Court ruling on military insurance policy sheds light on murder-suicide

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A dispute over who should benefit from a life insurance policy is offering a glimpse into the tragic events leading to the deaths of a former soldier and his family in a 2017 murder-suicide that rocked a small Nova Scotia community.

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Lionel Desmond, a former member of the Canadian Armed Forces suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, shot and killed his wife Shanna, his 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah, and his mother Brenda before turning the gun on himself in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S.

At issue in the court case is who should benefit from the life insurance policy Lionel Desmond had with the Service Income Security Insurance Plan for Canadian military members.

Lionel Desmond named his mother Brenda as the beneficiary of the insurance policy. But if Brenda Desmond had died before her son, the life insurance policy would have passed to the contingent beneficiary, Greg MacEachern. It is unclear what the connection between Desmond and MacEachern was.

In a decision released Monday, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Nick Scaravelli ruled that Brenda Desmond’s estate should receive the insurance benefit. To reach that conclusion, the judge relied on information from two coroners and from RCMP officers who responded to the family home.

Shanna Desmond and her daughter were among the four people who died in a murder-suicide at a home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S. (Facebook)

The evidence Scaravelli used lays out details of how the day unfolded.

According to the decision, Lionel Desmond went to a hunting equipment store in Antigonish County at 4 p.m. on Jan. 3, 2017. He left there 30-45 minutes later after purchasing a rifle and ammunition.

He later drove his vehicle to a logging road close to the home where his mother, wife and daughter were living.

Shortly after, George Desmond received a call from his sister, Brenda, telling him to come over as quickly as possible because “the boy just shot his wife.” 

Within moments, Brenda Desmond would also be shot, along with her granddaughter.

Police vehicles are seen outside the Desmond residence in Upper Big Tracadie on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Lionel Desmond’s sister, Chantel, and her partner arrived at the Desmond home around 6 p.m. Earlier that afternoon, Aaliyah had called her aunt to ask her for a drive to an after-school program.  

Chantel Desmond discovered the bodies of her brother and his wife on the kitchen floor. She immediately left the house and called 911. She went back into the house and discovered the bodies of her mother and her niece. RCMP officers were on the scene by 6:20 p.m.

Police said two of the victims were still warm to the touch, but paramedics would subsequently confirm that all four people were dead.

Brenda Desmond was one of the four people who died in the murder-suicide. (Facebook)

A coroner from Ontario, Dr. Sangita Sharma, was asked by the court to review the autopsies that were performed on the members of the Desmond family. Sharma concluded that Lionel Desmond, who shot himself in the head, died instantly, whereas Brenda Desmond, who was shot in the back, died more slowly from blood loss.

Based on those findings, Justice Scaravelli concluded that Brenda Desmond outlived her son and therefore her estate was entitled to the insurance.

The lawyer for Lionel Desmond’s estate, Adam Rodgers, said the estate did not take a position on this court hearing. But Rodgers said he was not surprised by the outcome.

The lawyer for Greg MacEachern, William Meehan, declined to comment when reached by CBC News.

CBC News contacted the lawyers for the other parties in the court action, but they weren’t immediately available for comment.

A public inquiry into this case will begin hearing evidence in September in Guysborough, N.S.


Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service

Toll-free 1-833-456-4566

Text: 45645

Chat: crisisservicescanada.ca 

In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces and their families can also find mental health support here:

  • Counselling under the Member Assistance Program at 1-800-268-7708;
  • The 24/7 Family Information Line at 1-800-866-4546.
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