Veteran’s wife asked for divorce before he killed his family and himself, therapist testifies

In the hours before Lionel Desmond killed his family and himself, he called his therapist and told her that his wife had asked for a divorce. 

It’s the first time that the fatality inquiry has heard that Shanna Desmond told her husband she wanted to end their marriage. 

Earlier evidence suggested that she’d only asked him to leave for a night or two, something which had happened before when the Afghanistan veteran’s symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder turned into yelling matches and, sometimes, fists slamming against furniture. 

But Catherine Chambers told the inquiry Wednesday that Desmond got in touch with on Jan. 3, 2017. 

Although he had an appointment in two days’ time, she testified that he’d called and to tell her he’d been in a car crash, which led to a fight with Shanna and her asking for a divorce. 

Framed photos of Shanna and 10-year-old Aaliyah Desmond are displayed in the Borden family home, where they were killed on Jan. 3, 2017. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

The exact details of that call will be revealed as Chambers continues her testimony on Thursday.

But it intersected with what the lead investigator into the triple-murder and suicide suggested: that victims of domestic violence are most vulnerable if they leave the relationship or ask their partner to do so. 

Desmond never made his next appointment with Chambers. Soon after they spoke, he drove to the home he’d been sharing with Shanna in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., parked his truck on a remote logging road behind and snuck up to the double-wide mobile home. 

He slashed Shanna’s tires and went inside. He shot her, his mother, Brenda, and his 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, before shooting himself in the head. 

Desmond likely did not know that his daughter or his mother would be there, according to RCMP. 

‘Struggling’

Desmond was diagnosed with PTSD in 2011, although he began showing symptoms soon after he returned from a seven-month tour in Afghanistan in August 2007. 

He’d been a sniper there, and the memories haunted him: having to retrieve bodies on landmine-pocked roads, with the sound of gunfire and screaming punctuating the night. 

Chambers had been assigned by Veterans Affairs to help Desmond deal with the trauma of those memories — and to help create a life beyond them.   

The impression that I got was that Mr. Desmond loved his wife tremendously.– Catherine Chamber, therapist

While she, like the other health-care professional Desmond met, testified that he reported ongoing fights with his wife, Chambers made it clear that she believed that Desmond deeply loved his wife and wanted a happy life with her. 

She explained that conflict in relationships is common among veterans and their spouses because the “fight response” for survival can emerge as anger. 

“The impression that I got was that Mr. Desmond loved his wife tremendously and regretted that they argued,” Chambers said. “He didn’t want to have a relationship with conflict.”

The man she first met on Dec. 2, 2016, looked “meek and childlike” and seemed to be slumped in a chair, giving her the impression of hopelessness.

But when she asked him about suicide, she thought he seemed a low risk. He had passive thoughts about it, but no concrete plan. He sais he “wished he’d been blown up in Afghanistan,” Chambers testified.

But when asked what stopped him from following these feelings, Desmond told her that he thought about his wife and his daughter. 

Months without treatment

Desmond went months without treatment after he was discharged in August 2016 from an in-patient PTSD program in Montreal for veterans and moved back to Nova Scotia. 

The exact reason for this gap is unclear.

But other professionals have suggested that it’s a problem that can happen when someone moves from military care to the civilian system. 

Desmond was part of the India Company, 2nd battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment in Afghanistan in 2007. (Facebook/The Canadian Press)

Chambers testified that she got a call from his Veterans Affairs case manager in the fall of 2016. She couldn’t say which month that was, but testified that she left Desmond a message and didn’t hear back for a month. 

When his case manager reached out to him, he’d already been to the emergency room in Antigonish, N.S., asking for help. But he still connected with Chambers in November, she testified, and they had the first of two meetings on Dec. 2, 2016.

The therapist said that Veterans Affairs didn’t tell her there was any urgency in meeting with Desmond. 

In other cases, however, they have. She noted that when she’s worked with veterans whose spouses have called police about violence, their caseworkers will ask her to prioritize them. 

That didn’t happen with Desmond, although Shanna had called police in the past. 

Trauma therapy

By the time Chambers met Desmond, he’d been treated by both military doctors and private therapists. 

She said that her practice is to help her clients “rewire the brain” — to teach the amygdala to stop signalling danger, something that would first have been triggered by trauma. 

The hippocampus and amygdala make up the “smoke detector” of the brain, she told the inquiry, which triggers the survival mechanism of our fight or flight response in response to trauma. 

But if “trauma is ongoing … and there’s no expectation that trauma will be over,” the brain becomes primed to constantly be in a survival mode. 

It’s her job, she says, to help the patient and their brain learn to tell the difference between real and perceived danger. 

Desmond had told her he hoped to be able to do so.

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