Warning: This story contains disturbing details
Testifying in his own defence, Nathaniel Veltman detailed a troubled childhood headed by a “passive” father and a “religious fanatic” mother, and then a “process of decline mentally” in the months leading up to June 6, 2021, pickup truck attack on a Muslim family in London, Ont.
“I was constantly watching this conspiracy garbage, this propaganda…. I was trying to figure out why I was in pain. I didn’t know it was because I was consuming this garbage,” the accused told the jury at his murder-terror trial in Ontario Superior Court in Windsor.
The 22-year-old was the first witness for the defence in the trial that began with proceedings Sept. 11 and is expected to last eight weeks.
In brief opening remarks to the jury before his client took to the witness box, defence lawyer Christopher Hicks said, “You will rely on common sense, life experience, your collective wisdom and human logic. It’s an exercise best conducted in a rational and dispassionate manner.
“There are two sides to every story. Presently, you only have the side that the prosecution has advanced. You are not in a position to draw any inferences or come to any conclusions yet.”
Early in his testimony, the accused was speaking so quietly that he had to be told several times by Justice Renee Pomerance to talk louder so the court could hear him.
Most of the day focused on the accused’s strict Christian upbringing in Strathroy and his mother, who he said homeschooled him, his twin sister and their four younger siblings. He said his mother isolated him from the secular world and punished him for perceived disrespect and backtalk.
“I hated her,” he told the jury. “I hated my life situation but I was good at hiding it because I couldn’t show any signs of discontent.”
He said he and his siblings “were told that school was a terrible place and there were increasing conflicts.”
“There was an extreme fear of corruption by the secular world, interactions with other people from the church…. I had to learn to be an expert at hiding my emotions and keeping everything inside.”
By the afternoon, Hicks began asking the accused about some of the evidence and events leading up to the killing of the Afzaal family — the Dodge Ram pickup truck the accused purchased in May, a month before the attack, the grill bar that was on the truck, and the weapons found inside the vehicle after his arrest.
The accused has pleaded not guilty to four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder, as well as associated terrorism charges in the June 6, 2021, attack. Defence and prosecution lawyers agree he drove his pickup truck into the Afzaal family while they were out for a walk.
Yumnah Afzaal, 15, her parents Madiha Salman, 44, and Salman Afzaal, 46, and family matriarch Talat Afzaal, 74, were killed. A nine-year-old boy survived.
Accused says he bought truck to go fishing
The accused testified he bought the truck because he wanted to go fishing with a co-worker, and thought it would be good to use for off-roading.
“I had a lot more money at this time,” he said.
He testified he picked up a grill protector after co-workers encouraged him to get some truck upgrades, and he had gone off-roading with his brother and didn’t want the truck to get scratched.
The accused also testified about some of the items found in his truck after the attack.
He said he had owned the machete since he was 16 because he had seen fights between the “rough crowd” at his high school and he was paranoid. A serrated knife was a gift from his parents, another knife was used to cut twine at his warehouse job and he had an airsoft pistol because he liked playing airsoft games with people he knew from his childhood, he said.
Veltman testified there was little contact with people outside the family while he was growing up, but there were frequent punishments that included bare-bottom spankings, writing out Bible verses and writing lines.
He said he now knows some of the ways he coped with the stress of his childhood are common traits of autism, including making strange noises and chewing the inside of his cheeks until they were “destroyed.”
“She didn’t know that I had mental issues or that I had autism. She misinterpreted my behaviour as me being disrespectful,” he testified about his mom.
While being reprimanded by his mother, words such as “but,” “just” and “stop” were forbidden and seen as disrespectful and talking back, which would lead to more punishment.
The accused testified that when he was 10 or 11, he attributed what he called his “antisocial and bizarre” behaviour in childhood as a product of his isolated childhood and “not being properly socialized.” He learned about something called obsessive compulsive disorder and thought he might have it.
“I knew there was something wrong with me,” he said.
“I was just being tormented that there was something horribly wrong with me. I believed that mental illness was just being the secular world’s explanation of being possessed by demons.”
Shown pictures of people burning alive in hell at the age of seven and told not to think evil or violent thoughts, he said, he became obsessed with not thinking those thoughts, which led to thinking more about them.
“I began to obsess about not thinking about violent and evil things. I was obsessing about it. I was caught in this constant loop. I began to suspect that something was horribly wrong with me, because I’m thinking these things.”
He said that when he told his mom there might be something wrong, she told him it was a spiritual problem.
Any contact with people from outside the family was closely monitored, including access to a church youth group, and when the accused was given access to electronics when he was 14 or 15, there was an app installed on the family computer that would set off an alarm if he accessed something that was forbidden, he said.
When he was finally allowed to go to public high school in Grade 11, he was socially awkward and didn’t make friends easily, he said.
“My social skills were very bad. I didn’t know what was appropriate to say and I guess in some ways, it was culture shock.” He also said he was bullied.
Consuming ‘conspiracy theories’
Veltman said his decline began in September 2020, when he started “consuming a lot of conspiracy theories” online.
“I felt suicidal depression which I had never felt to that extreme, except briefly when I was 11 or 12,” he said. “I didn’t know how to deal with it.”
He said he watched “conspiracy garbage and propaganda” online six or seven hours a day, videos about the coronavirus, the New World Order and the reorganization of society. He said he began to believe that processed food was a biological weapon used to make people passive and compliant, so he destroyed most of the food in his apartment.
“I started to compulsively destroy the things I had in my apartment,” he said, adding he got rid of his TV, sofa, arm chair, Playstation and video games in the hope purging where he lived would help him mentally.
The Crown has said the killing was a result of the accused’s far-right ideology, developed over months of online “research” that included watching videos of mass killings and reading white supremacist manifestos left by those killers, including immediately before leaving his apartment the night of the attack.
Earlier in the trial, the Crown read out parts of the accused’s manifesto, entitled “A White Awakening,” which railed against mass immigration, multiculturalism and perceived crimes against white people.
The jury has also heard that the accused took psilocybin, or magic mushrooms, in the early hours of June 5, 2021, about 40 hours before the attack on the Afzaal family.
Defence promises ‘compelling evidence’
Also testifying during the defence case will be Dr. Julian Gojer, Hicks said.
Gojer is a forensic psychiatrist who will talk about personality disorders, developmental disorders and substance use disorders, including the use of psychedelics and how they affect people.
“Dr. Gojer is qualified to talk about obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, psychosis, complex trauma and other subjects, but most importantly, as you will see, hallucinogenic substances,” Hicks told the jury.
“You can believe all, part or none of what he says, but I suggest you will find it compelling evidence.”
The accused is scheduled to continue testifying on Friday.