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Lionel Desmond's wife asked him for a divorce before killings, inquiry told
Shanna and Lionel Desmond hold their daughter Aaliyah in a photo from the Facebook page of Shanna Desmond. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / HO - Facebook)
GUYSBOROUGH, N.S. -- The same day Lionel Desmond told a psychotherapist that his wife had recently asked for a divorce, the former soldier fatally shot his spouse, their 10-year-old daughter and his mother before turning the gun on himself, a provincial fatality inquiry heard Wednesday.
The inquiry in Guysborough, N.S., which started last month, has heard the Afghanistan war veteran and his wife Shanna frequently argued after he was discharged from the military in 2015, but this was the first mention of a possible divorce.
"We've heard from a few witnesses that there were heated arguments, but always a reconciliation," lawyer Adam Rodgers, who represents Desmond's estate and his sister Cassandra, said in a telephone interview.
"But this was the first time there was a mention of divorce .... That does seem quite significant."
Catherine Chambers, a private psychotherapist based in Antigonish, N.S. who specializes in treating veterans and first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder, told the inquiry she was contracted by Veterans Affairs Canada in the fall of 2016 to provide counselling to Desmond. She understood he had been diagnosed with PTSD in 2011.
Several of Desmond's relatives and friends have long complained the former infantryman did not receive the help he needed as he tried to make to transition to civilian life.
Among other things, the inquiry is investigating whether Desmond and his family had access to mental health and domestic violence services, and whether he should have been able to buy a gun on the same day as the killings.
Chambers said she conducted two assessment sessions with the 33-year-old former soldier -- on Dec. 2, 2016 and Dec. 15, 2016.
She described him as polite, well-groomed and soft-spoken -- but she also noted he had trouble speaking in a linear manner. Desmond also displayed a "flat affect," which meant his facial expressions hardly changed when he talked about troubling or emotional issues, she said.
"He seemed to be struggling," she told the inquiry.
She also said Desmond clearly stated he had not physically abused his wife. Marital conflict is common among those diagnosed with PTSD, Chambers said, but it doesn't necessarily mean anyone is at imminent risk.
In part, Chambers' psychotherapy assessment reads: "Mr. Desmond shared that he wants to have a happy and healthy home life and a healthy relationship with his wife. He would also like to sleep better and find ways of dealing with intrusive memories and flashback."
Chambers testified that Desmond spoke about being the best father and husband that he could be.
"The impression that I got was that Mr. Desmond loved his wife tremendously and regretted the fact they often argued .... He wanted to rebuild his family."
Chambers confirmed Desmond did talk about suicide, but she said he did not appear to have any plan or intent to hurt himself or anyone else. She said he engaged in "passive suicide ideation" by saying he wished he had been "blown up" in Afghanistan.
Desmond told her the only reason he wanted to stay alive was to be there for his wife and child.
Until Chambers spoke with Desmond by phone on Jan. 3, 2017, she said he did not mention anything about a possible separation or divorce.
The inquiry has heard that on Jan. 1, 2017, Desmond spent the night at St. Martha's Regional Hospital after he and Shanna argued on New Year's Eve. He told staff at the hospital he needed a place to stay to cool off.
The psychiatrist who assessed him, Dr. Faisal Rahman, told the inquiry that Desmond was pleasant and polite, and he was deemed a low risk for suicide or homicide by the time he left the hospital on the morning of Jan. 2, 2017.
Cellphone records obtained by the RCMP show Desmond spoke to his wife later that day. "We don't know what they discussed," Rodgers said.
And it was the next day that Desmond told Chambers about the possible divorce.
Just after 6 p.m. that evening, Desmond used a semi-automatic, military-style carbine to kill his family and himself in their rural Nova Scotia home in Upper Big Tracadie.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2020.
-- By Michael MacDonald in Halifax.
The Canadian Press erroneously reported that Lionel Desmond was a former sniper. Canadian Forces records do not indicate Desmond was ever qualified or employed as a sniper.