The long-awaited sentencing hearing got underway Monday for a man who killed his girlfriend in a Burnaby apartment with a hammer then burned her body on a Mission forest service road.
Ryan Jack Armstrong killed Victoria Norma Heppner on March 29, 2016 with what he said was a single blow to the back of her head with a stiletto hammer while she was sitting on his bed. She was 28 years old.
“Heppner collapsed on the bed and never regained consciousness,” Crown counsel Carolyn Lawlor said, reading from an agreed statement of facts in BC Supreme Court in Chilliwack on Monday.
Found by police at the scene of her burning body the next day, Armstrong confessed to the crime and was originally charged with second-degree murder. He later pleaded guilty to manslaughter and one count of improperly or indecently offering an indignity to human remains on Sept. 29, 2017.
Difficulty in finding someone to write a psychiatric report for Armstrong led to substantial delays in sentencing, but the hearing finally began on Nov. 19, 2018.
Lawlor asked the court to sentence Armstrong to six years jail on the manslaughter, and five years for the “egregious” actions burning the body after the fact.
The court heard that after he killed her at his apartment on Crest Drive in Burnaby, Armstrong wrapped Heppner’s body in a tarp, put her in a garbage can in the back of her pickup truck and drove it to a gas station in Maple Ridge. He then drove to the Florence Lake Forest Service Road near Stave Lake where he started a fire with Heppner’s body using the gasoline and other flammable items he brought with him.
He left the fire to buy more gasoline and returned to set a second fire. In between that, a passerby spotted the body in the blaze and contacted police. When that witness returned to the spot with Mounties, Armstrong was sitting in the truck watching the two fires.
After Lawlor read through the agreed statement of facts, Justice Murray Blok asked her if she would explain why his plea to the lesser count of manslaughter was accepted.
Lawlor explained that all the evidence, including expert testimony, pointed to a sudden and inexplicable outburst possibly caused by Armstrong’s crack cocaine use – “possibly a form of induced psychosis” – meaning the death met the test for the lesser charge.
“This is a situation where it is hard to separate the actual crime from what happens after the fact,” Lawlor said. “It is so egregious what happened after the fact that we become clouded from what happened to Miss Heppner.”
Now 32, Armstrong appeared in the prisoner’s box wearing civilian clothes rather than the standard orange sweatshirt and pants, clothes that his lawyer brought to him that day. Justice Blok had to make an order allowing for the civilian clothes to be worn, clothes that he was told he had to return at the end of the hearing.
Armstrong wore a grey dress shirt and dress pants. He had a long beard and black-rimmed glasses with short, close-cropped hair. He also has a teardrop tattoo he had done since the killing, a tattoo that garnered some attention by the court. The teardrop tattoo sometimes means the wearer has killed someone, but there are other meanings as well.
Heppner’s father Edward attended the hearing, staring intently at Armstrong the entire time, shaking his head when Lawlor suggested that six years is the appropriate sentence for the manslaughter. Also in attendance was Heppner’s sister and her aunt.
Armstrong’s sentencing hearing was scheduled for two days, Nov. 19 and 20. When they broke for lunch on Monday just before The Progress went to press, Lawlor had wrapped up her submissions. Defence lawyer Paul McMurray was scheduled to make submissions in the afternoon.
See www.theprogress.com for updates on this story.