Inside the mind of a killer: What we now know about Alexandre Bissonnette’s Quebec mosque shooting plot
Quebec City mosque shooter Alexandre Bissonnette met with multiple psychiatrists while incarcerated. On Monday, he re-appeared in court where the judge determined a date for when his lawyers will try to prove the maximum sentence he faces of 150 years in prison is unconstitutional.
Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six more counts of attempted murder. His lawyers argue that consecutive life sentences without chance of parole for longer than Bissonnette will be alive constitute “cruel and unusual punishment.”
During the sentencing hearing at the end of April, four experts – two psychiatrists and a forensic psychologist for the defence, as well as a psychologist for the Crown, presented detailed reports, revealing numerous previously undisclosed facts about the shooter’s childhood, medical and psychiatric history and his plans of suicide and murder. Here is what expert testimony has revealed about the killer’s inner thoughts:
On the morning of Jan. 29, 2017, Bissonnette woke up in the apartment shared with his twin brother, and thought to himself miserably, “It’s the last day before I return to work.”
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He wished he had more time. For the previous month, he’d been on medical leave from his part-time job at the Quebec City blood bank – and even if his mother thought he should be able to work and live independently, he felt like he couldn’t. He was too depressed, too anxious, too tired. It was the same reason he couldn’t enrol for the winter semester at Laval University.
“It’s as if it wasn’t important anymore. I abandoned everything,” Bissonnette explained after his arrest.
Six months earlier, his parents had pushed the 27-year-old and his fraternal twin out of the house where they grew up in their Cap-Rouge neighbourhood, believing it was time for their sons to become independent. Bissonnette, who battled anxiety and depression throughout his life, says his anxiety only increased while living on his own and he thought about suicide a lot.
He was worried his parents would find out that he was suicidal. He also worried that the police would come and take away the guns he was storing at his parents’ house.
A licensed gun owner since 2014, Bissonnette lied on his application form that he had no history of psychiatric problems, nor any suicidal thoughts. But the truth was that once he bought a handgun, he tried to take his life numerous times. He felt as if he was at the end of his rope, and what’s more, he was mad at himself for not being able to do it already, not being able to kill himself.
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On that cold Sunday morning in the final days of January, he had also become convinced the police would come and arrest him. Two months earlier, on Nov. 26, 2016, Bissonnette put two handguns and 50 bullets in his backpack and drove to Place Laurier, one of the largest shopping malls in Canada.
He got out of his vehicle, loaded one of the pistols in the parking lot, before thinking, “What am I doing?”
He then noticed a security camera. Changing his mind, he went to a nearby Starbucks where he worked on his laptop for a bit, before going home. But it would only be a matter of time, he thought, before someone would see him on the security footage.
Morning of Jan. 29, 2017
By the morning of Jan. 29, he was sure that soon the police would come and arrest him. He took a quick shower, made himself breakfast and pulled up the New York Times website on his laptop. More stories about Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. The night before, he’d pored over articles about the ban, both in favour and against, along with Google searches of mass shooters and suicide.
He also Googled “Paxil surreal feeling” — he’d been prescribed the anti-depressant only a month earlier — and he watched a few videos of “sexy girls” on YouTube. He’d later admit to psychiatrists in prison that his relationships with women were limited to a few “one-night stands.”
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By late morning on Jan. 29, Bissonnette went out to buy alcohol, a 750-millilitre bottle of sake. He picked up food at a restaurant and went back to the apartment. By early afternoon, he started drinking.
Bissonnette spent a good part of the day on his laptop. He looked up the Twitter profiles of American TV personalities, Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly. Then he jumped over to Facebook and looked at the page of far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Then for the umpteenth time that month, he returned to the pages of James Gamble and Justin Bourque.
Gamble killed himself in 2015, before allegedly planning a mass shooting at the Halifax Shopping Centre. Bourque shot five New Brunswick RCMP officers, killing three in 2014.
Contemplating a mass shooting
Bissonnette felt “connected” to mass shooters. At 15, he became interested in the Columbine shooting. As a child with lots of allergies, asthma, and a persistent cough, he was picked on for his frail stature. In high school, the bullying even became physically violent at times, with bigger kids grabbing him by the collar and shoving him up against the lockers.
“It’s because of them that I want to commit suicide,” he thought at the time, imagining what it would be like to kill his harassers or burn down the school. He began listening to heavy metal, the same music as one of the Columbine shooters.
“It was like an obsession, the thing that interested me the most in life … it gave my life meaning,” he told psychiatrist Dr. Marie-Frédérique Allard.
In 2014, he became obsessed with another mass shooting, this time in California. At first, he told Allard that the idea made him depressed and Bissonnette fantasized about going back in time and preventing shooter Elliot Rodger from doing it.
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“It was crazy to do that,” he told Dr. Allard that he thought at the time. “I just wanted to commit suicide.”
In August that year, he tried to. However, with his brother in the house, he couldn’t bring himself to hang himself, as he’d planned, in the back shed.
Looking back, Bissonnette said he believes “that’s when things took a sinister turn,” he told forensic psychologist, Marc-André Lamontagne who testified for the Crown.
By then, the idea of “just” killing himself started to seem weak. And the idea of committing a mass shooting felt exciting.
“I was, like, obsessed by the power that gave them.”
By the summer of 2015, these thoughts became obsessive. He fluctuated between hopelessness and feeling angry at everyone. The idea of suicide became “more urgent.”
“I needed to do something big before I committed suicide, even if there was a part of me that didn’t want to … I needed to do something with my life. You can’t waste yourself like that,” he later told Lamontagne. “You’re not going to let yourself die a nobody.”
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But his conscience wouldn’t let him. He couldn’t justify a mass murder-suicide where innocent people would be killed. However, at the end of December 2016, he unintentionally drove by the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Centre and that’s when he started thinking about the mosque in the city’s Sainte-Foy neighbourhood as his future target.
He had been reading more about immigration and Islamist terrorism and taken an interest in the American election. He found that it was easier to justify to himself that there was a dangerous fanatic or a terrorist in the mosque and he told himself that if he eliminated them, then maybe he could do some good.
For the next month, Bissonnette routinely Googled “mosque Desjardins,” in reference to the Quebec City mosque and looked at the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Centre Facebook page. He saved floor plans of the mosque on his laptop.
Evening of Jan. 29, 2017
On Jan. 29, he made those same searches again. By that evening, he could feel the effects of the liquor he’d been drinking all afternoon. He drove to his parents’ house for “his last supper,” he thought, and didn’t let his parents see that he was drunk. At 5:28 p.m. he looked at a tweet Justin Trudeau had sent in response to Trump’s travel ban, welcoming refugees and other immigrants to Canada. As he later told the police interrogator, that tweet made him “lose it.”
For the next hour after that, he visited the Guardian, ABC and CBC news websites, watched a video of Ed Sheeran on YouTube, and several other videos of the Glock 17 and then, once again, he visited James Gamble’s Facebook page.
He then went down to his bedroom, took out his rifle and two 30-bullet magazines (illegal in Canada) and placed them in a soft guitar case. He told his parents he was going to the gun range. In his pocket, he had a 9-millimetre Glock handgun.
He thought, “I’m never coming back home.”
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Sometime after 7 p.m., Bissonnette’s cellphone rang. It was his father, telling him the gun range was closed. Bissonnette replied that he was going to make a stop at the grocery store instead.
“Why don’t you come home right now?” his father asked.
Bissonnette shot back bitterly that his father should stop controlling everything and stop telling him what to do. His anger rising, he became even more determined to carry out his plan.
He drove to the mosque and parked on a side road near an apartment building. He had looked up the prayer times online and knew there were dozens of people inside at that very minute, but he thought, “I can’t do this.”
He drove away from the mosque and to a nearby convenience store where he purchased a Vodka Ice. And once back in his car, he downed it rapidly. As he recounted later, he began to feel more uninhibited.
He drove back to the Islamic Cultural Centre and sat for a moment in his car. He spotted a passerby and thought the pedestrian had seen him with his guns. He thought that it wouldn’t be long before he was reported and so if he didn’t act now, he’d soon be arrested.
“I no longer had an exit. I told myself, ‘Go!’”
“I was searching for control. At least in these last moments of my life, I was going to be like God. I was going to decide life or death. After being tormented, at least once in my life, I would have the big end of the stick,” he told Lamontagne.
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Inside the mosque, the prayers had finished and worshipers were slowly getting ready to leave, while many stragglers were still talking and laughing. Four children played quietly together in the corner.
Out of nowhere, they heard gunshots. Outside, taken by surprise in the icy cold, Ibrahima Barry and Mamodou Tanou Barry were the first victims.
As many inside the mosque began running in panic towards a back room, where dozens would take shelter, one of the men came up with a plan that could save them.
Azzedine Soufiane, a butcher shop owner as well as a friend and mentor for many newcomers and members of Quebec City’s Muslim community, caught the eye of Dr. Merouane Rachidi, as they saw the lone shooter come into the main prayer room of the mosque.
“It is just a single person, we shouldn’t be afraid,” Soufiane told Rachidi, before lunging at the shooter, and nearly forcing him to drop his gun.
Ahmed Cheddadi, another witness, later told a Quebec City courtroom: “I will never forget how this cold-blooded individual shot at everyone … I will never forget the images of blood, of death, of bodies after the carnage …”
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“He is a monster who terrorized a whole community – the whole city – killing in a place of worship,” Cheddadi said.
“The people who were shot that night, were the best among us,” Ibrahim Sbai later testified in court.
When Bissonnette didn’t see anyone else moving, he stopped shooting. He looked around. All of a sudden, he felt alone. He ran out of the mosque and as fast as he could back to his car. His plan now? Drive to Charlevoix, a place he used to go camping as a child, where he could lie down on the ground, stare up at the stars. That’s where he’d kill himself. Finally.
The experts testified that Bissonnette collaborated with them and willingly answered their questions. Not that he never lied – for months during his incarceration he pretended to hear voices, something he later told a prison social worker he’d lied about.
“I could have killed anyone. I wasn’t targeting Muslims,” he said. “I wanted glory.”
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He continued, “I regret not killing more people. The victims are in heaven and I live in hell. I want to plead guilty. I told my lawyer and my parents. My parents support me. I did research on serial killers and they are my idols.”
The experts agreed Bissonnette knew what he was doing. The psychologist for the Crown, Dr. Gilles Chamberland, described his actions like this:
“This crime was too egotistical to be a terrorist act … This is someone who was seeking revenge … life was hard and painful …and for once in his life he could be powerful, famous.”
Some of the expert witnesses suggested that his plans to commit suicide were not carried through with because the effects of the alcohol wore off.
After running out of the mosque, Bissonnette thought to himself — what had he done? He got into his car and realized he had no alcohol left.
He started driving, wanting to kill himself, but decided he “couldn’t leave like this.”
Fourteen minutes after the shooting, Bissonnette changed his mind about going to Charlevoix and he called 911.
Judge François Huot will hear arguments about the constitutionality of Bissonnette’s serving consecutive life sentences on June 18, 19 and 20 in Quebec City.
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