Nova Scotia·Day 2 Of Inquiry

911 call came in as a former soldier's suicide, but RCMP found 4 bodies, Mountie testifies

The Mounties who arrived at the home where a former soldier shot his family and then himself three years ago recount the details of what they found at the inquiry into those deaths.

Officers who arrived at shooting scene testify at 2nd day of Lionel Desmond inquiry

The second day of the fatality inquiry into the deaths of a former soldier and his family resumes today. (Dave Irish/CBC)

When the 911 call came in, officers believed they were responding to a suicide in progress — but as they approached the home in rural Nova Scotia three years ago they learned that a former soldier had shot not only himself, but also three members of his family, an RCMP commander testified Tuesday. 

Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum was the first officer to enter the home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., on Jan. 3, 2017.

As his testimony at the inquiry into the deaths of Lionel Desmond, his wife Shanna, 31, his daughter Aaliyah, 10, and Desmond's mother Brenda, forced him to relive what he saw that day, he occasionally struggled for composure.

The CBC's Laura Fraser liveblogged from Guysborough, N.S., where the fatality inquiry is taking place.

MacCallum had encountered Lionel on two previous calls: one a well-being check that his wife had asked for, and a second time as he seized a gun from the house while Lionel's firearms licence was under review. 

As MacCallum drove to the home, he said, those two episodes replayed in his mind — alongside the knowledge that Lionel had been cleared by the review and that his gun had been returned to him. 

He also knew that Lionel was an "avid hunter, a man who had seen combat" and had severe PTSD. 

Shanna Desmond and her daughter were among four of the people killed. (Facebook)

Much of the second day of the province's fatality inquiry involved recounting what MacCallum found at Shanna's family home after he pulled up and found Lionel's sisters in the driveway. 

"The house was illuminated, with all of the lights on," MacCallum said, so he and another officer felt they could get in undetected, although he'd been told by a member of the family that Lionel was among the dead and the only likely shooter. 

MacCallum's voice hitched as he described entering the mobile home and finding each of the bodies, patting his eyes with a tissue as he talked about Aaliyah. 

Once he knew there was no other shooter inside, he testified that he turned his attention to the victims. He kneeled by Aaliyah and the dog curled next to her and, although she was warm, he couldn't find her pulse. 

He tried to do the same for both Brenda and Shanna, the latter of whom had a serious wound on her neck or jaw, he said. He didn't check Lionel, because he said it would be impossible to survive that level of injury. 

Lionel was dressed head to toe in camouflage, MacCallum said. He was lying on the floor with a rifle next to his left arm. Six shell casings were found on the floor.

A previous visit

MacCallum had been to the house in November 2015 when Shanna reported that her husband was manic, had stopped taking his medication and seemed to be having a mental health crisis. 

The Mountie found him staying next door with his aunt. 

He seemed calm, McCallum said, and said his doctor had taken him off medication and prescribed medical marijuana, a fact that was referenced earlier in the inquiry. 

Lionel told him he was hoping to repair his relationship with his wife, McCallum said.

He left feeling Lionel was not a threat to his family that night. But the last thing he told the Afghanistan veteran was to call him if he ever felt out of control — and he would come to help. 

Lionel had been receiving psychiatric help since soon after he returned from Afghanistan in 2007, experiencing nightmares and flashbacks.

He was soon diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and got treatment while in the Forces in Montreal and in New Brunswick, and sought help in Nova Scotia as a veteran. 

Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum testified about finding the bodies of the Desmond family inside this Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., home three years ago. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Family reacts

Three of Lionel's sisters were in the courtroom, later describing the difficulty they had in listening to the testimony. 

"As a family I can say that we're experiencing a lot of emotions … to basically relive the tragedy that happened three years ago," Cassandra Desmond said.

At the same time, she said, it feels empowering to know that this family is close to getting more answers. 

She said she's most looking forward to hearing evidence from the Fredericton doctor who signed off on the form that gave her brother a firearms licence.

The province's chief medical examiner testified Monday that he called for the inquiry after his investigation found that there were "systemic failures" that must be improved to prevent other domestic violence deaths and to support veterans returning home from war. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Fraser

Senior writer

Laura Fraser is a senior writer and editor with CBC News and is based in Halifax. She writes about justice, health and the human experience. Story ideas are welcome at laura.fraser@cbc.ca

now