dating when Shanna was 16 and he was 18, she wrote. They got married soon after Shanna graduated high school.

Shanna, seen here with her daughter Aaliyah, had a happy marriage before Desmond was sent to Afghanistan, according to testimony. (Facebook)

But Thelma said that her daughter confided in her about the toll that Desmond's mental health began to take on their marriage after he returned from Afghanistan. She described him having nightmares that left the bed drenched with sweat, that he still heard the sound of bombs and guns going off in his head.

And Thelma described a time when her daughter woke up to find Desmond choking her, stopping only when she kept "hollering" his name.

"He told her he was sorry, because he didn't know what he was doing," Thelma said in her affidavit. "He thought he was back in Afghanistan." 

It's the only time the inquiry has heard of Desmond laying his hands on his wife in violence. 

But a psychiatrist Desmond and his wife saw in Guysborough County when he was in crisis noted that Desmond had angry outbursts and jealous nightmares about his wife.

By late 2016 the focus of the nightmares had shifted from Afghanistan, Desmond told Dr. Ian Slayter, to dreams about his wife cheating on him. Slayter testified last year there was no evidence of marital infidelity.

A collage shows images of Desmond, Shanna, Aaliyah, his mother Brenda and his military comrades. (CBC)

"It also came out that [Desmond] would get angry at times and he would pound tables and throw things … but [his wife] said — and he said — that he had never hit her and she wasn't afraid of him," Slayter said at the time.

The inquiry was called because Desmond and his family were victims of "systemic failures" that did not detect escalating domestic violence and created barriers to accessing mental health care, the province's chief medical examiner, Dr. Matt Bowes, testified last year. 

Zimmer's mandate includes probing whether the clinicians who met Desmond were adequately trained to spot the warning signs of intimate partner violence.

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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