Though his shift had ended two hours earlier, Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum had stayed late to do paperwork on Jan. 3, 2017.
Responsible for the province’s largest district, he had 11 officers spread out over three detachments covering 4,040 square kilometres of the fishing and forestry communities of Guysborough County.
At 6:10 p.m., he overheard the call coming in for the only officer at the Guysborough detachment at the time — a suicide in progress in Upper Big Tracadie.
“Which to be honest was a little bit different. Typically it’s never in progress — someone is suicidal or it’s already done,” MacCallum testified at the Desmond Fatality Inquiry’s second day.
Details on what had happened 25 kilometres away in Upper Big Tracadie were vague.
MacCallum quickly realized from the home’s description that he knew the people involved.
He’d first met Lionel Desmond at a Remembrance Day service in 2015. Later that same year, he’d responded to a call made by the Afghan war veteran’s wife, Shanna Desmond, that Lionel was manic, off his medication and that she was concerned for his safety.
He’d finally found Lionel at the kitchen table of a neighbour’s house.
Desmond's mental struggles
On that Nov. 2015 day, they sat and talked about Lionel’s struggles with PTSD, his medication, stresses that triggered him and his desire to work on his relationship with Shanna. Through that conversation, MacCallum was gauging Desmond’s mental health to see if there was a requirement under law that he be brought in voluntarily or by force for assistance.
“He didn’t say anything to me that time that raised a concern,” remembered MacCallum.
“He was obviously someone going through a mental illness. But he recognized what it was, recognized the triggers, I knew he had a family that cared about him. And he had a plan.”
There had also been a .308-calibre rifle that had been hidden from Lionel by Shanna before being turned over to the Guysborough detachment. MacCallum had been required to ship that back to the RCMP in Oromocto, where Desmond had been stationed with the military, for return after officials in New Brunswick decided to restore the firearm’s licence, based in part on a doctor’s assessment that he wasn’t a danger to himself or others.
“Knowing that you are dealing with someone who was in the Armed Forces, is trained in certain skill sets, is experiencing mental-health issues and is in an estranged relationship — those are all very high-risk factors you take into account,” MacCallum testified about his thoughts as he drove to Upper Big Tracadie on Jan. 3, 2017.
“Also when we’re given information about what has transpired, a lot of times it is not accurate.”
Arriving at the scene
Responding in separate cruisers, the officers planned their approach to the home. They turned off the lights and sirens well up the road for the sake of stealth.
They found a house with all its lights on and four family members in the driveway.
Backup was coming but it was a long 15 minutes away.
“She was hysterical, I couldn’t understand much she said,” testified MacCallum of the first family member who approached them.
A man came up who had gone to the house, saying there’d been a shooting.
Normal procedure would be to wait for backup because they couldn’t be sure the gunman wasn’t still alive or that there wasn’t more than one.
But there were victims in the house who could have been still alive and in need of treatment.
So he and his constable approached the back of the double-wide mobile home, staying spaced apart in the shadows in case they were targeted.
The back door was open, with keys dangling from the knob.
MacCallum took point, entering slowly with his pistol drawn.
“We call it cutting the pies, you increase your angle (of exposure to a room) in incremental amounts without exposing yourself,” said MacCallum.
“There’s no real cover in a mobile home, but there’s concealment.”
As he slowly moved to get a view of the open concept living room/kitchen he saw a pool of blood in the doorway.
'A small dog was sitting beside her'
Entering the room, he saw someone he believed to be Shanna Desmond, lying on the floor to his left with an apparent gunshot wound. She wasn’t moving or apparently breathing.
His first responsibility was to clear the house. So he kept slowly moving into the room.
Next, he saw a male laying on his back with an apparent gunshot wound to his head. A military-style rifle lay across his left arm. It wasn’t rifle returned by the RCMP but a gun, it would turn out, that Desmond purchased shortly before the attack. The gun’s clip was on the kitchen island beside a box, with seven bullets missing, and a large hunting knife.
Spent casings littered the floor around the man’s feet.
He was wearing heavy camouflage clothing but was unrecognizable due to his wound.
MacCallum kept moving around the kitchen island to give him a line of sight down the hallway toward the bedrooms. He saw another victim leaned against the wall. He couldn’t tell at the time, but this was Desmond’s mother, Brenda.
She wasn’t moving.
MacCallum stopped in his recollection at this point in his testimony and took a deep breath.
He took a tissue to wipe his eye.
“I noticed there was a child … a small dog was sitting beside her … she wasn’t moving,” said MacCallum.
This was Aaliyah, 10. A day earlier, Desmond had fretted to a psychiatrist at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish that he feared he had scared his daughter when he hit a table while arguing with Shanna.
MacCallum heard a muffled voice from down the hall and kept moving, clearing rooms as reached the last bedroom in the house.
He yelled loudly that he was a police officer and got no response.
With his constable covering the living room, MacCallum got down on the floor and crawled toward the room.
He found a television left on.
With the house clear, MacCallum radioed for the paramedics staged down on the highway to come up and he returned to check pulses of the victims.
Their bodies were still warm.
Outside, he could hear a the loud cries and shouts of large group of family and community members who had gathered.
He left his constable with the paramedics and went outside.
“It was extremely chaotic,” said MacCallum.
Backup started rolling in.
He assigned duties to officers to keep the scene secure and collect contact information from potential witnesses.
He calmed Shanna’s brother down and convinced him to not try to force his way into the house.
The hours that followed were filled with briefings to senior officers as major crime investigators and forensic identification specialists were dispatched to Upper Big Tracadie.
At about 2 a.m., MacCallum went home.
He didn’t sleep that night.
The next morning he talked to family members of the people who died, telling them the little that he could.
He built a schedule for officers throughout the detachment.
Then MacCallum briefed the officer previously scheduled to replace him so he could go on vacation with his wife for their 20th anniversary.
If you are struggling:
Know the risk factors and warning signs for suicide: https://cmha.ca/documents/preventing-suicide
How to get help: If you or someone you know needs immediate mental health help, go to the nearest hospital, call 911, or call the Nova Scotia crisis line:
- Halifax: 902-429-8167 Toll-free: 1-888-429-8167
- Additional services: www.nshealth.ca/mental-health-addictions http://www.ementalhealth.ca/Nova-Scotia/
Anywhere in Canada, you can contact:
- Kids Help Phone:·1-800-668-6868 https://kidshelpphone.ca/
- Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566 Text: 45645 Chat: crisisservicescanada.ca
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