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Cloquet woman pleads guilty to witness tampering

Sandra Kay Couture testified today that she threatened witnesses and set fire to the home of a witness' family member because her boyfriend, Joseph John Couture, didn't want them to provide evidence against him in his trial for the murder of Trin...

Sandra Couture
Sandra Couture

Sandra Kay Couture testified today that she threatened witnesses and set fire to the home of a witness' family member because her boyfriend, Joseph John Couture, didn't want them to provide evidence against him in his trial for the murder of Trina Langenbrunner.

Sandra Couture, 40, of Cloquet, pleaded guilty to first-degree aggravated witness tampering and to first-degree arson before Judge Dale Harris in State District Court.

Joseph Couture is charged with second-degree murder and second-degree criminal sexual conduct in the 2000 death of Langenbrunner. He also is accused of witness tampering.

Langenbrunner, a 33-year-old mother of three, was last seen hitchhiking in the area of Brookston Road between 1:30 and 2 a.m. on Sept. 3, 2000. Joseph Couture, now 41, of Cloquet, was a neighbor of Langenbrunner at the time. The victim's stabbed body was discovered off a rural road in southern St. Louis County.

Under the terms of a plea agreement, the St. Louis County Attorney's Office will recommend to the court an eight-year, eight-month prison sentence for the witness tampering conviction and a seven-year sentence for the arson conviction. The sentences would be served at the same time. Harris directed that an Arrowhead Regional Corrections probation officer investigate Sandra Couture's background before sentencing on May 13.

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The case was developed after an investigation by the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office with the cooperation of the Carlton County Sheriff's Office and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Under questioning by St. Louis County prosecutor Jessica Smith, Sandra Couture testified that she had been in a romantic relationship with Joseph Couture but lived in fear of him. She said he was a jealous and controlling man with anger issues. She said they referred to themselves as husband and wife, but were not married. She had been married to her co-defendant's brother.

The fire that Sandra Couture admitted to setting resulted in the destruction of a home, two vehicles and the death of two dogs. She said Joseph Couture wanted her to send a message to those who would testify against him. She said she used charcoal fluid and gasoline to start the fires. She said she didn't think anyone was home and didn't know the dogs were present.

The judge asked the defendant if she were claiming duress for her role in the crimes. She said she was not.

The couple hatched most of their harassment plans against the witnesses while Sandra visited Joseph at the St. Louis County Jail. They developed a code system to communicate and also held up notes to each other at the jail visiting window.

Sandra Couture also said that Joseph wanted her to find people to help him escape from custody during a trip from the jail to the courthouse.

"Witness tampering is taken very seriously, and the County Attorney's Office will vigorously prosecute those who engage in this crime," St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said in a prepared statement, "Our system depends on the courageousness of witnesses coming forward to hold people accountable for offenses. They deserve the fullest protection under the law."

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