London, Ont. attack trial: accused recounts isolated, fundamentalist childhood

Click to play video: 'London attack trial: Jury sees video of suspect’s police interview'
London attack trial: Jury sees video of suspect’s police interview
Jury members of the ongoing trial against a 22-year-old London, Ont. man, who targeted and fatally struck four members of a Muslim family in 2021 — and left a fifth seriously injured — was shown a video of the accused’s interview with police on Friday, where he claimed he commited an act of “terrorism.” Mike Drolet reports – Sep 15, 2023

Warning: Readers may find the contents of this story disturbing.

Nathaniel Veltman has been painting the picture of an isolated childhood that saw him punished frequently for perceived disrespect, traumatized by a fear of hell, and seething with hatred for his mother,  from whom he emancipated himself at the age of 16.

The accused in the London, Ont., vehicle attack trial began testifying Thursday as the defence’s first witness in its case.

Veltman is accused of deliberately hitting five members of the Afzaal family with his truck while they were out for a walk in London on June 6, 2021 in an act prosecutors allege was motivated by white nationalist beliefs.

The 22-year-old has pleaded not guilty to four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. This is the first time Canada’s terrorism laws are being put before a jury in a first-degree murder trial.

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After breaking before the Thanksgiving holiday, the jury returned Thursday to see the defence open its case after the Crown concluded its testimony last week.

Proceedings began with defence lawyer Christopher Hicks stressing to the jury that while “this is a terrible event and four innocent people died,” it’s important to approach the case in a rational manner.

“To be convicted of murder, an accused person must hold an intention to kill,” Hicks said.

“Our position is that an intention to kill was not formed.”

Hicks said that the jury cannot come to any conclusions until hearing all of the evidence, which will include evidence from an expert witness, Dr. Julian Gojer, who will be able to speak on mental health issues and “most importantly as you will see, about hallucinogenic substances.”

“The only presumption in the court of law is the presumption of innocence and it exists until you say otherwise,” he said.

“An accused person need not call evidence, need not prove anything. The burden of proof is on the Crown, beyond a reasonable doubt, and it never, ever shifts.”

However, Hicks said the defence will be calling evidence and its first witness will be Nathaniel Adam Richard Veltman.

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After a brief recess, Justice Renee Pomerance instructed the jury that Hicks had referred to certain concepts of law, intention to kill and planning and deliberation among them, in “short-form.” She noted that there are additional ways to prove intent to kill, for example.

“I intend no criticism of Mr. Hicks,” she explained.

“But it is important that you know that you must take the law from me as I instruct you on it. At the end of the case, I will give you full instructions.”

Following her remarks, Veltman then walked to the stand.

Wearing a blue and white striped shirt and a dark blazer, Veltman was periodically reminded to speak up in order to be heard clearly.

He told the jury he was born Dec. 20, 2000, in London and raised on three-quarters of an acre in Strathroy on a semi-rural property. He was the second oldest of six children, as his twin sister was born a couple of hours before him.

He went to a Christian school for pre-kindergarten before the family started homeschooling.

Hicks asked Veltman about how his mother instructed him and whether she was religious.

“Religion definitely played a big role in the teaching. Every course was created by some Christian organization,” he testified.

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“She definitely was a religious fanatic. She was extreme.”

Veltman said he was often in conflict with his mother.

“She didn’t know that I had mental issues or that I had autism. She often misinterpreted my behaviour in that I was being disrespectful.”

He said he was spanked daily and, at the worst of it, as many as four times a day. Even telling her to stop was considered disrespect, he said. He also wet the bed until he was around 11 years old.

In answering Hicks’ questions, Veltman continued to describe an isolated childhood when the few interactions he had outside of his immediate family were with other homeschooled children that his mother approved of. Even the local church youth group was prohibited until he was a teenager over fear of outside influence and he was only allowed to see his cousins at family functions.

“We were taught that schools brainwash kids and they’re trying to believe in evolution and not be Christian. I didn’t have contact with anyone outside of this approved group of people that we periodically saw.”

He said that if he cried during a punishment or asked her to stop, he could be “punished again or spanked again or yelled at more.”

“I had to learn to not show it. I just began … I just turned into this cauldron of rage.”

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Once spankings stopped, punishments could include being assigned extra chores, he said, which escalated to him having as many as four hours of extra chores in a day.

He described struggling with what he now knows to be autism and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, demonstrated through “very abnormal” social skills and obsessive thoughts.

“When I was seven, she showed me these pictures of people being tortured and burned in hell. … She said this is what happens to everyone who isn’t Christian,” he testified.

“Maybe I was oversensitive or something, I don’t know, I couldn’t get the picture out of my mind.”

When he was 10 or 11, he testified, he was shown Bible verses “about condemning violent thoughts or condemning evil thoughts.”

“I was caught in this loop of thinking where I’m constantly thinking to myself, ‘Don’t think evil things, don’t think violent things,’” which just made the bad thoughts worse, he said.

“Finally, at some point I told her, ‘Mom, it’s still happening. I really need to see a professional.’ … I remember this pretty specifically. She lashed out and freaked out. She grabbed me and pulled me into a bedroom and began screaming at me, accusing me of wanting to kill the family.”

She told him he could sleep in the barn, he said.

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As another example of discipline and punishment in the household, he explained that when he “mustered the courage” to tell her he disagreed with how she’d grab his siblings and pull them into the bedroom for a spanking while they were kicking and struggling, she said, “OK fine, you have to drag her to the room now.”

His isolation lifted slightly in his teenage years, he testified, when his parents separated and he pushed harder to be allowed to attend public school.

While his mother relented in consenting for him to attend high school in Grade 11, she later refused to sign forms necessary to keep him in school, he said. He contacted a lawyer and was able to successfully emancipate himself at the age of 16, he testified.

Veltman told court that two weeks after he turned 16, his mother had agreed to let him move out and live with an older couple that she approved of, but he later left to stay with a friend because he felt she was continuing to try to parent him through the couple. He then moved in with a girlfriend, whom he dated for about 10 months.

During this time, Veltman said the police twice showed up to his place of work, an egg processing plant in the Strathroy area, asking if he was a runaway.

He said his dating situation was among the “push-pull factors” in his decision to leave home as his mother would only allow him to do courting and chaperoned dates “the same way the Duggars did.”

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While glad to be at school, he had a difficult time making friends and gravitated towards other “outcasts.” When he finally got his own apartment, it became a “party house” for his friends.

Veltman testified that he had saved up and bought a Pontiac Wave when he was 16 and had it until he blew the engine while driving drunk in early 2021, when he was 20. Until he purchased the Dodge Ram pickup truck roughly two weeks before the attack, he would carpool to work in Strathroy with co-workers who also lived in London.

Hicks asked Veltman about the grill protector and warranty on the truck, with Veltman noting that he got the warranty because he had a history of driving foolishly and he purchased a grill protector after scratching up the truck while off-roading with his brother. He also purchased a tonneau cover, saying “Cody at work told me it would save me money on gas” because it would reduce drag.

As for the knives in the truck and on his person at the time of his arrest, Veltman testified that he kept a machete in the Pontiac Wave and then in the Dodge Ram because he “was kind of paranoid” and had seen some violent fights in high school and because he “liked collecting weapons.” He says the serrated knife was a “survival knife” given to him as a gift when he was a child. The sheath knife on his belt he purchased for use at work, cutting plastic twine, however, his boss told him work policy would not allow knives unless they were retractable or foldable, he testified.

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He told the jury that the airsoft pistol he had was for hobby use.

“It’s similar to paintball but it’s cheaper.”

He added that he worked so often he usually wore his steel-toed work boots all the time and that he also wore cargo pants for work. He said he was working the day of the attack.

While Veltman seemed relatively calm – if a bit nervous – throughout the day’s testimony, he grew agitated and withdrawn when he began recounting falling into a deep depression and starting to “decline mentally” beginning in April 2020, over a year before the attack.

Looking directly ahead and avoiding eye contact with his defence lawyers while answering questions, Veltman repeatedly told the jury that he knows it “doesn’t make any sense” and “isn’t logical” but that he fell into conspiracy theories and became addicted to online content.

“I started to retreat into this, use it to cope, and it became worse and I started to constantly watch these conspiracy, this conspiracy garbage and propaganda,” he says. At this point, he felt “this suicidal depression.”

“I thought maybe I damaged my brain when I overdosed on psychedelics back in April (of 2020).”

By September 2020, he was spending six or seven hours a day online and from there it “got worse.”

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“At some level I tried to regulate it. I used the pornography blockers I used in the past when I was religious,” he testified, saying even though they weren’t built for that use they would usually block other extreme content.

It never worked long, though, and he would find ways around it. He said he started to think maybe he was depressed because of clutter so he ripped the TV off the wall, destroyed the coffee table, had a garbage company take the couch and sawed apart his TV stand.

“I had this compulsion to start destroying things. I don’t know why.”

Court adjourned for the day just before 4:30 p.m. and will resume on Friday.

The Crown’s case

In the first weeks of the trial, the jury heard and viewed police interviews, manifestos, video surveillance and nearly 20 witnesses as part of the Crown’s case.

Federal prosecutor Sarah Shaikh delivered her opening statement on Sept. 11, arguing that Veltman was motivated by white nationalist beliefs and had planned his attack for three months before driving his newly purchased Dodge Ram truck directly at the Afzaals.

Salman Afzaal, 46, his 44-year-old wife Madiha Salman, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna, and her 74-year-old grandmother, Talat Afzaal, were killed in the London attack. The couple’s nine-year-old son was also seriously hurt but survived.

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The official causes of death for all, as read to the jury on Sept. 27, were listed as “multiple trauma.” The jury also heard that Talat Afzaal likely died on impact.

The jury was also shown videos from two police interviews with Veltman that took place soon after the incident, at 1:30 a.m. and again at 9:55 a.m. on June 7, 2021, and heard testimony from the detective who conducted those interviews.

In the first video, Veltman speaks with conviction and energy, repeatedly apologizing to Det. Micah Bourdeau for going on “rants” or “tangents.”

Veltman mentions the 2016 U.S. election as the first time he noticed that the media was “very dishonest.” He mentions feeling like he was “in jail” doing online schooling in his home amid COVID-19 for so long before he started looking further into “minority-on-white crime.”

He said that he wanted to “inspire more young men to stop sitting around and letting this happen” and chose to use a truck instead of guns because “in the U.K., their guns are very hard to get a hold of” but that “you can use a vehicle, it works.”

In the second video, however, he was decidedly less energetic and appeared withdrawn.

“I’ve already told you quite a bit,” Veltman says. “Not really sure I can say much more than that right now.”

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The Crown’s evidence also included testimony from a digital forensics expert with the Windsor Police Service. Sgt. Liyu Guan said a file titled “idk” on an Acer laptop’s Notepad app was an early version of “A White Awakening,” the manifesto prosecutors allege was penned by Veltman.

A USB drive linked to Veltman also contained the manifesto of the New Zealand mosque gunman and a video of that mass shooting, and was opened multiple times in the months leading up to the attack, Liyu testified.

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