This is part of my ongoing series on Canadian Mass Murders.
Update #1: A judge approved John Brittain’s motion to move his trial to Kelowna on May 14, 2020. On May 22nd he will be back in court to schedule a date for that trial.
Update #2: BC Prosecution Service spokesman Dan McLaughlin announced Brittain’s trial will begin October 5, 2020 in Kelowna. A pre-trial conference is scheduled for September 17th. The trial is expected to last four weeks.
Update #3: John Brittain pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder on October 14, 2020. He was sentenced to life in prison and is not eligible for parole for 25 years.
The full story is below.
At 10:30am on April 15, 2019, the day after Gordon Parmenter was murdered at the Salmon Arm Church of Christ, 68-year-old John Brittain shot and killed Rudi Winter outside his Penticton home, then drove to the homes of Darlene Knippelberg and Susan and Barry Wonch and killed them too.
The victims are all neighbours of Brittain’s ex-wife Katherine Brittain, who news reports say was in a protracted dispute with Knippelberg and the Wonchs.
At 11:30 a.m., Brittain, a retired City of Penticton civil engineer, turned himself in at the Penticton RCMP detachment.
He took less than an hour to kill four people and destroy the lives of countless other family and friends of the victims.
“We’re still trying to find the motive for this whole incident, so that’s part of the ongoing investigation. Indications right now are that all four were targeted,” said Superintendent Ted De Jager, commander of South Okanagan-Similkameen RCMP.
A Quiet and Unassuming Man
“John is a quiet, unassuming kind of person,” Dave Folstad, Sr. told CTV News. “Easy to talk to, friendly – to just knock on the door and he’d come for a walk with me. He’s a warm, respectable person and I’ve never seen him raise his voice. He’s not the kind of person who you would expect to have any enemies.”
Preliminary Inquiry Waived, Trial Delayed
On Monday, December 9, 2019, Crown and defence lawyers were in court to schedule a preliminary inquiry but Paul McMurray, Brittain’s lawyer, said his client waived his right to a preliminary inquiry and elected for a trial by judge and jury.
A no-contact order between John Brittain and his ex-wife Katherine Brittain was renewed as well.
Surprise Guilty Plea
John Brittain’s scheduled 4-week trial was set to begin on October 5, 2020. On Friday, October 2, 2020, news of a settlement between Sarah Young, daughter of Susan and Barry Wonch, and John Brittain broke.
At the same time, defence counsel announced John Brittain now planned to plead guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder.
That plea was entered into the record on October 14, 2020, and B.C. Supreme Court Justice Alison Beames sentenced John Brittain to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.
John Brittain will almost certainly die behind bars because he chose to murder four people over a series of petty grievances by his ex-wife, Katherine Brittain.
Crown Describes Events of Fateful Day
This overview of the murders is courtesy of Michael Rodriguez of the Penticton Western News.
Crown counsel Colin Forsyth said John Brittain and his ex-wife maintained a relationship following their 2012 separation. Brittain would often visit his wife in the home they formerly occupied together on Cornwall Drive, sometimes on a daily basis. Over time, the two developed issues with Katherine’s neighbours.
Katherine would often tell her husband of her grievances with her neighbours, including a tree being cut down, smoke pouring from a chimney towards her property and said she felt ‘bullied’ by those living next door.
Over the years, those issues came to a tipping point on April 15, 2019.
Brittain spotted Winter outside his rental home that morning, which was located in downtown Penticton. Winter was helping a friend with some housework.
He loaded a gun, walked across the street and called out to Winter. As he was turning around, Brittain shot him five times — the last of which was to his head.
He then drove to Cornwall Drive, approached the garage door of the Wonch residence with another gun and knocked. Barry and Susan Wonch were inside. He shot both of them twice, Crown said.
Taking the same gun, he went to Knippelberg’s home, knocked on her door and shot her three times.
Brittain then drove to the Penticton RCMP detachment to turn himself in. He the woman working the front desk at the detachment that he was “the guy who just shot four people.”
He told police he “snapped” when he saw Winter outside his home after years of hearing his ex-wife complain about her neighbours — and realized he had the means to end it.
Sarah Young’s Lawsuit Dismissed
Sarah Young, daughter of murder victims Susan and Barry Wonch, filed a lawsuit for damages against John Brittain and his ex-wife Katherine Brittain for the deaths of her parents.
Sarah Young’s lawsuit for damages was dismissed on Friday, October 2, 2020, with the consent of both parties. This most likely means an out-of-court settlement was reached, as the lawsuit can only be dismissed when both parties agree.
The details of any settlement will likely never be known.
Zachary Charles Steele Pleads Guilty to Vandalizing Katharine Brittain’s Home
Zachary Charles Steele, the son-in-law of murder victim Rudi Winter, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation after he threw a rock through the window of the home of John Brittain’s estranged ex-wife. On top of a one-year probation order, Steele is to have no contact with Katherine Brittain and must stay at least 500 metres from her home.
“There’s no lawful excuse for what he did, but, in the circumstances, I would submit, it’s understandable how he took out his frustrations,” said defence counsel James Pennington.
Katharine Brittain’s Statement
Katherine Brittain released the following statement through her lawyer, Michael Welsh, after her ex-husband was sentenced to life in prison.
Ms. Brittain remains shocked and saddened by the actions of John Brittain, whom she divorced in January 2014. Despite groundless rumours, she wishes the community to know that she never wished any harm to any of the deceased victims.
She had no prior knowledge that Mr. Brittain intended to kill anyone, and never suggested that he do so.
She was and remains devastated and appalled by these killings.
The problems she had reported to the City of Penticton of two neighbours violating city bylaws were ones she was dealing with through proper channels with the city.
She never wanted Mr. Brittain to be involved, and never imagined he could act as he did.
Mr. Brittain’s actions destroyed the lives of the families of the victims, and Ms. Brittain’s own life. She cannot fathom how he could ever believe that, in taking these lives, he was somehow helping her. That he did so, thinking he was acting on her behalf, is a burden she will carry her whole life .
The judge at his sentencing hearing this week stated she accepted as fact that no one, which includes Ms. Brittain, had any idea that Mr. Brittain would do what he did.
As was acknowledged by Mr. Brittain in court, my client is also a victim of his actions. She has been terrorized, and her property has been significantly vandalized as a result of blame for his actions being baselessly attached to her.
She only hopes that with Mr. Brittain taking proper responsibility for his actions, and the court sentencing him appropriately, the Penticton community can begin to heal and that people, particularly the families of the victims with whom she deeply sympathizes, will accept that she had no part in his horrific actions.