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Inquiry hears the final moments of how a veteran with PTSD shot his family and himself

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2020-01-30 Laura Fraser
The fatality inquiry into the deaths of a former soldier and his family resumes Thursday. © Dave Irish/CBC The fatality inquiry into the deaths of a former soldier and his family resumes Thursday.

The final moments of an Afghanistan war veteran's wife, mother and daughter unfolded before the fatality inquiry into their deaths and the former soldier's suicide in rural Nova Scotia. 

Autopsies of Shanna Desmond, 31, Aaliyah Desmond, 10, and Brenda Desmond, 52, found that all three were victims of a homicide, the deputy chief provincial medical officer testified Thursday at the makeshift courthouse in Guysborough, N.S. Lionel Desmond then turned the Remington Model 760 on himself.

He would have died instantly, Dr. Erik Mont testified.

The autopsies and a toxicology report offered few clues about the veteran's state of mind, but instead Mont followed the lead of other witnesses: all have contributed to a timeline of what happened leading up to Jan. 3, 2017. They've all laid out as many facts for Judge Warren Zimmer to use in making recommendations to prevent similar deaths, especially when soldiers come home with post-traumatic stress disorder as did Lionel.

 

Mont testified that he felt he needed to go to crime scene himself the following day — to the Upper Big Tracadie home where Lionel, Shanna and Aaliyah had been living together until Shanna, his wife, asked him to leave after outbursts on New Year's Eve.

Mont performed the autopsies on all four Desmonds.

They showed that Shanna was shot three times, in the neck, chest and abdomen. One of the bullets severed her cervical spine and spinal cord, which meant that she died within seconds, the report says. Another bullet injured her heart, lungs and liver.

Both Shanna and her daughter had other minor injuries, which Mont agreed, when questioned by inquiry counsel, could have come from a struggle. 

He couldn't, however, be certain.

Aaliyah and her grandmother were each shot once, both dying within minutes, according to Mont. The little girl was found lying with a dog curled beside her, the inquiry heard earlier this week.

a woman posing for a photo: Framed photos of Shanna Desmond and 10-year-old Aaliyah Desmond are displayed in the home where they were killed on Jan. 3, 2017. © Eric Woolliscroft/CBC Framed photos of Shanna Desmond and 10-year-old Aaliyah Desmond are displayed in the home where they were killed on Jan. 3, 2017.

Lionel shot his mother from behind, the autopsy showed. All were shot from a distance of about a metre, until the former soldier pressed the rifle to his forehead.

Inquiry counsel Shane Russell said in an interview that while some of the information may be graphic, it's critical for the inquiry have all the facts and to figure out what exactly happened. 

Mont couldn't say the exact order of the shootings. 

The "devastating injuries" injuries from Lionel's self-inflicted gunshot would have made it impossible to tell whether his brain showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated concussions or blows to the head. The lawyer for Lionel's estate, Adam Rodgers, said the former soldier had sustained three concussions.

Rapid mood changes, depression, suicide and dementia are symptoms of the illness.

And while there's been wider recognition of CTE in professional sports circles, after several high-profile athletes with it have committed suicide, Rodgers says that research and discussion hasn't extended to military members.

In fact, Mont told the inquiry that he doesn't believe any medical examiner's office in Canada routinely checks for CTE during post-suicide autopsies. In part, he said, that's because it's time-consuming, requires a specific level of expertise, and because in Nova Scotia there's no research centre or funding for it.  

Rodgers said he hopes the judge considers making recommendations to change that. If CTE exams could be performed regularly, and if they found that a large percentage of suicides are connected to it, then public policy could target prevention, he said. 

"Our military [are] in difficult situations, whether it's a direct head contact or even a blast or explosion of some kind might affect somebody's brain activity," Rogers said. "So I think it's something worth studying."

The inquiry resumes next Monday, with testimony from the doctors who saw Lionel at St. Martha's Hospital in Antigonish, N.S., in the days and weeks before he died.

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