Victim and accused were recently engaged, manslaughter trial hears

A Vanderhoof woman had only been recently engaged to the man accused of discharging the bullet that killed her, a jury heard Tuesday at the Prince George courthouse.

Kayne Sabbe Penner, 29, faces one count each of manslaughter with a firearm and careless use of a firearm in the death of April Rose Johnson, 18, from a single bullet wound from a .22-calibre semi-automatic rifle suffered Dec. 20, 2012.

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A 12-person jury selected Monday heard the two had paid an unplanned visit to the home of Penner's cousin, Richard Borne, in the mid-afternoon to celebrate their engagement the same month, as well as Borne's birthday and the holiday season.

Borne's girlfriend, Patricia Heichert, also lived in the home, a single-wide mobile home in the 6200 block of McLeod Road in Vanderhoof. She testified the couple appeared happy and Johnson showed the hosts her engagement ring.

At Johnson's suggestion, the group decided to go target shooting at the farm of Borne's parents and Borne retrieved the rifle, a Remington 597. According to an agreed statement of facts read into the record, he took the gun outside to fire off a test round to make sure it was in working order, then came back inside and placed it in the kitchen area.

Heichert told the court she recalled seeing it lying on a flat stovetop with Penner and Borne standing next to it and talking to each other as Borne mixed a rum and coke. She said Penner's back was to Johnson, who was standing at the home's main door, in a hurry to get going because the sun was setting, while also trying to convince a reluctant Heichert - who was wearing a cast on a foot and was using crutches to move around - to come along.

Just as Heichert, who had been sitting on the floor in the living room, had put her hand on the top of a counter to lift herself up, she heard a pop, "like a pop can opening." Then she heard Johnson say "oh, my god," and then Penner say "oh, my god."

When Heichert looked at Johnson, she saw her holding her side. A crying Penner hustled her into their car and they left for the hospital in Vanderhoof. Heichert also testified she noticed out of the corner of her eye the butt of the rifle hit the floor.

According to the agreed statement, Penner and Johnson arrived at the hospital, less than a 10-minute drive away, just before 4 p.m. Johnson was shot in the upper left abdomen and because her health was declining rapidly, she was transferred by ambulance to University Hospital of Northern British Columbia where she died shortly before 2 a.m. on Dec. 21, 2012.

While at the hospital in Vanderhoof, Penner was heard saying it was an accident and the rifle had dropped, according to the statement. Heichert testified Borne followed the two in his pickup truck and had taken the rifle with him.

Heichert's testimony hit a snag when, under cross examination by defence lawyer Dave Jenkins Sr., it was noted portions conflicted with statements she had given to RCMP and during a preliminary hearing. In particular, she was recorded in her statement to police as saying Borne had passed the gun to Penner.

On Tuesday, Heichert told the court she did not recall making that comment and testified she never saw Penner or Borne handle the gun, only that she saw it on the stove top and then fall butt-first to the floor.

Following her testimony, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Paul Pearlman told the jury they can use the inconsistencies to dismiss the testimony Heichert gave during the trial but cannot use the statements she gave to police and during the preliminary hearing as evidence during their deliberations.

In other testimony, Vanderhoof RCMP Cpl. Wade Harvey said he had been called to the hospital where he found a distraught Penner.

"Naturally, he was upset," Harvey said. "He, at one point, had attempted to get into the operating room but I asked that he remain outside and let the health professionals do their job."

Harvey said he also helped in the arrest of Penner in June 2015, roughly 2 1/2 years after the incident. Asked by Jenkins why it took so long, Harvey said he did not know.

The trial also heard from Cpl. Rod Keen of the North District RCMP's forensic identification section. He said the rifle was found lying behind the bench seat in Borne's pickup with the magazine sitting in the glove box and holding four rounds. There were no round in the rifle, Keen testified, but said he also noticed the safety was off.

In a search of Borne's home, he said a shell casing was recovered from the front porch and another casing was found inside the home near the front door, both .22-calibre and rim fire.

Keen said he noticed the open end of the casing found inside the home was slightly crimped.

"I took a photograph of it as I was not sure what that meant," Keen said.

Asked by Jenkins if the rifle found in Borne's vehicle was a "rather cheap model," Keen said he could not comment.

The trial continues Wednesday at the Prince George courthouse.

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