Mother disappointed man accused in Edmonton woman's death now facing manslaughter charge

·4 min read
Billie Johnson was last seen in the area of 113th Street and 107th Avenue on the evening of December 24, 2020. (Submitted by Edmonton Police Service - image credit)
Billie Johnson was last seen in the area of 113th Street and 107th Avenue on the evening of December 24, 2020. (Submitted by Edmonton Police Service - image credit)

The mother of a woman whose remains were discovered on the outskirts of Edmonton two years ago says she's disappointed that the man accused in her daughter's death is being tried for manslaughter.

Kenneth Courtorielle, 37, was charged with the second-degree murder of Billie Wynell Johnson in February 2021. He was also charged with offering an indignity to a dead body after her remains were discovered in April 2021.

But on Monday, Courtorielle pleaded guilty to the indignity charge, and the trial proceeded on a manslaughter charge.

"What he pled to yesterday, it was heartbreaking. It was kind of a let down … because I wanted the second-degree murder charge to stick," Billie Johnson's mother Marless Johnson said Tuesday during a break in the trial.

Paige Parsons/CBC
Paige Parsons/CBC

The 30-year-old Cree woman and mother of two disappeared on Christmas Eve 2020. Her family reported her missing, and Edmonton police charged Courtorielle with her homicide in February 2021.

Her remains were discovered on the outskirts of Edmonton in April 2021. Court has not yet heard evidence about Billie Johnson's cause of death.

According to an agreed statement of facts in the case, Courtorielle and Billie Johnson were in a relationship during the fall of 2020, and sometimes lived together in a central Edmonton apartment.

Court heard that on the morning of Dec. 24, 2020, they woke up together at the apartment and then went shopping.

They parted ways in the mid-afternoon, each going to visit family and friends. Billie Johnson returned to the apartment. At 9:30 p.m. a neighbour saw her come out and then go back inside the unit.

She invited her longtime friend Jennifer Cappo over to the apartment that night, and had been co-ordinating over Facebook.

Billie Johnson's last message to Cappo was sent at 9:36 p.m. Cappo arrived at 10:37 p.m., but by then her friend was no longer answering messages and didn't respond to Cappo calling up from the street.

Meanwhile, Courtorielle had returned to the apartment at 9:15 p.m. Phone records show a number of calls and attempted calls between Courtorielle and his uncle followed. He then left his apartment at 1:14 a.m. on Dec. 25th, going to a convenience store and back and then driving to his uncle's house on Enoch First Nation.

On Dec. 27, 2020, Johnson's mother went to the apartment and demanded to know where her daughter was. Courtorielle was inside and could hear the distraught mother, court heard.

On Dec. 28, 2020, Courtorielle took his Dodge Ram to a car wash and spent $416 having it thoroughly cleaned inside and out, including a shampooing of the carpet in the cab.

One of the two phones Billie Johnson was using prior to her death was a Samsung that was handed over to police on Dec. 31, 2020.

The phone was locked, and Edmonton police hired a private company that was able to get it unlocked on April 16, 2021.

GPS data used to locate remains

GPS location data extracted from the phone showed that the device had been in the central Edmonton apartment on Christmas Eve 2020 until just before 11 p.m. The data shows the phone then travelled in a vehicle to a location on Highway 803 north of Township Road 564 – about 37 kilometres north of Edmonton – and was transported back to the apartment.

On April 21, 2021, a search party used the GPS data to locate Johnson's partial remains at the Highway 803 site.

At the time, Marless Johnson had been organizing search parties herself and had hired a private investigator to look into her daughter's disappearance.

Several hours of recorded interviews Courtorielle did with police were played in court Tuesday, as part of voir dire — a trial within a trial — to determine if they should be admitted.

Courtorielle first spoke with EPS homicide Det. Derek Lai in Lai's car in a parking lot on Stony Plain Road on Dec. 31.

That day, Courtorielle denied being in a relationship with Johnson and told Lai he hadn't seen much of her that year, adding that he had briefly seen her early in the day on Christmas Eve. He was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice, obstruction of a police officer and culpable homicide the next day.

The judge-alone trial is expected to continue into early April.