Transcript: 165. The Murder of Santa Safari Guide, Rebecca Johnson | Finland

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The most authentic Christmas experience on earth, is to visit the man in the red suit himself, at his home in Lapland. At Santa Claus Village, tourists from all over the world can see how things work in the North Pole. 

It is a trip most of us can only dream of: Santa’s digs, located in a snow-clad forest, snow angels, next-level snowball fights, tobogganing and the aroma of mulled wine in the air. Tour operators, like Santa Safari offer experiences like snowmobiling a reindeer sleigh ride and husky sledding. You can also cuddle husky puppies in the one-of-a-kind’ puppy encounter’ option.

Grown-ups and children, all marvel in the magic that is Christmas in Lapland. At Santa Claus Village, Santa’s post office and workshop can be found inside a snow-covered stone and wood building. If you were to close your eyes and imagine Santa’s home, this would be it. Smiling elves welcome visitors and share the joy of Yuletide. 

Inside, everything about Santa’s life and work is on display. An infographic explains how Santa’s ‘earth’s rotational speed regulator’ works. This allows Santa to make his annual trip, around the world on one night: Christmas Eve. Even non-believers walk away in awe, holding on to a small glimmer of hope that the magic of Santa is real after all…

But behind the scenes, the people who work as elves and guides are not magical beings. They are every bit as human and you and me. And even when living in a magical place like Lapland, one cannot always escape the demons within… 

>>Intro Music

Karl Frybl was in his thirties when he moved to the UK from the Czech Republic. The former soldier, who served in the Czech Army in Kosovo and Afghanistan, was ready for a new start. He changed his name to Radek Kovac and settled into his new life in Scotland. He worked at the mountain sports retailer, Ellis Bringham, in Aviemore, but that was only to put bread on his table.

Radek was a passionate sportsman, a top-runner and a competitive dog sled racer. In 2015, he met a lovely girl by the name of Rebecca Johnson. Becky, as everyone called her, was originally from Burntisland, Fife. She was close to her family and kept in regular contact with her parents Henry and Anne, and her older siblings Scott and Victoria. 

Before long, Becky moved in with Radek. Their ten-year age difference didn’t bother them, and it seemed like they have found the real thing. They were both athletic and competitive and shared an insatiable love for animals, especially dogs. Like Radek, Becky was also into dog sled racing, and together they dreamed of living in the arctic together, with their dogs of course.  

First, they lived in Inverness, then moved to Tulloch, Nethy Bridge in 2014. Locals soon came to know Becky for her dog obedience training. Her racing hobby also gave her the idea to sell mushing equipment, a side-business that churned over nicely. Radek, on the other hand, was not that well liked. He was quarrelsome and had many unpleasant run-ins with their neighbours. 

Becky’s family only met Radek in 2015 and didn’t warm to him as much as she would have wanted them to. He seemed cold and indifferent, and they felt the bubbly Becky deserved someone who was more like her: open, positive and caring. Nonetheless, Becky seemed happy, and she was a grown woman who made her own choices. The couple also travelled to Radek’s native Czech Republic together, where she met his relatives. 

Then, in 2016, they took decisive action to make their dreams come true. They moved to Finland, where they found work on a husky ranch in the Christmas wonderland of Lapland. Dogsledding in Finland was number one on Becky’s bucket list.

Every November, seasonal workers arrive in the northern Finnish resort town of Kuttanen, Enontekiö and stay through January. Kuttanen is about 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle – in the far-north of Finland, on the border to Sweden. For the most part, the village is home to only 100 people, with the population increasing exponentially over the peak season.

Being experienced dog sled racers, Radek and Becky were perfectly suited for the job at Santa Safari. Becky had talked about working with dogs in the arctic for years and was excited about the opportunity. It took some effort to get there, however, seeing as they wanted to take their own dogs with them, and needed to make sure they complied with all the requirements to obtain pet passports. Once in Finland, their arrival was on the bumpy side… They were not quite as well prepared for the extreme cold of the arctic winter, and on their way to the husky ranch, their van broke down. 

But they finally reached their home-for-the season, a log cabin on the husky ranch in the village of Kuttanen. Becky was in regular contact with her family back home, and told them that she enjoyed working there, that conditions were good and that it was everything she had hoped it would be.

Becky and Radek were employed by a UK-based tour operator, located in Oxford. Transun offers a variety of packages, including snow mobile rides, a 40-minute husky-sled rides and taking a reindeer sleigh to see Santa. All of the sleigh rides and sledding routes weave through the snow-covered pine forests in the Lapland countryside. A popular activity is the puppy encounter, where tourists can play with husky puppies on the ranch. People come from all over the world to enjoy this adventure and see the Northern Lights. For most, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Becky and Radek worked most of the days and caring for the animals was a 7-day-a-week effort. There was one other co-worker on the ranch, Joseph Pickles, who came from England. It was no secret to Joe that Becky and Radek had a volatile relationship. They were always at each other’s throats about everything. She once corrected the native Czech’s English and he reacted by breaking up with her on Facebook. Her friends back home in Scotland knew about Becky’s toxic relationship with her boyfriend and quietly hoped that she would end things with him soon.

But, no matter how ugly things got between them, Becky and Radek always made up, after every fight. From the outside in, judging by their social media posts, it looked like their time together in Lapland was just what the doctor ordered. Becky posted a selfie of her and Radek, in a silly pose, both of them smiling from ear to ear. The caption said:

“Now, more than ever, cherish time with the ones you love. Love you Radek Kovac.”

The couple may have had their good times, but as time went on, the bickering increased. Radek was often verbally abusive to Becky. Her sister, Victoria, did not like what Becky told her about Radek. Becky described the abuse she suffered inside her home in a text to Victoria:

“He smacked me at the back of my head. He threw a plate and table at me and slapped me across the face. I went down to push the bolt as far as possible so he cannot come back.”

After hearing about this fight Victoria sent this WhatsApp message to Becky, warning her:

“This will escalate and he may end up killing you.”

Sadly, these words were prophetic…

On Friday night, the 2nd of December, Radek and Becky had an epic fight. She was so upset, she didn’t want to sleep in the same cabin as him, so she kicked him out. Radek went to crash in Joe’s cabin for the night. Joe was aware of the couple’s problems. He agreed that Radek could stay the night, but he didn’t really want to get involved. In fact, Joe was wary of Radek. Becky had told him that she was planning on leaving Radek, because he pushed her down the stairs.

The next morning, Becky got ready for work. But she was scared. She knew Radek was out there and she had to face him. She called Caitlin Howard, a colleague and friend, back in England, with a desperate plea. Becky told her that she was stuck in an abusive relationship and that Radek had kicked her in the stomach. She asked if their employer could have Radek kicked off of the Husky farm. Caitlin Howard was concerned about Becky and understood that she was ‘scared and upset’. Becky was still on the phone when Radek arrived at the cabin, sometime around 7am. Caitlin heard three gut wrenching screams… She recalled:

“There were screams — just scream, scream, screams. After that the line went dead. She sounded like she was in trouble.”

This was the last time Caitlin ever spoke to her friend.

Meanwhile, Joe Pickles was tending to the dogs outside and also heard screams coming from Becky and Radek’s cabin. He rushed over to see what was going on. When he arrived, he found Radek standing over a bleeding Rebecca, with a knife in his hand.

Joe recalled the moment he entered the cabin:

“I said ‘Radek, stop, stop.’ Becky looked at me and screamed: ‘Joe, call an ambulance. He stabbed me.’ I came back into the room after making the call. The injuries looked worse than when I first saw her. There was a lot of blood. Her safari uniform was wet with blood. I touched her and realised she was gone.”

As for Radek, here is Joe’s recollection:

“He had blank, dead eyes. He was in a rage. At this point, I didn’t make any eye contact because I didn’t want to challenge him. His movements were erratic. He moved many times through several cabins. He tried to start the car, but it was too cold.”

When the van wouldn’t start, Radek prepared a sled and took off into the dark and icy wilderness, taking three of his dogs with him. 

Police were notified of the situation at 7:45am. There was some confusion, seeing as Joe was in shock, and could not give the operator the exact address of the remote husky farm where the cottage was located. In Lapland, large, desolate municipalities often do not have a physical police station. 16 stations serve 21 municipalities, protecting 180,000 residents in Northern Finland. Patrol officers, mostly operating from home, are the first point of contact in case of emergency. The average wait time in Enontekiö was over an hour. 

But Joe was a seasonal worker who had only arrived a couple of weeks before. He called the official emergency number, 1-1-2 and reached the police in Kittalä, 150km away. As investigators navigated their way to the scene in sub-zero temperatures, they contacted patrol in Hetta, about 40 kilometres from the ranch, and sent them to the scene.

When emergency services arrived, there was nothing they could do to save Becky. Joe informed them about what he had witnessed, and a manhunt was launched to find Radek. Police and rescue workers set off into the frozen wilderness on snowmobiles and sleds. Kuttanen is located on the Swedish border, and law enforcement agencies from both Finland and Sweden took part in the search. A local resident said:

“It was very dramatic for this area. There are hardly ever situations like this in Finland.”

Meanwhile, busloads of tourists began arriving for a day of Christmas-themed magic. To most of them, this was the trip of a lifetime, and expectations were high. Transun was made aware of the tragedy and posted on social media that some tours would be disrupted. The statement said:

"We are deeply saddened to confirm that a member of staff working for our overseas supplier Santa Safari was discovered dead on the 3rd of December. The thoughts of everyone at Transun go out to the family, friends and the Santa Safari team. We will do everything we can to support them at this difficult time."

While police were searching for Radek in the woods, all day-adventures were suspended. One tourist, who had paid five thousand pounds for the Santa experience said:

 “Nobody knew what was going on. The communication was awful. We should have been out on a four-hour trip with a 40-minute husky ride, snowmobile ride and reindeer sleigh to see Santa. However we got just two minutes going round in a circle on the reindeers – like a donkey on Blackpool beach. It turns out Transun were putting our safety first, which we are glad of, but they didn’t deal with the situation very well.”

The search effort was in full swing. Authorities knew that the -30 degree Celsius temperature would pose a challenge to Radek. Fleeing into the woods like he did was suicide. About seven hours into the search, at 2pm, Radek and his three dogs were spotted by a border guard helicopter. It was about four miles from the cabin, on a sloped riverbed. When officers reached him by snow mobile, he was shirtless, cowering in the snow. There appeared to be a wound on his abdomen and he was suffering from hypothermia. His rottweiler attacked police, who then shot the dog. Radek wailed and shouted that police should kill him too. 

From the riverbed, Radek was taken to Lapland Central Hospital in Rovaniemi for treatment. He was recovering from shock and hypothermia and police had to wait before they could interview him. The only thing doctors could reveal at that point, was that wounds on his abdomen were probably self-inflicted.

Back in Scotland, Becky’s family and friends woke up with the devastating news of her murder. It was incomprehensible that someone so full of energy and lust for life was gone. Becky’s great-aunt said:

“Rebecca was a beautiful girl. It is horrible for her parents and grandparents to lose her just before Christmas.”

On Sunday morning, the day after the attack, Radek was released from hospital and taken into police custody. The police issued a statement, saying that Radek Kovac was co-operative, but that he was not able to (quote) “…clarify a specific motive for his suspected act.” (unquote)

Radek reportedly told police that Becky attacked him, during an argument about their dogs. She did not want him to take the dogs with him when they broke up. He claimed that he had blacked out and could not remember the frenzied knife attack that followed. Here is Radek’s version of events:

“I told her the puppies are mine. She said on the phone ‘I want him to be removed from the farm’. I called her a stupid girl. When I turned, I felt this impact on my chest and sharp pain. I remember I fell to the ground. I don’t remember whether we both fell. The next thing I remember, I was getting up. I had a knife in my hand. I don’t know if somebody smacked me or if I was on drugs. I went next to Becky and remember there was blood on her face. I said we need to get a bloody ambulance.” 

By this time, police were confident that Becky did NOT stab Radek. If she had done so, there would have been a trail of blood in the snow, and searchers would have noticed it when they were out in the woods looking for him. Also, his shirt and snow jacket had no cuts, which indicated that he had stabbed himself after taking off his clothing.

An autopsy showed that Becky received no less than 40 stab wounds. It was inflicted with a 4-inch blade, from a knife. Ten of the wounds were in her chest, puncturing her lungs and heart, and 30 slashes on her head, back, abdomen and thighs. Defensive wounds on her hands showed that she tried to protect herself.

Radek was formally charged with Rebecca Johnson’s murder on 7 Dec and held on remand until his trial in August the following year. 

Becky’s funeral was held in her hometown in Scotland on January 6th. Her family asked mourners to wear Becky’s favourite colour, purple, or animal print in her honour. Her dogs were back home by then, having left Finland just before Christmas.

With formal charges against Radek, information surfaced about him that raised a couple of eyebrows. Firstly, Finnish authorities insisted on using his birth name of Karel Frybl for legal proceedings, not his chosen name of Radek Kovac. This was news to Becky’s family, but a friend claimed that Becky knew about his double-identity. In a text to her friend, Becky explained that Radek had changed his name when he lived in the UK. Because of his military background, his home country of the Czech Republic refused to accept the change. 

In Scotland, Karel had the new name of Radek. But he could not shake his violent streak and managed to get three assault convictions behind his name. The first charge was for domestic violence in 2013. An ex-girlfriend came forward and said that she had dated Radek for three weeks when she realised he was dangerous. She tried to break off the relationship and he punched her in the face. He was fined 700 pounds for this attack. A year later, he was ordered to do 250 hours of community service after two other assaults in Hamilton.

In August 2017, Becky’s family closed the doors of their business in Burntisland and made their way to Rovaniemi to attend their daughter’s murder trial. 

In the courtroom, the man they knew as Radek, was only a couple of metres away, hiding under a hoodie and avoiding eye contact. His defence lawyer, Katri Mäkinen, claimed that he admitted to killing Becky, but that the murder was not premeditated. She said this:

"The juridical question here is if the defendant is guilty of manslaughter or murder. The defendant has pleaded guilty of manslaughter but denies the murder… My client takes full responsibility for having caused the death of Rebecca Johnson and he regrets it deeply.”

Mäkinen claimed Radek suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, following his service in the military in Kosovo. However, a psychological evaluation deemed him to be ‘fully competent’, and that he knew his actions were wrong in the course of committing the murder.

The prosecution argueda that the attack on Becky was not an isolated incident. They painted a picture of their relationship in court, by reading WhatsApp messages Becky sent to her family in the weeks and days leading up to her murder. In one thread, she told her sister about a conversation she had with and English snow mobile operator. She joked about how slow Radek drove. At the time, Radek took it as a joke, but as soon as they were alone, he exploded. Here is a text Becky typed:

“I joked about how slow he was driving. He even laughed. An hour later, he comes to the cottage and starts slapping me in the face, not very hard, but also not softly. He started accusing me of flirting with that English guy. I tried to defend myself and he threw me a big scoop filled with meat and it hurt the back of my head (which is still sore), raged. After feeding the animals 45 minutes later I went to Facebook and he had removed and blocked me.”

Shortly before Becky died, Radek unfriended her on Facebook, blocked her and everyone he had met through her, and changed his relationship status to ‘single’. He had done it before, but Becky had had enough. She texted a friend:

“I’m used to it, it wasn’t the first time, but for me it was the last.”

It was clear their relationship was on the rocks. They had a heated argument on Friday night the 2nd of December. The biggest point of contention was their dogs. In the end, Radek left to go and sleep in Joe’s cabin for the night. But before the sun was out, early on the Saturday morning, the fight resumed.

The prosecution looked at the knife wounds inflicted on Becky’s torso. They pointed out that there were multiple stab wounds on her back. So, either Radek initiated the attack, and she didn’t see him coming, OR she tried to flee and he continued stabbing her. Either way, the attack was heartless and sudden.

In court, a recording of the phone call Joe Pickles made to their boss shortly after finding Becky was played. He made this phone call while he was holding for emergency services. Joe tries to get out of the situation, he is fearful and crying as he speaks:

“Becky – I think she’s dying. I think she’s dead. I’m in danger here. I don’t want to be hurt. Please come quick – I don’t want to die. I don’t want to answer any more questions in case he’s hiding, just send someone, fast. He will catch me, he’s faster than me. I’m trying to escape… I think he’s coming back. I’m scared. I’m hiding in the van. Don’t go to the farm in case Radek gets you. I’m getting away, I don’t feel safe. She had a big scar across her face. I don’t know if he punched her… I was outside, working and they have been arguing all morning. She told me he stabbed her and to call an ambulance.”

It was chilling to hear his fearful testimony, as it happened. When it was Radek’s time to take the stand, the mood had changed. He showed little emotion and his testimony was strange and confusing. He spoke about Becky’s murder, saying:

 “I cannot think a normal human being would do that. It just doesn’t make sense… I pretty much didn’t do it. Becky was a strong determined person. But there is no comparison on our strength. No need for a knife. The intention is one injury and not a crazy amount of injury. These acts seem absurd.”

In the end, the judges considered the psychiatrist’s report, concluding that Radek was in full control of his actions. The fact that he fled into the woods, attempting to evade capture, proved that he knew what he had done was wrong. The fact that he tried to frame Becky for stabbing him, proved that he was thinking clearly, hoping to victimise himself. 

Six months later, in February 2018, Radek Kovac, aka Karl Frybl was found guilty by the District Court of Rovaniemi and sentenced to life in prison, which in Finland is 12-14 years. The court felt that the sheer force of the attack was beyond culpable homicide, it was without a doubt murder. Radek attacked Becky, with the intent to end her life. Judge Esko Hohti said that Becky was the victim of a…

“…very cruel, extremely violent and cold-blooded act.”

As the verdict was handed down the convicted murderer did not show any emotion. He was sent to Pyhäselkä prison. In Finland, a life sentence is rarely more than 14 years and conditions are some of the best in the world. Their focus is on rehabilitation and supporting convicts to reintegrate into society. Kovac was also ordered to pay compensation to Becky’s family who had to take time off work and travel to Finland in the wake of events. The compensation also had to cover funeral costs and pay for the transportation of Becky’s dogs back to Scotland.

In November 2018, after an appeal, Radek Kovac, aka Karl Frybl’s murder conviction was overturned and downgraded to homicide, for which he was given an 11-year prison sentence.

The judges took a vote and landed on 2 to 1 in favour of homicide. Frybl’s lawyer, Johannes Ahola said:

“This means that it has been a difficult case, because it is rather unusual for the Appeals Court judges to vote. It happens, but not really often.”

If one considers the argument that Radek suffered from PTSD and blacked out during the attack, perhaps it is fair that the sentence was overturned. But the facts remain: he abused Becky with his violent behaviour, even before he ended her life. She realised that she was in a bad situation, and wanted to get out, but he wouldn’t let her. While Christmas is a time of giving, Radek callously took the one thing he could not give back – Becky’s life…

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