PORT HAWKESBURY – Lionel Desmond’s behaviour at home grew more worrisome as the years passed, following the military veteran’s tour in Afghanistan, the Desmond Inquiry Fatality heard as it resumed evidentiary hearings in Port Hawkesbury on June 21.
In 2015 and 2016, that included controlling behaviour and jealousy in his marriage to his wife Shanna, his sister-in-law Shonda Borden testified.
Borden, Shanna’s sister, testified virtually at the inquiry from her home in Saskatchewan. She spoke of problems in Shanna and Lionel Desmond’s marriage, related to his PTSD, from the time the couple lived with her in Oromocto, N.B. after Lionel’s tour of duty in Afghanistan – and how the situation worsened over time.
The inquiry is in its final days of hearing testimony related to the tragedy of Jan. 3, 2017 in Upper Big Tracadie, when Desmond – a military veteran – shot and killed Shanna; their 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah; and Lionel’s mother Brenda.
“Around 2012 – 2013 is when things got really rocky,” Borden said, with more frequent arguments happening shortly after Lionel and Shanna had settled into their home in Oromocto.
Borden said small things, often related to chores and other “basic things,” would set Lionel off. In later years, arguments would also focus on finances and issues around Shanna’s return to school for her nursing degree.
Borden said both Lionel and Shanna continued to reach out to her about the problems they were having after she moved to Saskatchewan. Lionel would sometimes be agitated when he contacted her. He would be upset, for example, when Shanna went somewhere with Aaliyah, becoming paranoid that Shanna was leaving him, Borden said.
At such times, “he went to the worst-case scenario,” she said. “He was very adamant that she was leaving him and taking Aaliyah with her,” despite Borden telling him that was false.
“It started happening a lot more often,” as time went on, she said. Lionel would also think that Shanna was with someone else when she was at university or doing her nursing practicum, she said.
Sometimes Lionel would acknowledge that such ideas in his head weren’t true, but said he “couldn’t shake them.”
Several text messages between Lionel and Borden were entered as exhibits at the inquiry. On Monday, Borden referred to a text message she received from Shanna on Nov. 30, 2015, where her sister said Lionel was outside their aunt’s house yelling “and said he’s going to shoot them all” at their mother’s house.
His worsening behaviour included controlling tactics – changing the couple’s banking information so Shanna didn’t have access was an example of the “little spiteful things he would do,” she said.
Sometimes, when he was upset, Lionel denied Shanna access to a car he had bought for her to travel to her nursing program, she said. He would deny her the car for up to a month at one time, said Borden, during which time Shanna would use one of her parents’ vehicles.
In 2016, Shanna bought a truck.
“Realistically I think he was jealous,” said Borden. “But at this point, she knew she couldn’t rely on him or her car.”
With the truck, Lionel didn’t have control, she said. It was in Shanna’s name.
“She wouldn’t beg him for anything,” said Borden. “If he came back, he came back on his own accord … I think he knew that whatever he did, [Shanna] was going to have some kind of a back-up plan.”
When Shanna started the nursing program at StFX, “Originally, he was very excited for her, very happy.” Later, he was “jealous … or lost,” about it, Borden said.
“In the end she was just getting very tired of it, as anyone would,” said Borden.
In late 2016, she said her sister was looking for programs where she could get information on getting a divorce and dealing with someone who had PTSD, she said, noting that Shanna had spoken with their mother about this.
“He’s not getting the help he needs and I can’t help him,” she said Shanna told her in 2016.
Starting that year, Lionel’s text messages to Borden sometimes included “jibberish” and “made no sense at all.”
Some were threatening.
“Tell your sister I have eyes on a 22 magnum,” she recalled from one text, which was shown as an exhibit. Because Lionel would move on quickly from such comments, Borden said, “Sometimes I didn’t even catch on [about the threat] … At other times, I would be like, ‘Oh well he’s just having one of his rants.”
Now looking back, “I should have done something,” she said.
Asked if Shanna ever worried for her safety, Borden responded: “Yes … in the end, she was quite concerned.” Borden recalled a time when she was visiting her family in Upper Big Tracadie, when Lionel “was having an episode,” and she advised Shanna to calm down and just leave him alone.
“She said, ‘It’s not going to be “Shanna, Shanna…” when you see me dead on the kitchen floor,’” Borden recalled her sister saying.
Lionel also had disturbing dreams at that time, Borden said, including ones in which he had killed his wife.
Starting in 2015, Borden said Lionel often referred to the devil or demons. At one point, he changed his Facebook name to “Demon” instead of Desmond. Borden said she asked him why he did that and he responded that he had made a mistake, but then he didn’t want to change it.
In earlier years, Borden said Shanna had worried that Lionel might kill himself. He would get angry and talk about suicide, she said. When Lionel was having trouble at work in N.B. and angry at co-workers, Shanna told him she was worried he might harm those he worked with, said Borden. Lionel had responded: “I’m not homicidal, I’m suicidal,” she told the inquiry. Borden said she heard Lionel say this twice, but he was laughing each time.
“It was hard to take him seriously,” she said.
Borden said she last spoke to Shanna on the morning of Jan. 3, 2017. “It was a very quick conversation,” she said, with no mention of Lionel. “She was her happy self.”
The inquiry is working to determine the circumstances around the tragedy that unfolded later that day, including whether Desmond and his family had access to the appropriate mental health and domestic violence intervention services leading up to their deaths.
At the conclusion of proceedings, presiding Judge Warren K. Zimmer will file a written report with the Provincial Court containing his findings and recommendations. His report will not contain any findings of legal responsibility.