WINDSOR – To really understand accused killer Nathaniel Veltman and why he drove his pickup truck into a London Muslim family, a forensic psychiatrist said you have to understand what was going on in his troubled mind.
And once he raised the hood during several meetings with Veltman, Julian Gojer said he found an assortment of overlapping mental health problems.
The list was a long one: persistent depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism spectrum disorder, perhaps Asperger’s, and complex trauma.
Also, Gojer said, Veltman had a personality disorder made up of traits found in schizotypal disorder, paranoid disorder and borderline disorder.
“What’s I’m trying to give you is my understanding, as a psychiatrist, as to how this young man evolved, how it brought him to this point in time and what might have been going on in his mind at the time he drove his truck into five people,” Gojer, an expert witness for the defence, said during his testimony Thursday.
“These are all relevant at the time and we can’t exclude one from the other.”
What he did rule out was a major mental illness when Veltman struck the family with his speeding truck. Veltman “did not have a psychotic episode at the time of the alleged offence,” he said.
Veltman, 22, pleaded not guilty to four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder for the hit-and-run crash on June 6, 2021 that killed Talat Afzaal, 72, her son Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha Salman, 44, and their daughter Yumnah Afzaal, 15. Their son, nine at the time, was injured.
The prosecution is aiming to prove the killings were planned, deliberate and acts of white nationalist terrorism. It’s the first time Canada’s terrorism laws are being argued before a first-degree murder jury.
Veltman told police after he was arrested he had been planning the attack for months and he randomly targeted the family “because they were Muslim.” He said that he wanted to send a message to Muslims to “back off” and to inspire other young white nationalists.
But Veltman, who testified for eight days, said he was in a “dreamlike state” and felt “detached” while coming down from a psilocybin drug trip that made him unable to resist the “urge” to drive his pickup truck into Muslims.
He described to the jury a troubled childhood where he was raised by a “religious fanatic” mother who isolated him from the rest of the world, until he moved out at 16, experimented with drugs and became addicted to online far-right content and the dark web.
Gojer offered lengthy and often complex answers to questions from defence lawyer Christopher Hicks regarding his assessment of Veltman after meeting with him at both the London and Windsor jails and when Veltman was assessed by a team of professionals at the Royal Ottawa Hospital last summer.
Gojer traced Veltman’s mental health problems back to his childhood when he was homeschooled by his mother in a strict Christian household that Veltman described as “hell.” Gojer said Veltman resented his mother, felt he was picked on and couldn’t relate to his siblings. He also developed strange habits and obsessions.
It was difficult to ascertain if Veltman was born with some personality disorders, or if they were learned. “These two components (nature and nurture) have molded Mr. Veltman into who he is even before the alleged offences,” Gojer said.
However, his persistent depressive disorder and his anxiety “waxed and waned” and starting with the strained relationship with his mother and later when he began to attend high school at 15 without the social skills to navigate his new surroundings and started experimenting with drugs to fit in.
He left home at 16, but he already had difficulty relating to other people and family, Gojer said pointing to autism spectrum disorder, and possibly Asperger’s. Those traits included social awkwardness, fixating on various topics and strange behaviours like screeching or chewing the inside of his cheek.
“Here’s a young man growing up who hasn’t had a chance to develop an identity for himself. He’s looking for a niche in society,” Gojer said and added Veltman didn’t feel “loved” or “connected.”
But Veltman thought he was an enlightened and entitled person, leading him to rely on himself and reading sources like the Internet to test his views and “looking for external sources of validation.”
That led to some “distorted views.” “He’s had some unusual thoughts about abortion. He’s had some unusual thoughts about the government…. he develops some mistrust of the system.”
Some obsessions were troubling such as when he was 13, Veltman fixated on abortion and “thought of killing doctors.”
Later, he became obsessed with pornography that was “antithetical to his Christian views.” That conflict led him to stabbing his own genitals and breaking his cellphones.
Defence expert on Nathaniel Veltman: ‘I did not see him as psychotic’
Defence moves to second witness as Nathaniel Veltman finishes testimony
By 2021, when he was obsessing about Muslims, white nationalism and Brenton Tarrant, the mass murderer who killed 51 people at mosques Christchurch, New Zealand, the obsessive-compulsive disorder and the autism spectrum disorder “takes him to a very, very dark place and he can’t let go.”
The internet was a pathway for Veltman to satisfy the obsessions he was trying to resist. “It was getting to the point where it was taking him to a place where the harm themes of the obsessive compulsive disorder were becoming more prominent, especially in the time period leading up to the alleged offences,” Gojer said.
Magic mushrooms, Gojer said, have the potential to trigger “a psychotic episode,” depending on the dose and the type of mushrooms. There might be no side effects during withdrawal, Gojer said, or there could be a “rebound effect” of feeling agitated or distressed. For people with mental health issues, he said, they could worsen the symptoms.
But he stressed he found no evidence of a psychotic episode in Veltman at the time of the hit-and-run.
Gojer is expected to return to the witness box on Friday.