St. Louis County sheriff: Langenbrunner slaying was never a 'cold case'

Duluth News Tribune
Joseph Couture
Couture was arrested at his Cloquet home June 15, 2012, after two unidentified witnesses told investigators that he had admitted killing Trina Langenbrunner, a 33-year-old mother of three, in 2000.

St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman said he and his office’s investigators, both those retired and active, never considered Trina Langenbrunner’s slaying a “cold case,” because they continued to work it since her death.

It took nearly a dozen years, but Litman and St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said Monday that they are confident enough evidence has been produced to convict Joseph John Couture of murder for allegedly stabbing Langenbrunner to death on Sept. 3, 2000.

Sheriff’s deputies arrested Couture at his Cloquet home on Friday afternoon, and he was arraigned in State District Court on Monday, charged with intentional second-degree murder and second-degree criminal sexual conduct.

“I, and the officers working on this case — many of whom are standing here in this room against that back wall — have no doubt that the person that we arrested last Friday is responsible for Trina’s death,” Litman said during a Monday afternoon news conference at the Public Safety Building on North Arlington Road.

“Joe Couture’s arrest on Friday is the culmination of nearly 12 years of investigative work consisting of follow-up of just under 1,000 leads, hundreds of interviews, forensic results and the cooperation of witnesses,” Litman said.

However, none of the authorities was prepared to say what new evidence was developed, or what changed to allow them to bring charges now, and why it took nearly a dozen years for witnesses to come forward.

After the news conference, Litman, Rubin and Assistant County Attorney Jessica Smith, who will be the lead prosecutor in the case, all said those questions will eventually be answered as the case proceeds toward a potential trial.

A $100,000 reward had been offered to solve Langenbrunner’s slaying. Litman and Smith both said no one has come forward to claim it.

Judge Dale Harris granted Smith’s request to set Couture’s bail at $1 million. The defendant is a convicted Level 3 sex offender.

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. Couture was a neighbor of Langenbrunner at the time. The victim’s stabbed body was discovered off a rural road in southern St. Louis County.

Couture has provided a number of statements to authorities. He said he knew the victim but had no contact with her for a significant amount of time before her death. However, he admitted he was driving his gray minivan in the immediate area and at the approximate time the victim was last seen alive.

According to the criminal complaint:

A witness told investigators that Couture, 41, of Cloquet went to the Brookston Bar, also known as Stoneybrook Saloon, on Sept. 2, 2000. The witness said they were awakened when Couture returned to the residence.

The witness said Couture was covered in blood, lighted a fire with the aid of gasoline, stripped off his clothing and shoes and burned them.

The defendant’s burned shoes were New Balance brand and had been purchased by the witness. The witness said that Couture drove an ATV toward a river behind the residence. When he returned, he demanded that his van be taken to be washed immediately and he took a shower. The witness saw large amounts of blood smeared on the outside of the van and coated on the steering wheel of the vehicle.

The witness said that after that day, Couture would comment on his ability to kill a person, having done it before. The witness reported that Couture said he had killed Langenbrunner, and he threatened to kill the witness in the same fashion.

The witness said that before Sept. 3, 2000, Couture had carried a knife in a sheath on his belt. After Sept. 3 of that year, the witness never saw the knife again.

The witness said that Couture claimed to have disposed of evidence down the trail where he drove his ATV.

At 10 a.m. on Sept. 3, 2000, a passerby in the area of Duff Road and Highway 2 discovered Langenbrunner’s body lying in a driveway near a gravel pit.

The victim had been repeatedly stabbed in the torso, back and face. The medical examiner determined the cause of death to be blood loss from multiple stab wounds. She also appeared to have been sexually assaulted.

Investigators found tire marks and shoe patterns for both Couture and Langenbrunner at the scene where her body was found. The tire marks were determined to have been made by a Dodge or Plymouth minivan. The shoe pattern for the suspect’s shoes were consistent with a New Balance model shoe. At the time of the homicide, Couture owned an older-model gray Dodge minivan. A witness saw a vehicle matching that description at the crime scene about 3 a.m. on Sept. 3, 2000.

The criminal complaint refers in generalities to DNA gathered from the victim’s body that can’t be excluded as coming from Couture. Smith said there will be more precise scientific evidence linking the defendant to the crime if the case goes to trial with an expert on DNA testifying.

The witnesses are not referred to by name or gender in the criminal complaint. They are identified simply as Witness 1 and Witness 2.

Witness 2 also said that Couture confessed to committing the murder. The witness said that Couture believed he was going to have sex with Langenbrunner that night but she rejected him. The witness said that Couture said he “snapped,” and “it went brutal.” Couture said he “whooped the dog s—- out” of the victim, “stabbed her, choked her out,” according to the witness.

At this point, authorities are taking precautions to protect the witnesses.

Prosecutor Smith filed a certificate of nondisclosure of witnesses under the Rules of Criminal Procedure. She cited Couture’s history of threatening witnesses in past cases and told the court that she wanted to protect the safety of witnesses in the current case.

Court rules permit witnesses’ names to remain confidential until they testify at trial 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.

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. She’s survived by three children, Sheila, Todd Jr. and Shelly Tormanen.

Rubin said that no decision has been made on whether to file a notice to present the case to a grand jury to seek a first-degree murder indictment. His office has 14 days to file such a notice.

Smith will be assisted in prosecuting the case by assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jonathan Holets.

The court ruled that because of a lack of income and assets, Couture qualifies to be represented by a public defender. Northeastern Minnesota’s chief public defender Fred Friedman has appointed lawyers Cynthia Evenson and Kevin Cornwell to represent Couture.

Couture’s next court appearance is scheduled for June 28.

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