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Murdered mum’s chilling family codeword

Gold Coast mum Kelly Wilkinson was burned to death in her Arundel home in April 2021.
Gold Coast mum Kelly Wilkinson was burned to death in her Arundel home in April 2021.

WARNING: DISTRESSING CONTENT

A mum murdered by her ex-husband after being doused in petrol and set on fire organised a chilling codeword to warn her family if she was in trouble.

The horrifying detail was revealed as former US marine Brian Earl Johnston was jailed for life on Wednesday for killing his ex-wife Kelly Wilkinson in an “unforgivable” act of violence that sent ripples through her tight-knit family.

Family members of Ms Wilkinson, 27, spoke of their heartbreak at Johnston’s monstrous actions on the morning of April 20, 2021.

It was revealed by a prosecutor Ms Wilkinson was so fearful of her ex that she organised a code – typing the phrase “I’m considering moving back to Ohio” over the family’s group chat as a warning something was wrong.

Johnston must serve 20 years before he can apply for parole – which will not be until after April 2041.

Many of Ms Wilkinson’s family were seen entering court wearing sunflower-themed earrings and pins as a tribute to Ms Wilkinson.

Gold Coast mum Kelly Wilkinson was burned to death in her Arundel home in April 2021. Picture: Supplied
Gold Coast mum Kelly Wilkinson was burned to death in her Arundel home in April 2021. Picture: Supplied
Brian Earl Johnston, Ms Wilkinson’s estranged ex-husband, has been sentenced to life in prison for her murder. Picture: Supplied
Brian Earl Johnston, Ms Wilkinson’s estranged ex-husband, has been sentenced to life in prison for her murder. Picture: Supplied

The mother-of-three suffered life-threatening burns and could not be saved by emergency services after Johnston, 37, doused her in petrol and set her on fire in the backyard of her Arundel home on April 20, 2021.

On Wednesday he was brought into court by Corrective Services officers wearing a black suit and glasses, with burn scars visible on his face.

Outside court, Ms Wilkinson’s sister Danielle Carroll said Johnston had inflicted a “lifetime of immeasurable pain and suffering” through Kelly’s death.

“All she wanted was to love and be loved; all you gave her was pure evil,” she told media following the sentencing.

“You let in an infinite darkness and my heart aches for her.”

Ms Carroll said Kelly’s “beautiful soul” would shine bright throughout her family.

KELLY WILKINSON MURDER
Kelly's sister Danielle Carroll with husband Reece outside the court following Johnston’s sentence. Ms Carroll said the former marine had inflicted a lifetime of suffering on the family with his actions. Picture: NCA NewsWire / John Gass

“She is free from you and you can’t hurt her anymore,” Ms Carroll said.

Despite the life sentence, Ms Carroll said she couldn’t help but feel “let down” by the prospect of Johnston being given “a second chance” and possibly receiving parole in 20 years’ time.

“He could be free at 55,” she said.
“This is not justice for her, this is not justice for our family, and this is not justice for future victims in our community.

“Our family’s journey does not stop here today – it will never end. Which makes me question, who really gets the life sentence?”

‘Please stop’: Horror screams as life snuffed out

Horrific details of Ms Wilkinson’s death were revealed in court as crown prosecutor Mark McCarthy read from the statement of facts.

The court was told Ms Wilkinson had separated from Johnston at the time of her death.

The couple were married a month after meeting in America in 2011 following a whirlwind romance, but the relationship soured and Ms Wilkinson moved back to Australia.

Johnston followed her there, attempting to reconcile the relationship.

Mr McCarthy said Ms Wilkinson had told her sisters Johnston was “abusive and controlling”, eventually telling him to leave the family home.

The court was told the relationship between Johnston (pictured) was subject to protection orders at the time of Ms Wilkinson’s death.
The court was told the relationship between Johnston (pictured) was subject to protection orders at the time of Ms Wilkinson’s death.

A protection order was eventually taken out on behalf of Ms Wilkinson by police.

Mr McCarthy said Ms Wilkinson had talked with her family about her fear of Johnston, even organising a “code word” to alert family members if she was in trouble.

The court was told Johnston was accused of sexually assaulting and raping Ms Wilkinson in the weeks prior to her murder.

But Johnston has disputed the allegations, which are yet to go to trial in the District Court in Southport at a later date.

Johnston’s behaviour continued to unravel in the weeks leading up to her murder, claiming to co-workers he was feeling suicidal.

During drinks with another person on April 18, 2021, Johnston asked him: “If something happens to me, will you be the one to tell everyone I am a good person?”

On the day of Ms Wilkinson’s murder, Johnston was dressed in black, carrying a duffel bag and wearing a black mask when he entered the Arundel home.

There, he doused his former wife in petrol and setting her alight.

KELLY WILKINSON MURDER
Kelly Wilkinson’s family and friends arrive at Brisbane Supreme Court for Johnston’s sentencing on Wednesday. Picture: NCA NewsWire / John Gass
KELLY WILKINSON MURDER
Wednesday’s sentencing follows Johnston entering a plea of guilty to the murder of his ex-wife weeks before a scheduled Supreme Court trial was due to start. Picture: NCA NewsWire / John Gass

Mr McCarthy said the horrific act in the home’s backyard was witnessed by neighbours, one of whom heard the sounds of an argument and a woman screaming “please stop”.

The neighbour said he saw Johnston emptying the jerry can, including onto himself, before seeing flames climb a metre high.

The court was told he was seen jumping in the pool to extinguish the flames on his body.

Police later tracked a badly-burned Johnston to a nearby street with a dog squad and following a trail of blood.

“He was lying on his back and had lacerations to both wrists, burns to his arms, hands, airways and face,” Mr McCarthy said.

“His clothing smelled strongly of petrol.”

Police discovered a duffel bag belonging to Johnston filled with tape, rope fashioned into a hangman’s noose and zipties.

He submitted Johnston planned to use the items to restrain Ms Wilkinson before taking her life, and his own.

Multiple stab wounds were also discovered on Ms Wilkinson’s body, inflicted by a knife Johnston had brought with him.

It was found at the bottom of the same pool he had jumped in to extinguish the flames.

‘Immeasurable pain and suffering’: Family’s tears for lost sister

Multiple victim impact statements from Ms Wilkinson’s family and friends were read out in court remembering Ms Wilkinson’s cheeky, bubbly personality.

Reading from her victim impact statement Ms Carroll said Johnston had robbed her of her baby sister – her “best friend and confidante”.

She spoke of the overwhelming grief she felt the moment her father Reg called her to say Johnston had killed Kelly.

“There is no way to articulate the depth of loss my family and I have had to endure,” Ms Carroll said.

“Not only taking her life, but her body as well.

KELLY WILKINSON MURDER
Multiple members of Ms Wilkinson’s family spoke in court of their profound grief after Johnston’s murder. Picture: NCA NewsWire / John Gass

“I couldn’t hold her hand, kiss her on the forehead. You robbed me of giving her the proper goodbye she deserved.”

Ms Carroll’s husband and Kelly’s brother-in-law Reece spoke of his attempts to help Johnston throughout his life, even helping him move to Australia from the US, not realising he was a “monster”.

“It’s taken me eight long years to realise there’s no helping a monster like you,” he said.

“I once called you brother – once.”

Mr Carroll asked how anyone could so such an “unforgivable” act to someone they claimed to love.

“This is pure unrepentant evil and you did this. You did all of this,” he continued.

KELLY WILKINSON MURDER
Crown prosecutor Mark McCarthy (centre) leaves the Supreme Court. Picture: NCA NewsWire / John Gass

Wednesday’s act follows years of waiting for the grieving Wilkinson family as the case tracked through the magistrates court.

In February, during an arraignment at Brisbane Supreme Court, he pleaded guilty to the charge of murder – just weeks away from a scheduled trial in the same court.

Natalie, Ms Wilkinson’s other sister, said her life changed completely upon losing Kelly.

She told the court she spent more than a year “stuck in bed”, losing relationships and struggling to communicate with her friends.

“I will never get to have another conversation with her, or have one last hug.”

Planning, premeditation before Kelly’s murder

In imposing the life sentence, Justice Applegarth said there were signs Johnston had formed a premeditated plan to kill his ex-wife.

“There was planning and premeditation: turning up at her home with a 20L can of petrol, with items in a camouflage bag, dressed in black and with a black mask on your head,” he said.

“I cannot be sure how precisely you intended to kill your wife, and then yourself.

Justice Applegarth said Johnston had formed a premeditated plan to detain and kill Ms Wilkinson (pictured) when he went to the Arundel home. Picture: Supplied
Justice Applegarth said Johnston had formed a premeditated plan to detain and kill Ms Wilkinson (pictured) when he went to the Arundel home. Picture: Supplied

“The mask, the duct tape, the knives, and the petrol tell us that you had a premeditated plan to detain her and to kill her.

“You obviously wanted to silence her from being a witness in pending proceedings. You may have simply wanted to kill her because you had lost control of her and thought she should be your possession.”

Kim Bryson, Johnston’s defence barrister, said her client had grown up exposed to violence, compounded by his service in the US marines.

During two tours of Iraq in 2007 and 2009 he was exposed to nerve agents, a colleague’s suicide and “severely” injured children.

Johnston was diagnosed with depression and ADHD at the time and was encouraged not to seek treatment, the court was told.

Ms Bryson said he otherwise had good employment history in mechanical work since his medical discharge from the marines.

She said her client suffered severe third degree burns to 20 per cent of his body and contracted a staph infection which now required ongoing treatment.

KELLY WILKINSON MURDER
Kim Bryson (centre) acted for Johnston during the proceedings. Picture: NCA NewsWire / John Gass

Johnston was supported by his mother, who had travelled from the US, in court.

Despite Johnston’s “deluded and antediluvian beliefs”, Justice Applegarth said Johnston clearly had formed an intention to kill before arriving at home.

Justice Applegarth found Johnston had an intent to kill before arriving at the home despite it being such an “unforgivable, irrational and deluded” act.

“Kelly Wilkinson was not yours to control,” he said.

“You ignored her dignity and her autonomy.

“You violated her security in breach of a court order for her protection. You brutally killed her in a sustained attack with knives and burnt her to death.

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