Seven years after triple murder-suicide, Nova Scotia inquiry to release final report

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

Published Tuesday, January 30, 2024 6:08 am EST

Afghanistan war veteran Lionel Desmond calmly purchased a semi-automatic rifle on January 3, 2017 and that same day shot and killed his mother, wife and 10-year-old daughter before committing suicide at the family’s rural home in New Scotland.

The murders in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., shocked the province. Difficult questions immediately arose about how something so terrible could happen.

And more than seven years later, a provincial fatality inquiry will release its final report into what happened and how a similar tragedy can be prevented.

With the passage of so much time, lawyer Adam Rodgers worries the public and both the federal and provincial governments have lost interest in the work of the investigation.

“That really risks undermining the entire report,” said Rodgers, who represents the estate of Desmond and his sister Cassandra. “Justice delayed is justice denied. It’s an old saying that certainly holds true here.”

In the days and weeks after the murders, the federal and provincial governments could not agree on who should lead an investigation. Desmond’s twin sisters, Cassandra and Chantel, then mounted a vocal campaign for action which included an appearance in Parliament.

The provincial inquiry was finally announced in December 2017, almost a year later. Public hearings began in January 2020, but proceedings in rural Guysborough, N.S., were suspended two months later when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. An 11-month delay followed and the hearings did not conclude until April 2022.

And there was another disruption in July 2023, when the Nova Scotia government fired the provincial court’s presiding judge, Warren Zimmer, for taking too long to complete his final report.

On Wednesday, when Zimmer’s replacement, provincial court judge Paul Scovil, releases the long-awaited report, Canadians should pay attention, Rodgers said.

“The issues that the investigation explored affect many Canadians,” he said in an interview Monday. “Anyone who has a connection to the military will see the effects. It will talk about what happens when a soldier comes back from battle and has to reintegrate into his family and community, and that is a very difficult process.”

During public hearings, the inquiry learned that Desmond had been diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression in 2011, after serving on two particularly violent tours in Afghanistan in 2007. He was medically discharged from the military in July 2015. after receiving four years of treatment in New Brunswick.

But Desmond was still a desperately ill man whose marriage was in trouble when he later left a residential treatment program in Montreal and returned to his home in eastern Nova Scotia in August 2016. Family and friends told the inquest that he received no the help I needed.

Dr. Ian Slayter, who evaluated the retired corporal in the fall of 2016, testified that Desmond also suffered from a probable traumatic brain injury, possible attention deficit disorder and borderline delusions about his wife’s fidelity.

The psychiatrist, who at the time worked at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish, N.S., said Desmond told him that his symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder had been decreasing, but that his jealousy toward his wife, Shanna, had worsened.

Slayter also said he was concerned Desmond was “falling behind” because he had been receiving care through the federal Department of Veterans Affairs when he lived in New Brunswick, but those services stopped when he moved to Nova Scotia.

That testimony was fundamental to the investigation.

The inquest heard that during the four months before the murders, Desmond did not receive any therapeutic treatment. Instead, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, which was responsible for helping Desmond find mental health services, was beset by delays and bureaucratic problems.

During that crucial period, Desmond sought help at two local hospitals in eastern Nova Scotia, but the doctors he met were unable to obtain his federal medical records.

On another front, the inquest heard that as Desmond became increasingly paranoid about his wife’s fidelity, he also became more controlling, although there was no evidence of physical abuse.

Three hours before Desmond killed his 31-year-old wife, daughter, Aaliyah, and 52-year-old mother, Brenda, Shanna Desmond sought information about how to secure a peace bond, the inquest heard.

Dr. Peter Jaffe, a psychologist at Western University in London, Ont., told the inquest that Desmond had 20 risk factors associated with domestic homicide, out of 41 factors developed by the Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee.

When public hearings concluded in April 2022, lead barrister Allen Murray said the inquiry had heard repeatedly that “professionals may not have fully understood the numerous red flags about the risk of serious domestic violence or domestic homicide.” “.

Among other things, the mandate of the investigation includes determining whether Desmond and his family had access to appropriate mental health and domestic violence intervention services.

As for Desmond’s access to guns, the inquiry heard his firearms license was suspended in December 2015 after he was arrested in New Brunswick under the province’s Mental Health Act.

However, the license was reinstated in May 2016 after a New Brunswick doctor signed a medical assessment form stating his patient was “non-suicidal and stable.”

At the time, Desmond was receiving treatment at a clinic in Fredericton, where staff later determined that his mental state had become unstable, as he was plagued by intrusive thoughts that forced him to relive traumatic experiences he had endured in combat. In addition, a psychiatrist at the clinic told the investigation that the former rifleman suspected that his wife was wasting money and plotting against him.

None of that information was shared with federal or provincial firearms officials, as the clinic was not required to do so.

In total, 69 witnesses testified during 53 days of hearings in Guysborough, NS, and then in Port Hawkesbury, NS, where the final report will be published.

The report will offer recommendations on how to prevent a similar tragedy, but it cannot make any conclusions about criminal or civil liability, and its recommendations are not binding.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2024.

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