true crime

Kelly's husband walked free after being charged with her rape. Eight days later, he killed her.

This story mentions domestic violence and includes graphic details. 

In February 2021, 27-year-old Kelly Wilkinson told her family and friends she was scared of her abusive and controlling ex-husband, Brian Earl Johnston.  

She’d met and married the US marine in 2011, moving to America to be with him. In 2017 she returned to Australia alone, intending to start a new life without him, but the couple reconciled soon after, and settled into a new home on the Gold Coast. 

But the reunion was short-lived, and the couple separated. Johnston left the family home, but Kelly was left fearful for her safety. 

Watch: Hannah Clarke was also murdered by her estranged husband, and had sought help from police. Post continues after the video.

Video via Sky News.

By March, Johnston had been charged with raping Kelly—a charge he denies and is yet to face court for. He was released on bail, on the condition he not contact Kelly, unless it was about their children.

Eight days later, Kelly was dead—stabbed in the neck, doused in petrol and set alight by the same man. The man she’d desperately sought protection from. The man she once loved. The father of her children. 


This man—free despite being charged with serious offences against Kelly— tied her up and left her to burn alive. Emergency services could not revive her. 

On Wednesday, 37-year-old Johnston pleaded guilty to murdering the mother of his children, and was sentenced to life in prison. His sentence includes time served—three years—meaning he will be eligible for parole in 17 years. He’ll be 55. 

Failed by the system. 

At the time, Johnston was the subject of a domestic violence order requiring him to stay away from Kelly. But Kelly remained terrified of him. Johnston had repetitively breached the domestic violence order, and despite being charged, was released on bail.

Kelly reportedly went to a different police station every day, begging for protection. Instead, police determined she was "cop shopping", according to reports. An investigation by The Guardian showed police dismissed Kelly's fears, that she was scared for her life. For her children’s life. 

They were aware of Johnston, of his history, of Kelly's genuine fears. But they did nothing. And now Kelly is dead, murdered in the most horrific way, leaving her three children without a mother. 

At the time, Queensland Police admitted its 'failure' to protect Kelly, and committed to conducting a review of how it had handled the case. However, following Johnston's sentencing, QPS has refused to reveal the specifics of the findings. 


"We will not be releasing specifics on discipline outcomes of the members involved," Queensland Police told the Courier-Mail in a statement. 

"The QPS will always drive to improve practices and takes all domestic and family violence reports seriously and will never relent in their efforts to protect and support victims and survivors of domestic and family violence and bring perpetrators to justice.

"Everyone has the right to be safe, respected and live without fear of domestic and family violence."

A(nother) woman in fear.  

During Johnston's sentencing, the court heard Kelly was so scared during the lead up to her horrific murder, she’d established a code phrase—I’m considering moving back to Ohio—to warn her family if she was in trouble. 

As Kelly reported her former husband’s frightening behaviour to police, Johnston continued to unravel, telling co-workers he was feeling suicidal, and asking one acquaintance: 'If something happens to me, will you be the one to tell everyone I am a good person?'

On the day she was murdered, Johnston was seen walking into Kelly's home, wearing a black mask and carrying a duffle bag. He had with him, 20 litres of petrol. A neighbour reported witnessing Johnston pour petrol onto Kelly and himself, before watching the young woman go up in flames. Johnston then jumped into the pool to extinguish the flames on his own body. 

After tracking him down, Police found tape, zip ties, a tomahawk axe, a sedative, and rope fashioned into a hangman's noose. The knife, used to stab Kelly multiple times, was found at the bottom of the pool.


It’s time to take women’s fears seriously. 

Like so many women before -- and after -- her, Kelly knew she was in danger. She told police of her fears. And yet, she was still murdered.  All too often, we hear about murdered women who were already scared. Scared of violent men, abusive men, men who were the subject of DVOs, controlling men, men with violent histories. Women failed by the system that is supposed to protect them.

In the 2.5 months of 2024, eighteen women have already been murdered, most by men they knew. How many women must die before our collective fears are taken seriously?

Kelly's life may have been saved had police acted on her fears, instead of brushing them off as "cop shopping".

It’s time to start listening to women. But not just listening, taking action. Real action. It’s literally a matter of life and death. 

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. 

Mamamia is a charity partner of RizeUp Australia, a Queensland-based organisation that helps women and families move on after the devastation of domestic violence. If you would like to support their mission to deliver life-changing and practical support to these families when they need it most, you can donate here.

Feature image: supplied.