Lionel Desmond looked ‘like a normal guy’ as he bought a gun to kill his family: psychiatrist

Nova Scotia resident Lionel Desmond walked slowly in front of a display case, sizing up four different rifles and testing their weight in his hands. The man in the video looks calm. 

He remained patient as he decided what to buy and paid for it.  

The Afghan war veteran can then be seen leaving with the Remington Model 760 rifle he would use that evening to kill his wife, his mother, his 10-year-old daughter and himself. 

After Dr. Faisal Rahman watched the surveillance video taken Jan. 3, 2017, at the hunting store Leaves and Limbs in Antigonish, N.S., he said he saw little out of the ordinary. 

The psychiatrist has faced questions from lawyers at the fatality inquiry into the deaths of the Desmond family about why he focused on the veteran’s demeanour and his not history of combat, mental illness and marital conflict in deciding Desmond was healthy enough to leave hospital on Jan. 2, 2017. 

Judge Warren Zimmer asked the psychiatrist for his professional opinion of Desmond’s state of mind in the footage. 

The CBC’s Laura Fraser liveblogged from the inquiry in Guysborough, N.S.

Coherent and decisive

Rahman described the veteran as someone who looked composed, calm and able to get others to connect with him. Desmond can be seen talking with the business owner for most of the 15 minutes captured on video. 

“He was coherent, he was decisive [and] he was not in a hurry,” Rahman said. “He made sure that the business owner was able to engage with him enough so that he looked [like a] serious buyer.”

Dr. Faisal Rahman found that Lionel Desmond seemed calm, coherent and unhurried when he was seen buying the gun he used to kill his family and himself. (Laura Fraser/CBC)

The only thing the doctor found different about Desmond compared to when he’d been in hospital was that he seemed more flat. From what he could see from the veteran’s face on video, “There were not too many expressions.” 

Rahman saw no signs of agitation or psychotic behaviour; he noted Desmond’s hands weren’t shaking as he helped the business owner put one of the gun cases back in its plastic. 

“He appeared to be a normal guy buying a gun in the right state of mind,” he said.

Changes to health care

As the nurses and other doctors who treated Desmond are called to testify at the fatality inquiry, the judge will be looking at whether they were trained to recognize the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the signs of domestic violence. 

And also at whether they faced any barriers in getting a better understanding of the scope of Desmond’s illness. 

Tara Miller, counsel for Lionel Desmond’s estate, suggested that privacy laws preventing a physician from calling a patient’s family — or calling private counsellors — create barriers in cases like this. 

Had Rahman been able to call Desmond’s social worker, he would have learned that the veteran had reported persistent thoughts of suicide throughout December. 

“It strikes me that if you’d had more information or were able to call Shanna Desmond … all of that would have helped you build a more accurate picture of what was going on.” 

Hospital stay  

Desmond had arrived at the hospital on Jan. 1 in mental distress. He spent one night there and was discharged the next day.

He’d already sought treatment for his mental illness.

Family members have described him as a man who “came home changed” from the Afghanistan war in August 2007, where he spent months in firefights with the Taliban. He told doctors about how he was often given the painful task of retrieving bodies, both those of his comrades and of civilians.

In 2011, a military doctor diagnosed him with PTSD and, later, major depressive disorder. He got treatment within the military in New Brunswick and later at Ste. Anne’s Hospital, which houses an in-patient clinic to offer veterans intensive therapy for PTSD.

But neither gave him long-term relief.

While Desmond sought treatment in Nova Scotia as a civilian, there are signs he faced barriers, in particular around getting his medical records from the military.

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