It took him nearly 13 years to admit it, but before a full St. Louis County courtroom, Joseph John Couture testified Friday that he beat and stabbed Trina Louise Langenbrunner to death on Sept. 3, 2000.
The posters of a smiling Langenbrunner advertising a $100,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of her killer that were posted around the Northland can finally be filed away.
Couture, 42, of Cloquet pleaded guilty to intentional second-degree murder, first-degree aiding and abetting aggravated witness tampering, and aiding and abetting first-degree arson.
Judge Dale Harris accepted the plea agreement and immediately sentenced Couture to nearly 40 years in prison.
Under terms of the plea agreement, Couture was sentenced to 32 years, 2 months, in prison on the murder conviction and 7 years, 2 months, in prison for the witness-tampering conviction, to be served one after the other. He was sentenced to 10 years, 9 months, in prison on the arson conviction, to be served at the same time as the murder conviction.
Langenbrunner, a 33-year-old mother of three, last was seen hitchhiking in the area of Brookston Road between 1:30 and 2 a.m. on Sept. 3, 2000. Couture was a neighbor of Langenbrunner at the time. The victim's beaten and stabbed body was discovered off a rural road in southern St. Louis County.
Couture told the court that he was on his way home after drinking at a couple of Cloquet establishments on the night of Sept. 2-3. He said he spotted Langenbrunner standing in the middle of the road and had to swerve to go around her. He said she asked him for a ride and he gave her one, but when she told him she wanted to go all the way to Grand Rapids he said he was too drunk to drive that far.
He said Langenbrunner became angry and put a knife in his face and threatened him. He said he was able to get the knife away from her and "stuck her." They were wrestling and he stuck her again and she fell down.
The defendant, who was 5-foot-9, 210 pounds at the time, said the 5-5, 115-pound woman screamed and told him she was going to call the cops and tell them that he tried to kill her. He said he began hitting her in the face and stabbing her to shut her up. The victim had 29 stab entry wounds to her torso, face and back.
Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jessica Smith asked Couture if it was his intent to shut the victim up for good by killing her. He said yes.
Under questioning by co-prosecutor Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jon Holets, Couture admitted that he had conspired with his girlfriend, Sandra Couture, in an attempt to intimidate witnesses and dissuade them from testifying against him.
Sandra Couture pleaded guilty in April to aiding and abetting first-degree aggravated witness tampering and aiding and abetting first-degree arson in April and was sentenced to 9½ years in prison. She admitted burning down the home of a relative of one of the witnesses against Joseph Couture.
Public defender Cynthia Evenson read a statement to the court in which Joseph Couture apologized to the family of the victim and called himself a coward. The statement said that he understood that he would receive no forgiveness and that he would have to live with that. The defendant is also a convicted Level 3 sex offender.
He had been charged with sexually assaulting Langenbrunner when he murdered her, but that charge was dismissed as part of the plea agreement. Also as part of the plea agreement, the attorneys and the judge are supporting Couture's request that he serve his sentence outside of Minnesota.
Margaret Dupuis, mother of the victim, spoke for her family outside the courthouse.
"I just want to thank St. Louis County and Jessica (Smith) and everybody that has helped with this case getting solved finding the killer of my daughter," Dupuis said.
St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin read a prepared statement. He said his office credited the "unwavering commitment of law enforcement in the successful prosecution of this case. The St. Louis County Sheriff's Office and Bureau of Criminal Apprehension are to be commended for a job well done. Their compassionate perseverance ensured a just conclusion for this family and community."
Steve Steblay, now supervising deputy of the sheriff's Duluth office, was assigned to the case as an investigator on the day Langenbrunner was first reported missing.
"We never gave up hope and we just continued on to do what we do and it finally got completed," Steblay said. "I guess I also wish to thank Trina's family. They never gave up on us. Their trust in us and their patience for all these years continued on and worked with us throughout the whole thing. So kudos to everyone involved with the conclusion of this case."
The sheriff's office said it followed up on just under 1,000 leads and conducted hundreds of interviews in investigating the case for nearly a dozen years before arresting Couture on June 15, 2012,. Two confidential witnesses helped make the case against him.
Court rules permit witnesses' names to remain confidential until they testify if the prosecutor files a written certificate with the trial court stating that to identify a witness may endanger the integrity of a continuing investigation or subject witnesses or other persons to physical harm.
The witnesses' names have not been made public and are protected by a court order.
It remains to be seen if they, or anyone, will collect the $100,000 reward that was offered for the arrest and conviction of Langenbrunner's murderer. Rubin and sheriff's deputies said the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is in charge of the reward.
"The BCA will coordinate with the local law enforcement agencies to review how any information provided in this case led to today's outcome and identify those who are entitled to a reward," Jill Oliveira, public information officer for the BCA, said Friday.
Trina Louise (St. Germaine) Langenbrunner was born Sept. 12, 1966, in St. Paul and attended Humboldt High School there. She was a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe and worked as a home health aide while living in Cloquet.