UPPER BIG TRACADIE, N.S. — Aaliyah Desmond celebrated her 10th birthday three days after Christmas. She had just begun horseback riding, and announced to her family on New Year's Eve she wanted to be a veterinarian.
"She always had a nice little smile," her great aunt, Catherine Hartling, said Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the first day back at school after the holidays, RCMP were called to Aaliyah's home in Upper Big Tracadie at about 6 p.m. They found the bodies of four people who had been shot: Aaliyah; her parents Lionel and Shanna Desmond, both in their early 30s; and her 52-year-old grandmother, Brenda Desmond.
Police said her father killed himself, but would not confirm outright the deaths were a murder-suicide, saying only there was no forced entry and no lingering danger to the public.
A police vehicle is parked outside a residence in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S. on Wednesday. (Photo: CP)
Relatives said military veteran Lionel Desmond loved his family, but came back from Afghanistan a changed man.
"Lionel loved his mother, his family, and he was a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder and the memories he didn't want to have," said another relative, Rev. Elaine Walcott. "He was troubled."
A National Defence source said Desmond, 33, was a retired corporal who served with the Second Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment in CFB Gagetown, N.B.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing information not yet made public, said Desmond did one tour of Afghanistan in 2007, and was released in July 2015.
He had received treatment from the joint personnel support unit (JPSU) at Gagetown for a year prior to release, the source said. The JPSU is the unit that provides support to ill and injured soldiers, including mental injuries such as PTSD.
Shanna Desmond (second from left) in a Facebook photo posted May 2016. (Photo: Shanna Desmond/Facebook)
Catherine Hartling, a neighbour and Shanna's aunt, said Desmond trained as a sniper and was diagnosed with PTSD after returning from Afghanistan.
"He was bad then. They tried to get him help," Hartling said. "They sent him up to Montreal, and they sent him back and put him on medication."
Hartling said she was convinced the post-traumatic stress disorder was behind the deaths.
"He seemed sometimes normal, but he could fly off and get upset, swear and go on and on," she said. "He would just fly off the handle really fast. And I'd say, 'You have to get that man help.'"
Walcott said Desmond had recently tried to check himself into a mental health unit at St. Martha's Regional Hospital in nearby Antigonish and was told there were no beds.
Hartling said Desmond didn't get the care he needed.
Brenda Desmond in a Facebook profile photo posted August 2012. (Photo: Brenda Dcesmond/Facebook)
"It's hard when you send someone home to live in a community after what they've seen and been through .... It has to stop. I hope they do an inquiry into this," she said.
The provincial medical examiner's office would not comment Wednesday on the possibility of an inquest.
A Department of Veterans Affairs spokesperson issued a statement calling the deaths "a terrible tragedy," and saying thoughts were with families and friends.
"The department is committed to ensuring eligible veterans, Royal Canadian Mounted Police members, and their families have the mental health support they need, when they need it," the statement said. "We are working hard to ensure that each and every time a veteran comes forward with a mental health concern, they receive the support they need."
Hartling said Lionel and Shanna, 31, went to high school together at nearby Guysborough Academy, and he joined the military after graduating.
"He seemed sometimes normal, but he could fly off and get upset, swear and go on and on."
The family lived for a time in Ontario, where Aaliyah was born, but the family decided to move back to rural Nova Scotia, Hartling said.
Shanna Desmond graduated last year from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, and she now works as a nurse at St. Martha's.
Brenda Desmond was visiting for the holidays, said Hartling. She described the elder Desmond as "a very jolly and outgoing person. Always smiling and joking around. She loved to tease."
Deanna Gillis, a spokeswoman for the Strait Regional School Board, said Aaliyah was a student at Chedabucto Education Centre-Guysborough Academy in Guysborough, N.S.
"There is a huge sense of loss in our community."
Gillis said counselling services would be available to students and staff at the primary to Grade 12 school beginning Thursday for as long as needed.
"There is a huge sense of loss in our community," said Gillis, adding that she doesn't recall anything like this happening before in the rural community roughly 275 kilometres northeast of Halifax. "We're deeply saddened by this heartbreaking loss."
Hartling said she got a call Tuesday evening that "someone was dead on the floor" in the house, which is directly across a rural highway from her small home.
The man's sister and her boyfriend were already there when she went over, she said.
"He came out and he said, 'It's not pretty in there'."
'Everybody's in shock'
The boyfriend said he had called 911 and was told not to let anyone in, Hartling said.
"I said, 'Does anyone have a pulse,' and he said, 'No,'" said Hartling.
Deputy warden Sheila Pelly of the Municipality of the District of Guysborough said the deaths have stunned the community, adding that she knew the people but did not want to comment.
"Everybody's in shock," she said. "They can't believe it."