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Quinn Butt's mother takes the stand as her father goes on trial in St. John's for her murder

A sheriff's officer stands next to accused murderer Trent Butt as he sits in the prisoner's box awaiting the start of his trial Wednesday. Butt has admitted to causing the death of his daughter, Quinn, 5, but says he didn't plan to do it and doesn't remember it.
A sheriff's officer stands next to accused murderer Trent Butt as he sits in the prisoner's box awaiting the start of his trial Wednesday. Butt has admitted to causing the death of his daughter, Quinn, 5, but says he didn't plan to do it and doesn't remember it. - Tara Bradbury

'I never got to see my child'

David Kennedy was composed as he began his testimony in Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court in St. John's Wednesday. Standing straight and speaking directly into the microphone - there to record, not to amplify, his words - his voice was clear as he explained he had been the next-door neighbour of Trent Butt in Carbonear.

Kennedy was articulate as he spoke of having been woken up shortly after 4 a.m. on April 24, 2016 by popping and banging sounds coming from outside. At first, he and his wife thought it might be thunder, he said.

He was unruffled as he explained to Crown prosecutor Jennifer Lundrigan that he then wondered if the noise could be coming from a burglar in his truck in the driveway or his garage.

He went outside to check, he said, and noticed a glow coming from the direction of Butt's house. Walking past his truck to get a better look, Kennedy said, he saw the house was on fire, with flames shooting up over the roof.

Kennedy was calm as he testified to telling his wife to call 911 while he ran to the house and banged on the door, breaking one panel of glass. The door was locked and deadbolted, he said. By this time the back of the home was alight.

He didn't even flinch as he told the court of having "put the boots" to the door with the help of two men who happened to be driving by, breaking the door down. The smoke that billowed out was too much to see anything inside, he explained, so one of the men stood on a fence to try to see in a window. In the meantime, Kennedy used his cellphone to call Butt's father.

It was when he was asked at what point he first saw five-year-old Quinn Butt that Kennedy broke down, pausing to lower his head and cry before taking a sip of water and continuing his testimony.

"Initially one of the firemen carried Quinn out in his arms," Kennedy said in a wavering voice, explaining the firefighter laid Quinn on the lawn before going back inside the house to retrieve Butt.

"I heard someone sing out my name: 'David?' I said 'Yes,'" Kennedy continued, crying. "It was Andrea. She asked me where Quinn was and I said I didn't know."

Andrea Gosse, Quinn's mother, sat in the courtroom embracing her mother and sister, the three of them in tears.

Trent Butt, 40, sat in the prisoner's box in the middle of the room, listening to the testimony and writing notes. He has pleaded guilty to arson for lighting his home on fire that April morning. He has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in connection with his daughter Quinn's death, though he doesn't deny he killed her.

Wednesday was the first day of Butt's trial and the first time the public learned any details of the evidence against Butt, or his defence.

Prosecutor Lloyd Strickland turned his tabletop podium to face the jury as he explained that Butt and Gosse had been going through a tense separation in the spring of 2016, and had been sharing custody of Quinn. Quinn was staying with her father the weekend of the fire, and her mother was due to pick her up the afternoon of April 24. They were booked on a flight to Florida with friends the next day.

When firefighters arrived at Butt's home, they managed to get it under control, Strickland said, before going inside and finding Butt and Quinn lying in bed in the master bedroom. They brought the pair onto the front lawn and worked with paramedics to try to save Quinn, but it was too late; she was already dead. An autopsy later revealed Quinn had died before the fire was started, Strickland said, and Butt had self-inflicted slashes to his wrist and neck.

Three gas cans were located inside the home, including in the bedroom, Strickland said.

"The very sheets on the bed where Trent Butt and Quinn Butt were found were soaked in gasoline," he told the jury.

Perhaps the most important piece of evidence, Strickland said, was discovered when police searched Butt's pickup truck. There, inside a grey container marked "Trent's Stuff," was a journal with 10 neatly printed pages titled "Final Words." Fingerprint and handwriting analysis determined it had been written by Butt.

"In the very first paragraph, it reads, 'I have taken my daughter's and my own life,'" Strickland told the jury, adding that Butt also explained his reasons.

"Our theory is that Trent Butt devised a murder-suicide plot. That is that the accused, Trent Spencer Butt, harboured such animosity towards his ex-wife that he was going to punish her. He was going to make her hurt in the worst way, by taking what was most important to her, his daughter. He sought to take his own life in the process so he wouldn't have to answer to murder, and finally he would burn the marital home to the ground, which Andrea Gosse still by law owned, or at least had a joint interest.

"As it turned out, in the execution of this murder-suicide plot, his only failure was surviving."

Butt's lawyer, Derek Hogan, who is representing him with co-counsel Shanna Wicks, told the jury in his opening remarks that Butt had suffered with his separation from Gosse, becoming socially isolated and depressed. He contemplated suicide in December 2015 and wrote a suicide note at that point, Hogan said, but at no time had thoughts of harming Quinn.

Hogan said Butt had put Quinn to bed the night in question, and had started looking through a journal he kept about his access to Quinn, for family court purposes.

"He became increasingly upset as he relived a lot of the marital tensions and he became sad, angry and hopeless.”

It was the accumulation of the turmoil that upset him, Hogan explained, and he was particularly frustrated with the lengthy family court process and false allegations he was facing.

"He next remembers kneeling over Quinn, and she was dead. He can't recall killing her," Hogan said. "He concludes he must have suffocated her.

"Because he had no place in her life and because he thought she was better off in heaven than with her mother, he did not call 911."

Instead, Hogan said, Butt wrote his "Final Words," put the journal in his truck with other treasured belongings, turned off the smoke alarms in his home, doused the home with gasoline and lit it, and laid down in the bed next to Quinn, where he cut his arm and his neck and then lost consciousness.

Butt doesn't believe anything excuses or justifies what he did, Hogan told the jury.

"The point of his testimony should be that he did not plan to kill her, and while it was definitely no accident, he did not deliberately kill her," Hogan said, indicating that Butt would testify during the trial. "Any murder is utterly concerning, and the murder of a child is monstrous. Nonetheless, you are to consider the evidence in this case as objectively as you can."

Before Kennedy, Gosse took the stand as the Crown's first witness, telling the court she and Butt had been married about 2 ½ years when Quinn was born in February 2011, and the family had lived in the home in Carbonear. Quinn was her only child, she explained through tears, describing the little girl as "very healthy, happy, rambunctious and silly, a girlie-girl and a tomboy all in one."

Gosse said her split from Butt was stressful, and he didn't allow her to take any of her possessions with her when she moved out in January 2014. When she decided to move with Quinn to St. John's, her lawyer advised her to tell Butt after the fact, given things that had happened up to that point, she said.

"Trent found out and kept her for an entire month. I didn't speak to her and she didn't know where I was," Gosse said. "It took me a month to get a court order to get her back."

Another time, Gosse said, she and Quinn had booked a trip to Florida with Butt's knowledge, but missed their flight when Butt wouldn't return Quinn as scheduled. A judge eventually ruled that Gosse could take Quinn to Florida without Butt's permission.

Butt had been served with a court order two days before Quinn's death, the court heard, informing him that his permission wasn't required for Gosse to take Quinn to Florida the following week, and telling him that he was to return Quinn to Gosse that weekend as planned.

Gosse said she was staying with a friend in Harbour Grace the night of the fire. In the early hours of the morning, her friend told her that Butt's house was on fire, she testified, and they drove there together.

"I knew it wasn't anything good," Gosse said. "There was flashing lights, crowds of people. The house I used to live in was total darkness. There were people running in and out, there was smoke. It just looked horrifying."

Gosse said she saw Butt on the lawn, but didn't see Quinn until she went to the hospital in Carbonear. At that point, she said, she thought Quinn was still alive.

"It seemed like an eternity before those two doctors came out and said, 'She's gone,'" Gosse said, sobbing. "I remember seeing Trent get rolled in, but he was still alive. They wouldn't let me see her. I never got to see my child."

On cross-examination, Wicks questioned Gosse about her separation from Butt, asking her about a phone call in which Butt allegedly told her that he was afraid she would take Quinn to Florida and not return.

"I suggest he said this to you and that made you mad, and you said maybe you would and he would never see Quinn again," Wicks said.

"No, that is not true," Gosse replied.

Wicks also asked Gosse whether a drug test she had taken a year before Quinn's death at the request of the former Child, Youth and Family Services department had revealed cocaine in her system; Gosse admitted that was true. She also acknowledged she had been abusing her opiate migraine medication in 2014, and had sought her doctor's help to overcome her addiction.

Gosse acknowledged Butt had wanted to spend as much time as he could with Quinn, and that Quinn had video-chatted with her father every day she wasn't with him.

"I put it to you that at least early following the separation, it was irregular contact," Wicks said.

"Well the first few days were a bit rough because I was taking Quinn and going from house to house so Trent didn't find us, because he was threatening us," Gosse replied. "So yes, that was irregular. … Trent said he was going to harm the house that I was in and the people I was with."

Butt's trial continues Thursday.

tara.bradbury@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @tara_bradbury


Related story:
Trent Butt's murder trial to begin Wednesday in St. John's


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