HALIFAX — Wearing a dress and a wide smile at a trendy Halifax bar, Kristin Johnston was excited about starting a new chapter in her life.
The Montreal-born yoga instructor shared drinks with friends and joked about ways she could break up with her boyfriend Nicholas Butcher, a recent graduate of Dalhousie University’s law school who was having difficulty finding an articling job.
Johnston, 32, had just shut down her yoga studio and wanted to leave her life in Halifax behind, eager to move across the country to be closer to her sister in Tofino, B.C.
Johnston had just returned from a reinvigorating trip to Costa Rica.
“She looked beautiful,” Lisa Abramowicz, 34, said of her childhood friend. “Very happy. Very bubbly.”
Hours later, Johnston’s lifeless body was found on a blood-soaked bed at her home near the ocean on Halifax’s outskirts.
Butcher, who turned 36 on Friday, is charged with second-degree murder in her death, with evidence so far revealing much about Johnston’s plans for a fresh start. The Crown will continue calling evidence Monday as the trial enters its third week.
Johnston, whose brother owned a Bikram yoga studio in her hometown of Montreal, came to Halifax in 2011 with dreams of opening her own studio.
She was quickly embraced by the local yoga community, becoming known as a kind and determined businesswoman with a magnetic personality. Despite her passion and hard work, though, Johnston’s business failed in 2016.
Having just closed the studio, Johnston decided to take a trip to Florida in early March 2016 to see family, and then to Costa Rica to meet her best friend, Jennifer Hazard.
Hazard said Johnston looked “exhausted” when she arrived.
They talked about her relationship with Butcher, and how she wasn’t happy and wanted to end it. She told her friend she didn’t “believe in that kind of love anymore.”
By the end of the trip, Johnston’s mood had changed.
“She was ready for a new chapter and so excited to move to Tofino and start a new life,” Hazard, 32, testified at the trial.
Back at home, Johnston was faced with reality. She agonized over how to break-up with Butcher, seeking advice from several friends.
She told Hazard in a Facebook message that she felt “trapped” in the city she had moved to five years earlier.
“I need to end things with Nick,” she wrote. “Doing what I can not to be home.”
The 14-member Nova Scotia Supreme Court jury has heard that Butcher recently started living with Johnston at the house she owned in Purcells Cove, because he needed a place to stay after losing the lease on his own apartment.
Days after returning from her trip, Johnston decided to have drinks at Halifax’s Lion and Bright bar. She told friends she didn’t want to see Butcher that night.
The physically fit woman with brown hair donned a dress, tights, and short dark boots with heels.
“She was really excited, really happy,” Matthew Whiston, who was with her at the bar that night, testified. “She said that she wasn’t happy in the relationship, that she didn’t love him the way he loves her.”
Later in the evening, Johnston and Abramowicz went to their friend Michael Belyea’s apartment nearby.
The three were listening to a Johnny Cash record and sharing a drink when suddenly Belyea heard footsteps coming up the stairs to his upper-level flat.
Belyea said Johnston was surprised to see her boyfriend, and was completely unaware of how he knew where she was. She had just acquired Belyea’s address a few hours earlier.
The pair talked outside the flat, and then Johnston came back inside alone. She said she had ended it with Butcher.
Belyea said Johnston then said she was tired and was going to sleep over, and went into the bedroom. He said goodbye to Abramowicz and followed Johnston. He closed the door behind him, and heard Abramowicz leave soon after.
Belyea — who said he had previously been intimate with Johnston when they first met in 2009 — said he laid on the bed with Johnston and they started kissing.
Then, he heard footsteps coming from the kitchen. He assumed Abramowicz had forgotten something, but then he felt a push on his shoulder. It was Butcher.
“He said to her something like ‘What are you doing’ or ‘Why are you doing this’,” said Belyea, a 41-year-old carpenter and musician. “I remember her saying, ‘This is where I want to be’.”
Belyea decided to give them space and went for a walk. When he returned. Johnston and Butcher were not there.
About three hours later, Johnston was found dead at her home in Purcells Cove.
Police had gone to the scene after Butcher, breathing heavily and sobbing, called 911 and told them he had killed his girlfriend and tried to kill himself. He told them he had cut off his hand.
“I need help,” Butcher said on the call, played for the jury last week. “I’m bleeding to death.”
Police officers have testified that a blood-caked Butcher emerged from Johnston’s home that morning shirtless and wearing pyjama pants, and was missing his right hand.
Inside, investigators found Johnston’s body in the master bedroom on a blood-soaked bed, next to a steak knife.
They testified that a mitre saw and an amputated hand were found nearby on the floor of the bedroom.
It appears Butcher’s hand has been reattached, as it is occasionally visible in the courtroom as he sits at his lawyer’s bench during the proceedings. He wears a navy suit and glasses each day of the trial, with his hair closed cropped.
He has pleaded not guilty.
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Aly Thomson, The Canadian Press