There is no question that Nathaniel Veltman killed four members of a Muslim family, the Afzaals, and seriously injured a child in London, Ont., but a jury will soon be tasked with trying to answer why.
Is the 22-year-old a terrorist who planned the attack or is he a troubled man who had been successfully resisting violent urges until hallucinogenic drugs weakened his impulse control?
The Crown has provided one explanation while the defence is in the process of providing evidence for the other, with the accused himself as its first witness.
Veltman is charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder after his truck drove “pedal to the metal” into the Afzaal family on June 6, 2021. He has pleaded not guilty in the case, which marks the first time Canada’s terrorism laws are being put before a jury in a first-degree murder trial.
His testimony wrapped up Tuesday, Oct. 24, after the defence had the opportunity to briefly question him for the second time following the Crown’s cross-examination.
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On Thursday, Oct. 12, after providing opening remarks stressing that “the burden of proof is on the Crown, beyond a reasonable doubt” and that the defence “need not call evidence,” lawyer Christopher Hicks announced that the defence would be calling evidence and that the accused would be its first witness.
Veltman 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. Veltman described his mother as “a religious fanatic” and said he was spanked daily, as much as four times a day, as a child and once he was older he’d be assigned as many as four extra hours of chores a day. The only people he interacted with outside of the family were other homeschooled children that his mother approved of, he testified.
At the age of seven, he said his mother showed him pictures depicting torture in hell, images he couldn’t get out of his head. When he was 10 or 11, he said, he was shown Bible verses about condemning violent or evil thoughts and he became anxiously fixated on trying to police his own thoughts, which just made them worse.
His parents split when he was around 15 and, at that time, he testified that his mother finally allowed him to attend public school. When she later refused to sign papers to keep him in the school system, Veltman testified that he emancipated himself from her.
He told the jury he lived in a few places before getting his own apartment, which became a bit of a party house for his high school friends.
In his second day of testimony, Veltman told the jury that after a phase in high school of worrying substance use, he felt he had to return to his fundamentalist roots but he would end up “drinking again or smoking weed again” and feeling guilty because he “promised to God” that he would stop.
His feelings toward pornography were even more fraught, with him smashing his phone, computer or television after watching it and even going so far as to stabbing himself in the genitals on a few occasions.
Testimony then shifted to the 14 months leading up to the attack. Veltman says he experienced “ego death” after a terrifying experience with psilocybin, or mushrooms, in April 2020 that left him “extremely depersonalized and detached from my body” for days afterwards.
He said that he had a longstanding interest in conspiracy theories and distrust of the government, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit he “instantly started believing that this was a big conspiracy,” which made him feel anxious and that he dealt with the anxiety by diving further into the content. In the final few months before the attack, he was spending as many as 11 hours a day online.
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.
After a second attempt at dying by suicide, he told the jury he felt he had “nothing left to lose” and then began diving into content he previously avoided because of what it “triggered” inside of him. He accessed gore content and extremely violent, graphic videos depicting racialized perpetrators and white female victims, which saw his suicidal ideation give way to rage.
He also downloaded the New Zealand mosque attacker’s manifesto and video, which he watched and read repeatedly.
On his third day of testimony, Veltman told the court that he consumed a large amount of mushrooms in the early morning hours of June 5 in the midst of grief over the death of his grandmother the day before.
That evening, a day before the attack, he decided to head to Toronto, where he managed to resist the urge to run down a group of people he believed to be Muslim.
The same urge struck again about an hour before the attack, when he saw a group of people he believed to be Muslim while stopped at a red light in London on his way home from a shift at the egg processing plant in Strathroy.
He told the jury that when he struck the Afzaal family, his “mind was a mess” and that “a split second before it happened, I tried to change my mind and turn the other way but it was too late.”
His lawyer, Hicks, asked if he intended to kill and if what he did was the result of a plan he had. Veltman said he just “felt the urge” to crash into them due to “obsessive thoughts.”
Crown alleges a hatred of Muslims, a researched plan, a belated regret
Under cross-examination, Veltman admitted to the Crown that he identified as a white nationalist and that the beloved grandmother whose death prompted him to seek escape in mushrooms was actually his 101-year-old great-grandmother, whose death was anticipated as she was in palliative care.
“Even though I knew that she was going to go for a while, it still felt like I was losing my grip on myself,” Veltman told court.
Crown attorney Jennifer Moser then asked, “You thought the best way to escape this grief was to take a substance that the last time you took, had you writhing on the floor in pain for hours?”
Moser also noted that Veltman had testified that it was in March 2021 when he decided to stop holding himself back from consuming content he knew would trigger something in him, but that evidence from a computer forensics expert showed that he downloaded and opened the New Zealand mosque attack video on Feb. 15 and opened it again on Feb. 16, 17 and 21.
Veltman responded that it was his pattern to watch everything over and over again.
She noted that in the months leading up to June 6, 2021, he bought a bulletproof vest, a military-style helmet and the pickup truck used in the attack.
The accused agreed with Moser that he last updated his document “A White Awakening” (which he began writing on May 4 and which was initially titled “idk”) on June 1, 2021, days before he consumed mushrooms, though he disagreed with Moser’s characterization of it as a “manifesto.”
Moser highlighted that Veltman wrote the strange note with speeds and percentages listed on it on the morning of June 5 and Veltman admitted that he looked up what happens when pedestrian vehicle accidents occur the day before the attack.
“This was you, clearly planning on killing pedestrians with your vehicle,” Moser suggested.
Veltman disagreed, saying he was “certainly in danger mode” but that he didn’t know what was going to happen.
Twice before the attack, Veltman resisted the urge to step on the gas when he noticed pedestrians he believed to be Muslim and both of those incidents occurred after the June 5 mushroom trip, Moser noted.
As for his suggestion that he tried at the last moment to turn away but it was too late, Moser posited that the slight input to the left on his steering wheel was in order to make sure he hit all five family members.
“No, that was not why I turned to the left,” Veltman said.
She brought up photos of the truck, which show it to have been damaged most heavily on the left side.
Veltman said there was hesitation “just before it happened” and in response to Moser saying he didn’t stop to check on the people he had hit, he responded that he “didn’t want to see what I had done.”
“My adrenaline and horror took over. I turned myself in because I felt sick to my stomach,” Veltman told court.
Repeatedly, Moser referenced direct quotes from Veltman’s two interviews with Det. Micah Bourdeau in the hours immediately following the attack, including his statements that, “I want the world to know what I did,” and, “I don’t regret what I did.”
Repeatedly, Veltman said that he did not have a plan and that the reasons he states for why he did what he did were reasons he came up with after the fact in attempts at making it make sense.
“This entire time, I’m thinking out loud, my mind is racing… even during this interview it still, things aren’t feeling fully real.”
Moser suggested that when Veltman felt the “urge” to drive into the family, the urge “was, in fact, to kill them.”
“I wouldn’t say that. I just felt the urge to drive into them,” he responded.
Moser parried, “What in the world did you think you were going to do when you were driving your truck into them pedal to the metal for four seconds?”
Veltman said he wasn’t thinking, that “there was too much chaos in my mind about whether I was actually going to do it or not.”
“The Crown’s suggestion, sir, is that because you’ve had nothing but time to think about what you did on June 6, 2021, you’ve come up with a new version of what you did,” said Moser.
The Crown concluded its questions and Hicks then had the opportunity to re-examine Veltman. He asked Veltman about his meeting with a Dr. Prekash on June 9, 2021, three days after the attack.
“I spoke about using mushrooms on the Saturday and I said that it felt like I was in a dream and that I slowly came back to reality yesterday,” he said, which would have been June 8, 2021. He added that he had mentioned to the doctor that before he was arrested he was feeling “detached” and like he wasn’t fully in his body.
At that point, Veltman’s time on the witness stand concluded.
What’s next in the trial
Justice Renee Pomerance then addressed the jury, noting that they have seen video of Veltman’s statements to Bourdeau and his trial testimony.
“It will be for you to determine, based on the whole of the evidence, the weight you attach to the statements to Det. Bourdeau on the one hand and Mr. Veltman’s trial testimony on the other,” she explained.
She then noted that the jury has also hear evidence of statements attributed to Veltman, through statements made to Dr. Julian Gojer and to the abovementioned Dr. Prekash.
“Those statements, unlike the trial testimony and the statements to Det. Bourdeau are not admissible for their truth.”
She explained that the jury can use that evidence to consider the differences or similarities to the interviews with Bourdeau and the trial testimony from Veltman.
She stressed that statements are not true just because they are repeated, but “sometimes the timing of a statement is relevant and this is one of those times.” She noted that the Crown suggested Veltman had two years to make up a version of events related to his state of mind at the time of the attack but the statements made to Dr. Prekash shows that those particular statements were not made up over the course of two years.
“It will be up to you to consider what to make of this in the context of the evidence as a whole.”
The next defence witness, Dr. Gojer, was called Tuesday afternoon but only got so far as addressing his areas of expertise before court adjourned for the day.
Proceedings resume Wednesday.
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 Crown has argued that Veltman was motivated by white nationalist beliefs and planned his attack for three months before driving his newly-purchased Dodge Ram truck directly at the Afzaals. Defence counsel has argued that Veltman was a troubled man who was acting on urges and not thinking clearly when he stepped on the gas.
A total of eight weeks have been set aside for the trial, which is being held in Windsor, Ont.