Deep in the throes of a multi-day crack cocaine binge two years ago, Ryan Jack Armstrong kept working at his day job as a carpenter.
But he wasn’t sleeping and he was developing paranoid delusions that would lead to a tragedy that landed him a 10-year jail sentence in BC Supreme Court in Chilliwack on Wednesday.
Armstrong’s hammer, specifically a Stiletto brand, became something of a symbol and was something he held almost 24 hours a day.
It was a tool of his trade in the daylight, a tool for defence against imagined demons at night.
“I developed paranoid delusions never sleeping from the drugs, making it a habit to pace up and down our apartment,” he said in addressing the court Tuesday, “always wielding my Stiletto.
“I worked all day holding my Stiletto. I paced around all night holding my Stiletto.”
|Victoria Norma Heppner, killed by Ryan Armstrong on March 29, 2016 in Burnaby, her body burned on a forest service road in Mission a day later.|
Armstrong’s roommate in his basement apartment in Burnaby was 28-year-old Victoria Norma Heppner. The two were not intimate partners, according to Armstrong, but they met online and lived together as best friends who each battled demons.
Heppner was under a cloud after leaving Alberta accused of stealing more than $20,000 from a GoFundMe account set up for a widow and her two children in the fall of 2015. Armstrong had received $40,000 from a workplace accident settlement. The two appeared to be burning through their cash, at least in part fuelling Armstrong’s ongoing drug use.
“We were inseparable,” Armstrong said. “We became best friends. I try to hold on to those memories. For months before the accident our passion to find happiness was consumed by evil temptations.”
That supposed “accident” occurred on March 29, 2016, the moment Armstrong said he was pacing the apartment, as he often did, holding his hammer subject to hallucinations and delusions that someone was out to get them.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
“She was wearing one of my big black sweaters at the time,” he said. “It was dark. I got spooked. I was not seeing Tory through those psychotic, suicidal eyes.”
But it was Heppner. Armstrong struck the young woman in the back of the head with that hammer with one sharp blow killing her, likely instantly.
“It was that one fast fatal blow that left me standing over my best friend realizing what I had done.”
But it was what Armstrong did next that was described by Crown counsel Carolyn Lawlor as “egregious” and even his own lawyer Paul McMurray as “objectively reprehensible.”
He wrapped Heppner’s body in a tarp, put it in a garbage can, and loaded into the back of her pickup truck along with many belongings of both of them. He drove from Crest Drive in Burnaby to a Shell station in Maple Ridge and purchased gasoline. He then drove to the Florence Lake Forest Service Road near Stave Lake in Mission.
BC Supreme Court Justice Murray Blok sentenced Ryan Armstrong to 10 years prison for killing Victoria Heppner with a hammer and burning her body. Story to come…
— Paul J. Henderson (@PeeJayAitch) November 21, 2018
He put those things and his friend’s body in a pit and lit them on fire.
Once the fire was burning, Armstrong left and drove to a Husky station in Mission to purchase more gasoline. While he was gone, a passerby saw the fire and tried to put it out until he saw Heppner’s body and he went to call police.
Armstrong then came back to the scene and lit a second fire. When the witness and police arrived at the scene, Armstrong was sitting in Heppner’s truck, watching the fires.
“I didn’t light those fires to try to get away with what I had done,” he told the court. “For me, at the time, it was our funeral. I was to eventually kill myself at the same time.”
But he didn’t kill himself, and in fact took selfies with Heppner’s phone and the fires in the background. He was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. He confessed to much of what had happened, a mitigating factor in sentencing.
A year and a half after the crime, on Sept. 29, 2017, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter and one count of improperly or indecently offering an indignity to human remains.
At his two-day sentencing hearing this week, Crown counsel asked for a sentence of six years for the manslaughter and the maximum of five years for the indignity to human remains to run consecutive for a total of 11 years.
Defence asked for a total sentence of eight years.
In the end, Justice Murray Blok agreed to the six years, but not the maximum for burning the body, rather he gave four years for that. Armstrong has been in pre-trial custody for 967 days. Given the usual 1.5-to-one credit, that equals 1,451 days or three years 356 days credit.
In attendance at the sentencing hearing was Armstrong’s ex-wife who is the mother of his two children, in addition to the victim’s father Edward Heppner, her sister and her aunt.
Tears flowed on both sides of courtroom 202 as Armstrong addressed the court at the end of the hearing Tuesday and before the sentence was read out on Wednesday.
Dressed not in the standard orange pre-trial custody clothes, but in a dress shirt and pants his lawyer brought for him to wear, Armstrong told the Heppner family he didn’t dare ask for their forgiveness.
“I wouldn’t forgive myself,” he said.
The issue of a teardrop tattoo he had put on his face after the killing also came up at the hearing, Crown suggesting it might be an aggravating factor in sentencing given the background of the symbol in prison and gang culture. But his defence suggested the opposite, that it was a symbol meant to remind himself every day of the terrible act he committed against his best friend.
“This was a terrible accident and this is not who I am,” Armstrong said. “Until the day I go up to meet her I will wear this teardrop as a symbol of remembrance.
“I am so sorry to Tory’s son. I am so sorry to my two sons.”
These words led to a torrent of tears on both sides of the courtroom.
“Mr. Heppner, I want to look you in the eyes,” he said looking at the victim’s father who scarcely looked away from him during the entire sentencing. “I did not deliberately kill Tory. She was my friend and I am so sorry.”
Asked if he accepted the apology outside the courtroom, Heppner told The Progress he did not.
“No I don’t accept any of that. Those pictures, that was 100 per cent disrespectful to her. Two fires in the background, he’s smiling in that.”
Heppner did say he was satisfied with the sentence and with the work Crown did on the case.
“Crown counsel, Miss Lawlor, she did what she could. She had all her ducks in a row. I’m quite satisfied she did what she could do. Ten years is a good sentence.”