Murder suspect’s wife had disputes with shooting victims
PENTICTON — Neighbours reacted with disbelief to the murder of four people who lived in proximity to each other on Cornwall Drive and to the identity of the man arrested on four counts of murder.
“I’m beyond words,” said Debbie Kozari, who lives next door to where mass murder suspect John Brittain’s estranged wife lives on a quiet, cosy suburban street. “He was such a nice, pleasant man, I never heard him raise his voice or anything.”
His estranged wife, Kathy Brittain, came and went around noon Wednesday, popping into her house for 15 minutes under escort by a pair of plainclothes RCMP officers. She declined to speak and did not return voice messages.
Police tape remained across her front yard, but has been removed from the two houses across the street where three of the victims lived — husband and wife Barry and Susan Wonch, and Darlene Knippelberg.
Brittain’s first victim, Rudi Winter, lived next to Kathy Brittain on the opposite side of Kozari’s house. He was killed 4.5 kilometres away while doing yard work for friends across the street from where John Brittain had rented a house on Lakeview Street.
That house, a four-plex owned by Peggy and Anthony Friesen, remained taped off Wednesday afternoon.
The Friesens were shocked, calling John Brittain a model tenant.
“We felt as bad as if it had been a friend,” Peggy said. “He treated us very respectably.”
Anthony was in a back unit installing a window when he heard a shot Monday morning.
“There was a long pause, then bang! bang! very close together.”
Kathy Brittain was known to have had disputes with some neighbours, including Winter and the Wonches.
“We didn’t really have any issues with her, that’s probably why I’m still here,” Kozari said.
Brittain’s estranged wife was, for a period, a frequent caller to the Penticton Herald. She was passionate about civic issues such as the fire department, environmental policies, bylaws and, especially, engineering matters.
John Brittain was a civil engineer with the city for five years before retiring in 2016.
“She’d call here every 10 minutes, wouldn’t leave a number if I was busy or out, she’d just call back,” Herald city editor Joe Fries said. “It was always something to do with the city, with council, ‘Isn’t it just terrible what they’re doing’ type of thing.
“Ten calls in the morning wouldn’t be out of the ordinary.”
The calls began, Fries said, in August of 2016 and ended in March of 2018 when he asked her to please not call any more after she’d phoned his publisher to complain.
“The conversations were one-sided,” Fries said. “I’d put her on speakerphone and go on with other business. She’d talk and talk.”
She also was a frequent caller to city hall, Fries said, quoting a former city official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly. The official told Fries that Kathy Brittain made repeated calls complaining about her neighbours.
In particular, she didn’t like the smoke coming from the Winters’ wood-burning stove.
“She claimed that the chimney wasn’t regulation height and therefore was causing a downdraft of particulate into her property, which she claimed affected her health and her ability to be outside enjoying her yard,” the city official told Fries.
Renate Winter, the wife of Brittain’s first victim Rudi Winter, said she and her late husband had a drawn-out spat with Brittain’s wife after they cut down a tree in their yard.
Margaret Parker knew one of the victims, Susan Wonch, for 45 years. They were neighbours in Richmond in the 1970s and Parker stood up for her when she married Barry Wonch.
“She was so bubbly and full of life,” said Parker, who now lives in Sechelt. “We had so much fun together.
“Her and Barry were a good match, they complemented each other.”
A candlelight vigil was scheduled for Wednesday from 7:30-9 p.m. in Gyro Park.
John Brittain appeared in provincial court on Tuesday, charged with three counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder.
His next appearance is scheduled for May 8.
“I don’t think anybody who knows John would defend him, including myself,” David Folstad, a neighbour of the victims and acquaintance of the Brittains, said. “But we’re all shocked someone in our community could do this.”
With files from Joe Fries and Melanie Eksal of the Penticton Herald