There were clear warnings that N.S. veteran would kill his family, inquiry told

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Intimate partner death is the most predictable of homicides, a domestic violence expert testified at the Desmond inquiry. (Dave Irish/CBC - image credit)
Intimate partner death is the most predictable of homicides, a domestic violence expert testified at the Desmond inquiry. (Dave Irish/CBC - image credit)

In the year leading up to a Nova Scotia veteran fatally shooting his family and himself, clear warning signs of the impending tragedy went unnoticed by doctors, therapists and police officers who were focused on Lionel Desmond's PTSD, a domestic violence expert told a fatality inquiry Wednesday.

Peter Jaffe, director of the Ontario-based Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women & Children, had been asked by the inquiry to review the fatalities — and to determine whether there were risk factors that might have predicted what happened on Jan. 3, 2017.

That evening, Lionel Desmond, 33, entered his in-laws' home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., and killed his wife, Shanna, with a rifle he'd bought earlier that day. The Afghanistan veteran then shot his 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, and his mother, Brenda, before turning the gun on himself.

He had been released from an in-patient psychiatric facility less than five months prior, where a team tried unsuccessfully to stabilize Desmond's chronic post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

"There was a great deal of focus on trying to keep him alive and functioning," Jaffe told the inquiry. "And what got lost in that focus was that Shanna and Aaliyah were also in danger and, ultimately, also his mother was, as well.

"The mental health problems were so overwhelming that … the danger these mental health problems posed were overlooked."

Eric Woolliscroft/CBC
Eric Woolliscroft/CBC

The inquiry seeks to prevent deaths like those of the Desmond family through recommendations for government and institutional changes. Jaffe told the inquiry that intimate partner deaths "are the most predictable and preventable of homicides," largely because there are well-researched risk factors.

"These aren't inevitable outcomes — these are things where somebody needs to speak to the perpetrator about the path that they're on and there are going to be consequences."

In cases of intimate partner homicides, a review found that there were seven or more risk factors present in 70 per cent of the fatalities in Ontario between 2003 and 2018, according to the Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee.

41 predictive factors in domestic homicide

Of the 41 risk factors that can predict an increased risk of intimate partner death, Jaffe found 20 were present in Lionel and Shanna's Desmond's relationship.

Some of those factors included:

  • Actual or pending separation.

  • Perpetrator unemployed.

  • A diagnosis of depression.

  • A diagnosis of other mental illness.

  • Prior threats to commit suicide by perpetrator.

  • Sexual jealousy.

  • Prior destruction/deprivation of victim's property.

  • Prior attempts to isolate victim.

  • Choked in the past; in Desmond's case this was during a dream that he was in Afghanistan.

  • Access to firearms.

  • Victim vulnerability, including living in rural area.

  • Victim's intuitive sense of fear.

The heightened risk of fatal violence would have been captured "if somebody had done a thorough risk assessment" with either partner in the last month of their lives, Jaffe said.

"Somebody would have said to Shanna or to Lionel, 'I'm really worried about you. I'm worried about the pattern. I'm worried about all these things — and we need to put in an immediate safety plan,'" he said. "This can't wait for an appointment a month from now or two months from now."

Facebook/The Canadian Press
Facebook/The Canadian Press

Training to identify domestic violence risks

Jaffe's testimony is a critical piece of the inquiry, because it speaks to one of its core mandates: whether the medical professionals the Desmonds interacted with had the training to spot the warning signs of domestic violence.

Desmond saw six doctors in Nova Scotia to try to seek help as he waited to be connected with follow-up care after his discharge from Ste. Anne's Hospital in August 2016.

Those six doctors, along with three other care providers, have testified at the inquiry. Although most testified they asked the former soldier whether he intended to harm himself or anyone else, they never did a risk assessment as intensive as the one that Jaffe described.

He noted that professionals seemed to consider the fact that "he was frightening his daughter [and] frightening his wife" as symptoms of PTSD rather than an ongoing pattern of domestic violence. There's longstanding evidence of yearslong domestic violence, but it was always couched in terms like "conflict" or "anger" or "snapping," Jaffe said — and those got lost in the focus on Desmond's illness.

Jaffe said that there's evidence that Desmond's mother recognized that her daughter-in-law and granddaughter weren't safe, which is why she spent so much time with them when her son returned home.

"She was there to protect the family and she lost her life protecting the family."

Jaffe told the inquiry that although Desmond was the primary patient, professionals should have made an attempt to speak with Shanna Desmond about how she was doing as a caregiver.

Desmond was diagnosed with PTSD in 2011, four years after he returned from what his comrade described as an extraordinarily brutal tour of Afghanistan.

He was unable to make a full recovery and was medically discharged in 2015.

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