British Columbia

B.C. man who killed 4 in Penticton shootings sentenced to life with no parole for 25 years

John Brittain, who shot four people to death in Penticton, B.C., over a neighbours' dispute, has been sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.

'I am shattered and devastated for what I have done,' John Brittain tells court

John Brittain walks into provincial court in Penticton, B.C., in handcuffs in April 2019. He was sentenced Thursday for three counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder in connection with the shooting of four people on April 15, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

John Brittain, who shot four people to death in Penticton, B.C., over a neighbours' dispute, has been sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.

Justice Alison Beames handed down the sentence Thursday in B.C. Supreme Court in Kelowna.

Brittain, 69, has been in custody since he was 67, meaning he will be 92 by the time he is eligible for parole. He told the court before sentencing he understands he will likely die in prison.

Brittain addressed the victims' families in a tense sentencing hearing, apologizing for murdering their loved ones and "shattering" their lives.

"I am truly, truly sorry for what I have done," said Brittain, speaking haltingly from the prisoner's box. "I have disrupted so many lives."

Brittain pleaded guilty Wednesday to three counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder in connection with the shootings on April 15, 2019. 

He killed Rudi Winter, Darlene Knippelberg and Susan and Barry Wonch at their homes, shooting each of them multiple times in less than an hour. Court has heard he believed the victims, who were all neighbours, had been harassing his estranged wife for years.

Brittain apologized first to his surviving former spouse before addressing the victims' families.

"To [my ex-wife Katherine Brittain], I want to apologize for this. She had no idea I would have done such a thing," he said, taking lengthy pauses between sentences.

"To the families, my next apologies — I am shattered and devastated for what I have done."

The families, sitting metres away behind a clear Plexiglas barrier, wiped away tears as Brittain spoke.

One of the crime scenes at a home near Cornwall Drive and Murray Drive in Penticton. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

He said he had a breakdown before the shooting, attributing his mental state to the recent separation from his wife and 20 years of being overworked and depressed.

He ended his statement with an apology to the police officers who had to respond to the grisly crime scenes.

The court has heard that some of the officers have not yet been able to return to work.

Brittain is escorted out of court after his initial appearance In Penticton on April 16, 2019. Brittain was arrested after turning himself in to RCMP. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

'Execution-style'

Beames noted that friction had developed between Katherine Brittain and Winter over issues like tree branches. There were also complaints about Wonch running a furniture business out of his home.

"Katherine felt the neighbours were bullying her. And the state of relations were very poor," Beames said.

Her husband wanted to leave Penticton, Beames said, but the issues Katherine was having with her neighbours were "an anchor" that was keeping him there.

At around 10 a.m. on April 15, 2019, Brittain was at home and Winter was across the street, Beames said.

Half an hour later, Brittain took a rifle, loaded it with ammo and walked across the street.

He shot Winter once in the back, then three more times, then a final time in the head.

He then went to a nearby bank and withdrew $200. He then drove 20 minutes to the neighbourhood where his former wife lived.

He then loaded a rifle with cartridges and went to the Wonch residence.  He shot Barry Wonch twice and Susan Wonch twice — once in the back of the head.

He then walked down the street to Knippelberg's home. He shot her as she opened the door, then twice more.

"The murders were horrific crimes. The Crown is not wrong in describing them as execution-style killings," Beames said.

"The impact to people is unimaginable."

Brittain then drove himself to the RCMP detachment in Penticton. He told police he wanted to turn himself in because he had just killed four people and told officers where to find the bodies.

Impact 'unimaginable'

Brittain's defence lawyer opened the hearing Thursday by acknowledging no sentence would comfort the spouses, children and families of the four seniors who were killed. 

Still, the defence said Brittain's unexpected decision to plead guilty this month should be a mitigating factor in his sentence, as it spared the families and community the pain of a month-long trial. 

Crown prosecutors had asked Beames to sentence Brittain to a life sentence without the chance of parole for 40 years — 10 years of parole ineligibility for each victim. Beames called that "unduly harsh."

The defence asked for 25 years before parole eligibility. The lawyer said Brittain's age, lack of criminal history and decision to immediately turn himself in should also be factors.

Beames noted Brittain was, for years, an "upstanding citizen" but suffered years of isolation, depression and other problems.

He had attempted suicide prior to the shootings. He experienced significant stress over his work. He lived a solitary life and his only significant relationship was with Katherine.

Beames also noted the "incomprehensible devastation" of the murders expressed by his victims' loved ones in the victim impact statements.

She said there was no question the community was shocked and saddened by the crimes.

"The effects will no doubt be felt for years to come," she said. "The families suffered immeasurably."

With files from David French and The Canadian Press

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