PITTSFIELD — A North Adams man was sentenced to up to life in prison Thursday for the brutal 2018 killing of his wife at the couple's home.
Mark Steele-Knudslien, 49, pleaded guilty in Berkshire Superior Court to a charge of second-degree murder in the death of Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien.
"This is yet another horrific domestic violence homicide in the Berkshires," Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington said in a statement. "My office focuses on holding perpetrators of these crimes accountable and this sentence will keep a very dangerous person away from the community for years to come.
"I send my heartfelt condolences to those who loved Christa dearly and the entire transgender community who looked up to her as a leader."
Steele-Knudslien gave no statement during the hearing before John Judge Agostini and said nothing apart from answering a series of standard questions posed to him to ensure that he was pleading voluntarily with knowledge of the rights he was giving up by doing so.
Christa, 42, a transgender woman, was an organizer of the Miss Trans New England Pageant in September 2009. On a website, published under the name Christa Hilfers, she identified herself as the CEO of the pageant, and an organizer of the New England Trans United Pride March and Rally, held in Northampton in October 2009.
First Assistant Berkshire District Attorney Karen Bell read an impact statement to the court on behalf of Christa's father, Robert, and her brother, Jason. In that statement, the men spoke of their loss of a best friend, and the loss of sleep and mental anguish they have endured, picturing the brutality of her demise.
Christa was beaten with a hammer and then stabbed in the back with a knife Jan. 4, 2018. Bell, who prosecuted the case, described how she died.
The couple were sleeping on an air mattress on their home's first floor because it was too hot upstairs. At one point, Steele-Knudslien said Christa began yelling at him for moving around on the mattress too much. He said he felt belittled and that he "snapped."
He went to the basement, retrieved a hammer and began beating Christa all over her head and body with it, Bell said. While she still was alive, Steele-Knudslien took a knife from the kitchen and stabbed her in the back.
Bell said the knife was plunged so deeply into Christa's back that it still was lodged in her body during an autopsy examination.
Steele-Knudslien went to a liquor store after killing Christa, then returned to their home and tried to clean up the scene and dispose of her body. Once he wrapped her body and the murder weapons in bedding and put them in the basement, he went to the Adams Police Department and told officers he had killed his wife.
Officers searched the home and found Christa's body wrapped up where he said it would be. Police also found evidence of an attempt to clean up the crime scene, including bloody paper towels. Steele-Knudslien was arrested and has been held in custody since.
In the impact statement that Bell read to the court, Christa's family said they hope Steele-Knudslien never will be released from prison. He will be eligible to be considered for parole in 25 years.
Christa's family hopes the parole board, when it eventually makes its decision, takes into account the circumstances of her death, the inexcusable suffering she went through and Steele-Knudslien's attempts to clean up afterward, according to the statement.
Steele-Knudslien's attorney, Leonard Cohen, said it was a "big if" whether his client ever would be paroled.
Cohen described Steele-Knudslien as someone who fell through the cracks of the system and didn't receive any adequate treatment of serious mental health issues that were diagnosed when he was about 8 years old. The problems with Steele-Knudslien's mental health only grew worse as he got older, said Cohen, adding that he should have been receiving in-depth psychological treatment throughout his life and never received it.
Steele-Knudslien will serve his sentence at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Cedar Junction and receive credit for 748 days of time served in custody while awaiting trial.
In a statement released after the sentencing, Ashley Shade and Jennifer Wahr, of the Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition, wrote that "the message is so often that transgender lives are less valuable, and deserve less justice. That message is disturbing, painful, and unjust, and has real consequences to the lives of those in our community.
"This message starts to change when justice is served. But nothing can replace what was lost to our community when Christa was killed."
Bob Dunn can be reached at email@example.com, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.