PORT HAWKESBURY – Cassandra Desmond, Lionel Desmond’s sister, wrapped up her testimony at the Desmond Fatality Inquiry last Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 16, when she spoke about the day Lionel killed their mother, Brenda; his wife, Shanna and their 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, at a home in Upper Big Tracadie.
She recalled preparing supper at her home in Antigonish late afternoon on Jan. 3, 2017, and her twin sister, Chantel, dropping in around 5:15 p.m., on her way home to Lincolnville from New Glasgow. Cassandra said their niece Aaliyah had called Chantel around 4:30 p.m., asking if the after-school program she attended, where Chantel tutored students, was happening that day. (Chantel later testified that there was no tutoring scheduled for that evening, but she told Aaliyah she would still pick her up and they would hang out for a while). Cassandra said Chantel left her house a little after 5:30 p.m.
Cassandra said she got a call from Chantel after supper, when she heard her sister scream. “I hear a scream come out of my sister, a scream that I’ve never heard in her life.”
She said Chantel told her to call the police and ambulance and to come to Upper Big Tracadie, telling her that Lionel and Shanna were dead. Cassandra said her sister had not gone further into the house so did not know that Aaliyah and their mother, Brenda, had also been shot.
The call was dropped, she said, so she immediately started calling her mother. In emotional testimony, Cassandra said she called three times, expecting that her mother was home, and left three voicemail messages.
Then a call came in from Brenda’s twin sister, Linda, conveying the extent of the tragedy, telling her that Aaliyah and Brenda were also dead.
“My whole world went numb,” she said. “My whole world just stopped.” She said she was in shock and disbelief. “It was just surreal to me.”
“My mom died at 52 years of age because my brother was sick,” she said.
Cassandra’s friend drove her to Upper Big Tracadie. “It really did not sink into my mind until pulling up to the base of the driveway … a cruiser was right there … I was ducking the police officer … and just ran, ran.”
A female officer was on the step to the house. “I could see Shanna’s foot,” said Cassandra.
The officer told her she wasn’t supposed to be there as it was a crime scene.
Cassandra recalled the officer saying she couldn’t give any details but told her there were four “deceased bodies inside” and they were waiting for the coroner and a forensic team. The officer said that afterward RCMP officers would go to speak with her family at their home in Lincolnville.
Cassandra said she had to call her father and tell him that the four family members were dead.
She then went to her grandparents’ home in Lincolnville. “My grandfather was the strongest man that I knew,” she said. “I had never seen him cry a day in my life ... The only thing that he could think of was, ‘Can somebody please give me the answers to why I had to lose three generations under one roof, all in one night, all in less than an hour.”
Two years later “he went to his grave,” she said, “without an answer to that question.”
Cassandra recalled what her grandfather said to her grandmother the evening of the tragedy: “You know Mom, in all this time we thought we were sending that boy out doing something good. And I do believe that he did something good. But what in the name of God went so wrong that we’re sitting here questioning this? What went so wrong? Why?”
He predicted they would never get the answers. “By God we’ll be gone before we get the answers,” Cassandra recalled him saying.
Lionel changed after service
Chantel Desmond testified at the inquiry the next day (Feb. 17). Speaking of Aaliyah, she called her “a great kid” who wanted to be a veterinarian when she grew up. “She went horseback riding a lot with her father … she liked singing. She loved spending time with her cousins.”
Of Lionel, Chantel said: “He was my best friend growing up.” Before his tour in Afghanistan, she said, “He could light up a room, had a beautiful smile.” She described him as funny and caring, a hardworking person who loved to spend time in the woods. As others have testified, she said he was someone who helped others in the community.
She talked about how Lionel changed after his military service and recalled the family going to pick him up at the airport, with their grandfather driving a limo and family members carrying signs to welcome him.
“I remember the look in his eyes,” she said of first seeing him. “It was very dark and distant.”
Chantel said she had spent a lot of time with her niece, Aaliyah. “I took Aaliyah out a lot.” She said she wanted the little girl to have “more opportunities to be a kid” because “there was always so much turmoil” at home.
“When she felt comfortable and wanted to talk, that’s when she would bring things up … She told me, ‘I love my Daddy, but he’s angry a lot.’”
“And I said, ‘Oh Baby, it’ll be okay.’”
Chantel said Shanna “was an amazing mother.”
Day of tragedy
Of the day of the tragedy, Chantel said she made her way to the house and saw that it was “all lit up.” She noticed that the tires were all flat on the truck on the property.
“The keys were in the door and I remember hearing [the dog] barking. From the window I could see Shanna’s foot and I could see blood … I walk in and I see Shanna … her hair was over her face … and there was blood underneath her,” she recalled.
“I look over and I could see my brother’s boots … I immediately went into shock because I remember seeing a hole in his face … And I ran out of the house.”
Chantel said she called her mother, not knowing she was also in the house.
Then Brenda’s sister arrived and asked if Brenda was ready [to go], she said. That’s when Chantel realized her mother was also inside.
Upon learning that all four loved ones were dead, “I remember going into shock and falling to my knees,” she said.
Speaking about the impact of the tragedy, Chantel said, “It really messed up my life, in multiple ways.” She said she suffers from PTSD and had flashbacks thinking of testifying about it at the inquiry.
She also called the inquiry “a step in my healing.”
Chantel said the inquiry was important “because I want to know what happened to my brother, because the man that was in that house that night was not my brother.” She added that she didn’t want to see any other families have to suffer through such a tragedy.
Lionel Desmond’s sister Diane Desmond testified on Thursday morning, Feb. 18. Speaking of Lionel’s role as a father, she said, “He loved Aaliyah” and was an “awesome dad.”
Diane also spoke about Lionel appearing to be different when they picked him up at the airport. “I saw him coming down the ramp and he had two flight attendants escorting him down,” she said. “It just wasn’t Lionel … Something was wrong.”
She spoke about how close her mother Brenda was with Shanna. “They were like mother-daughter,” she said. “They spent a lot of quality time together.”
Forgiveness and struggles at home
On Friday morning (Feb. 19), the inquiry started with the reading of affidavits from Thelma and Ricky Borden, parents of Shanna Desmond, by their lawyer.
In her affidavit, Thelma Borden said, “We have forgiven Lionel…” The couple had been visiting their daughter in Saskatchewan at the time of the tragedy. They took the first flight they could to get home, she said, arriving on Jan. 4, 2017.
Thelma said she spoke with her daughter every day and that Shanna confided in her when there were troubles at home. She said Shanna told her she woke one night to find Lionel choking her. Shanna hollered and Lionel snapped out of it. He said he was sorry and that he didn’t know what he was doing because he thought he was back in Afghanistan, Thelma said.
Lionel would get jealous of Shanna, said Thelma, and dreamed that his wife was sleeping with other men. Shanna would tell him it was only a dream, Thelma recalled.
“Lionel would go around the house banging things,” she said. “Shanna would try to persuade Lionel to go to the hospital and get help, but he did not want to go.
“Shanna told me the night before she died that she told Lionel, ‘Lionel I can’t do this no more,’” said Thelma.
“Shanna told me she wanted a divorce.”
Thelma said Lionel could not get his Afghanistan experience out of his head.
Of Aaliyah, Thelma said her granddaughter was “a sweet little girl. She loved her mother and father very much.
“Aaliyah knew Lionel was sick and she would tell him, ‘Daddy, it’s going to be okay.’”
Embracing a ‘big brother’
Shanna’s brother Sheldon Borden testified on Friday (Feb. 18). He also served in the Armed Forces, for 11 years. He was released in January 2021, he said, because of PTSD related to instances of racism in the military.
Sheldon called Shanna: “A magnificent sister … She could always see positivity in almost every circumstance.”
He had lived with Lionel, Shanna and Aaliyah at their home in Oromocto, N.B. during his last year in high school. Sheldon said Shanna was “an amazing mother … always doing the best that she could.”
When Shanna went back to school to study nursing and got her degree, Sheldon said it was an “extremely proud” moment for the family and “huge for the whole community…”
Of his niece, Aaliyah, he said, “She was perfect in my eyes.” He described her as a very smart little girl who loved her aunts, uncles and cousins.
Sheldon said Lionel spent a lot of time at the Borden family home when he was dating Shanna. “I never had a brother,” he said. “He embraced me as his little brother and I embraced him as my big brother.”
Sheldon agreed with other testimony in saying that Lionel was a changed man after returning from Afghanistan. “He came back different. You could tell he was fighting things within himself.”
Sheldon said what he first noticed was Lionel “trying to deal with something in his head and you could see that he was fighting it … he was trying his best.”
He said Shanna and Lionel would often fight and his sister would try to “be there for him.”
“He would go for a walk and he would run a lot too,” Sheldon said of Lionel’s coping strategies.
Sheldon said at the time he was “only a kid” and “didn’t have the tools or resources to help him… “I didn’t know how serious it was.”
When asked about the impact of the tragedy on his parents, Sheldon said: “It’s clear that all Canadians are aware that the government has ignored this tragedy. The people in this community continue to suffer.”
He said his parents relive the tragedy “daily” because they have to live in the same home where it took place.
“It defeats you,” he said. “It triggers you; it traumatizes it.”
Sheldon said he would like for his parents to not have to live in that home.
“I wouldn’t call it living at this point; it’s just trapped.”
Lionel’s sister Kaitlin Desmond testified via video link from Halifax on Thursday, Feb. 18.
She said when her brother returned from Afghanistan “he was very quiet and closed off … He wasn’t the same.”
Asked why the inquiry was important for her, she replied: “Because I don’t want another person or family to go through what we are going through.”
Shanna’s sister Shonda Borden attempted to testify on Friday via video link from Regina, but a poor connected required that her appearance be rescheduled.