There should be no eligibility for parole for 40 years for a former city worker who pleaded guilty to shooting four people to death in Penticton, B.C., last year, says a Crown attorney.
John Brittain, 69, pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder in B.C. Supreme Court in Kelowna on Wednesday, saying he “snapped” and shot the victims over a neighbourhood dispute involving his estranged wife.
Crown attorney Colin Forsyth argued Brittain must face consecutive terms for the “execution-style” killings of each victim.
“Society needs to be able to express its collective outrage over what has happened,” Forsyth said.
The defence is asking for 25 years before eligibility for parole.
Justice Alison Beames asked Brittain, as he sat in the prisoner’s box, if he understood that he will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.
“That is correct,” he said.
Family members of the victims sat directly behind him, separated by a clear Plexiglas barrier. They sobbed as details of the crimes were read aloud to the courtroom, outlining how Brittain ended four lives in less than 45 minutes.
Brittain was charged with murder after the shootings on April 15, 2019. Rudi Winter, Darlene Knippelberg and Barry and Susan Wonch, all in their 60s or 70s, were killed in what became the deadliest shooting in Penticton’s history.
The neighbours were all shot at their homes.
An agreed statement of facts read to the court said that Brittain shot Winter first, just after 10:30 a.m. local time. Winter lived next to Brittain’s rental home.
The court heard he approached Winter as he was standing by his vehicle on the street.
Brittain called out to Winter, and before the victim could turn around, Brittain started shooting, firing three more shots as Winter lay on his back, Forsyth told court.
He picked up the shell casings and drove to a bank, walked to the ATM and withdrew $200, Forsyth said.
From there, Brittain drove to the home of Barry and Susan Wonch and shot the couple in their garage with a second firearm, loading a live round between each shot, he said.
Brittain calmly told a motorist who slowed down and saw a body in the garage to keep going.
Brittain then walked to Knippelberg’s home, knocked on her door and shot her twice, including once in the head when she lay on the ground, he said.
Forsyth said police were aware of three victims when Brittain turned himself in and that he told them of a fourth.
Brittain, facing forward and flipping through a stack of papers in front of him in court, showed no reaction as the families cried.
Motivation for the crimes
After shooting Knippleberg, Brittain drove himself to the Penticton RCMP detachment a short distance away and, at 11:15 a.m., told the front desk he wanted to turn himself in to police. Asked why, he responded that he had just killed four people and explained where he had left their bodies.
Brittain and his former wife were not living together at the time of the shootings, but Brittain told officers he committed the murders to settle a dispute between the victims and his wife.
In the agreed statement of facts, he said he’d never seen any mistreatment of his wife firsthand but had been around “long enough” to know “what was going on.” He also said the murders were his decision alone.
Statements from family members
Renate Winter told the court in a victim impact statement that her 71-year-old husband was a humble, kind and hard-working person who died a brutal and violent death.
The couple’s daughter, Tanya Steele, said she heard shots on the morning of her father’s murder but had no idea he was the target.
Brittain “took away my rock. He took away my sense of feeling safe,” she said, sobbing. “We’re a strong family. You can’t take that from us,” she said to Brittain.
A quadruple-murder trial for Brittain was set to begin in Kelowna on Oct. 5, but, unexpectedly, his lawyer said Brittain had decided to plead guilty and forgo a trial.
Brittain worked for the city’s engineering department for several years until his retirement “due to an illness” in 2016.