Warning: Readers may find the contents of this story disturbing.
The man accused of deliberately striking a Muslim family in London, Ont., with his pickup truck in June 2021 described religious fanaticism that left him paranoid about demonic possession and in a cycle of shame for consuming pornography, drugs and alcohol.
Nathaniel 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.
Veltman told the jury that after a phase in high school of worrying substance use, he felt he had to return to the fundamentalist roots he had described to the jury the day prior.
He says he started consuming online content that said “mental health isn’t real and it’s just society’s label for demonic possession because society doesn’t want to accept that Christianity is true, that demons are real.”
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He described feeling paranoid that he had damaged his brain from drugs and alcohol and even went to the hospital, where they told him he wouldn’t have damaged his brain based on the information he told them.
“I always ended up drinking again or smoking weed again and I ended up beating myself up about it because I had promised to God that I wouldn’t,” he said.
He said he “became obsessed with pornography” and that watching it was considered a sin, so if he did watch it, he would smash his phone, computer or television. He would then buy new electronics and do it all over again, burning through thousands of dollars and approximately “eight cellphones, three laptops, two TVs and one PlayStation.”
At one point, he said, he told himself that if he ever masturbated again, “I’m going to castrate myself or attempt to.”
He hesitated in telling the jury more, apologizing for it being “difficult to listen to” before saying that he stabbed himself in the genitals on a few occasions as “I promised to God I would try.” He went to hospital on one of these occasions to stop the bleeding.
Experimenting with hallucinogens
Veltman’s testimony also touched on his experiences with psilocybin, or mushrooms. He says he had little bits here and there in high school but took a large amount in April 2020 that resulted in “ego death.”
“Every memory that I had was slowly being wiped. It was like a complete memory wipe and it was a terrifying experience,” he said.
Eventually, “my memories started to come back to me and I started to remember the names of people that I knew, what planet I lived on, what species I was.” He said it was like “being reborn into the world.”
While he said that was a pleasurable experience, in the subsequent days he felt “extremely depersonalized and detached from my body.” That began to recede but feelings of paranoia, which he had often struggled with, grew stronger.
He said he again consumed mushrooms on June 5, 2021, the day before the attack.
He told court his grandmother – whom he looked to as a substitute mother figure, noting the difficult relationship he had with his actual mother – had just died the day before.
He went from viewing his grandmother’s body in bed to visiting his friend and guilt-tripping him into giving him more mushrooms than his friend thought was safe, he testified.
His friend gave him three grams, he said, and he went back to his own place to consume it.
Defence lawyer Christopher Hicks asked him how he reacted to consuming the drug that time, to which Veltman responded, “I tried to just have a good time and I … you want me to say what I looked at on my phone?”
Hicks said yes and Veltman said that he looked up pornography and at this point in his life, he wasn’t beating himself up about pornography like he used to.
Obsessing over conspiracy theories
Veltman told court that when he was around 18 years old his obsessive thoughts transferred to “politics” and “whatever was fringe.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he “instantly started believing that this was a big conspiracy,” which made him feel anxious. He dealt with the anxiety by diving further into the content.
In spring of 2020 he said he was spending about seven hours a day online. By September it was closer to eight or nine hours a day. When it began to interfere with his studies at Fanshawe College, he decided to step back from his part-time job, but he ended up spending even more time online, about 10 or 11 hours a day. He said he got through the semester “by the skin of my teeth.”
Hicks asked Veltman about the blue tape found over the cameras on his computer and phone mentioned as part of the evidence presented by the Crown, which Veltman said was the result of paranoia that the government was spying on him.
Hicks asked if there was any “internet figure” that added fuel to his pre-existing fear of government.
“I consumed lots of material from Alex Jones,” Veltman replied.
Jones is perhaps best known for spreading conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook school massacre. Veltman says Jones spoke “quite a bit” about “Islamic immigration into Europe” and about a “globalist plot” to “disrupt European society.”
The Anti-Defamation League notes that “globalist” is often used as an antisemitic slur. The New York Times reported in 2016 that the term “globalism,” for the far-right, “encapsulates a conspiratorial worldview.”
Veltman also testified that he saw an advertisement for body armour on Jones’ website that sparked a desire to purchase some. He was finally able to order some after finding a website that would ship to Canada.
As for the Tor browser he had on his laptop, he said he was becoming paranoid about government spying.
“It allows you to access certain websites that you can’t access on the regular internet,” he explained, adding that it “scrambles your IP address” to make it harder to track.
He said he would use the Tor browser to access the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website.
Veltman told the jury that he would consume content on conspiracy theory websites, right-wing extremist websites and shock humour websites. Often, the shock humour would be broken up by local news articles of minority-on-white crime, which he says would leave him angry and eventually desensitized him to the offensive humour.
A desire to commit violence
After a second attempt at dying by suicide, Veltman says he thought he had “nothing left to lose” and decided to dive into specific content he had been avoiding because of what it “triggered” inside of him.
He accessed a gore website with “grisly, grotesque content” and “typed in keywords that I knew would get me videos of the content that I decided I wasn’t going to avoid anymore.”
After asking Hicks if he wanted him to describe what he saw, Veltman provided brief synopses of some of the violent videos, which all involved white female victims and racialized perpetrators.
He said his suicidal thoughts gave way to rage and he decided to engage in violence and “avenge these things that I had been seeing.” When the rage subsided, he said he was “disturbed by these thoughts of violence.”
He dropped out of school and returned to work full-time but “at some point in March” he downloaded the New Zealand mosque attacker’s manifesto and a video.
“The first time I watched it, I was horrified and disgusted like a normal person,” he said. But “as a coping mechanism” for the rage he felt after reading about minority-on-white crime, he told court he would rewatch the video, slowly becoming desensitized to it.
When asked if he sought mental health treatment, he said he told himself, “I’m not sick, it’s just hard to be an enlightened individual.”
Court broke for lunch recess, after which the jury was dismissed until Monday afternoon.
An overview of 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.
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.”
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.