Murder appeal successful for Lapland tour guide killer

Convicted killer Karel Frybl has been sentenced to 11 years in prison for the brutal attack in Enontekiö in December 2016.

Confessed killer Karel Frybl in court in Rovaniemi / Credit: News Now Finland

A former soldier from the Czech Republic who killed his Scottish girlfriend in Enontekiö has had his murder conviction overturned on appeal.

The ruling in Karel Frybl‘s favour came in a rare 2-1 split decision from judges at the Lapland Court of Appeal in Rovaniemi today. His murder conviction has been downgraded to homicide, and he’s been given an 11 year prison sentence.

“This means that it has been a difficult case, because it’s rather unusual for the Appeals Court judges to vote. It happens, but not really often” explains Johannes Ahola, a local lawyer who has been following the case.

Frybl confessed to killing his girlfriend Rebecca Johnson, at a trial last year. He says he blacked out during the attack in December 2016 which left then 26-year-old Johnson with more than 30 stab wounds to her head, chest, back, abdomen and thigh. The couple had been working as tour guides at a husky ranch in the remote part of Lapland, and the only other person there at the time was colleague Joseph Pickles who heard Johnson’s screams, and witnessed Frybl standing over her with a knife in his hands.

Originally, Frybl – who used the pseudonym Radek Kovac the whole time he was in a relationship with Johnson – had been convicted by the District Court in Rovaniemi of murder and sentenced to life in prison. In practice this would have meant the killer spent 12 to 14 years behind bars.

Murder suspect Karel Frybl in court in Rovaniemi with his lawyer Katri Mäkinen, August 2017 / Credit: News Now Finland

Finnish legal definitions

The crux of this case rests on whether Frybl murdered Johnson, or whether it was homicide. These are different legal definitions under Finnish law.

To secure a murder conviction, the prosecution would have to establish a higher threshold, for example with a degree of premeditation, if it was particularly cruel or sustained, or if the victim was perhaps tortured.

Writing in their official deliberation, the three-person panel of judges said the fact Frybl continued to stab Rebecca Johnson after Pickles had interrupted the attack shows his determination to kill her.

But, the judges also wrote that Frybl didn’t deliberately prolong her death or take actions to increase the pain.

“Although Frybl is undoubtedly considered to be cruel, [the killing] cannot be considered to be particularly cruel” in line with Finnish laws, the judges say.

“When thinking about the case you have to always remember that the court is considering it only on the basis of criminal law, even if you feel as a layman that it has been a very cruel that’s not enough, it has to reach the level of murder according to the law” explains local lawyer Johannes Ahola.

Possible grounds for appeal

The fact that the judges in the Appeals Court were divided on whether Frybl should have his sentence reduced does leave the door open for a possible appeal to Finland’s Supreme Court.

That is something Rebecca Johnson’s family, or the prosecutor, might decide to do.

In the meantime Frybl will be in jail in Finland although it’s understood he has been moved from the original prison in Oulu, to another location to serve his sentence.

Map of Enontekiö District in Finnish Lapland / Credit: Google Maps

Horrific killing shocked Lapland and Scotland

When Rebecca Johnson was killed, it sparked a huge manhunt for Karel Frybl across one of Europe’s most remote wilderness areas.

Local police chased Frybl on snowmobiles, and the Border Guard closed the frontier with Sweden as they searched for him in a helicopter. He was found a few kilometers away with the couples’ huskies, with his shirt off and suffering from exposure as the temperature plunged to -30°C.

Rebecca’s death was front page news in her native Scotland, and covered extensively in the media there. It sent shockwaves through the tight-knit Lapland community.

The couple had come to Enontekiö just a few months before to work as tour guides giving husky sled rides to tourists, employed by a UK-based travel company.

At the original trial, the court heard that the couple argued in the days before Johnson’s death.

There were claims of physical and verbal abuse on both sides, but on the morning of Johnson’s murder she phoned a coworker at the tour company’s local office and finally admitted she was in an abusive relationship.

Cabin in Enontekiö where Rebecca Johnson was killed in December 2016 / Credit: Poliisi

Violent attack in -30°C temperatures

Rebecca Johnson claimed Frybl had kicked her in the stomach, and that she wanted their employer to remove him from the Enontekiö home they shared with one other colleague.

During that phone call, the colleague heard Johnson scream three times, and the phone went dead.

The only other person at the remote husky farm was another guide, Joseph Pickles. He was just a few meters outside the couples’ cabin, and testified that he also heard Rebecca scream three time. “I ran to the cabin and pulled open the door” Pickles told the court in August 2017, crying as he struggled to give his evidence.

Pickles says when he opened the door he saw Frybl standing over Johnson who was slumped in a pool of blood but still alive. He made eye contact with the injured woman, a moment that Pickles says he recalled night after night following the attack.

“I said ‘Radek stop, stop’. Becky said ‘Joe, call an ambulance he’s stabbed me'”.

Pickles went back outside to phone emergency services, and in that call, played to the court, he says he feared for his life and thought Frybl would try to kill him too. After a short while, Pickles went back inside to check on Rebecca.

“When I returned to the cabin and saw Becky, the injuries looked worse than when I first saw her” he testified.

“I couldn’t see the damage to her body, but from what I could see, she had been cut like this” – he made a slashing motion with his hand across his face – “she was gone at this point. I touched her, and I realised she was gone”.

After sending Frybl for psychiatric tests, and several months of deliberations, the judges found him guilty of murder.

In their legal ruling, the judges said they agreed with the psychiatrist’s conclusions and that Frybl had been in full control of his actions when he killed Rebecca.

They cited his attempts to flee the scene of the crime and evade capture, as well as several self-inflicted shallow cuts to his own body that he tried to blame on Rebecca, as evidence of his clear-headed thinking in the hours after the attack.

The court described the blitz stabbing attack as “brutal and cruel”.

That original District Court verdict has now been overturned on appeal.