NORTH ADAMS — Christa Steele-Knudslien may have been the first transgender person who died by violence in the U.S. this year, but her close friends say they are hoping the legacy she leaves behind is more reflective of her life than her death.
Christa's third husband, Mark Steele-Knudslien turned himself into Adams police last week, allegedly admitting that he "snapped" during an argument, causing him to hit her numerous times in the head with a hammer, before stabbing her with a knife.
When North Adams police responded to the couple's Veazie Street home, they found Christa's body wrapped in bedding and a tarp, secured with a rope, according to court documents.
Steven Haskell, who considers himself Christa's "closest friend," said that no matter what troubles she faced at home, the 42-year-old woman was a bubbly, vibrant fighter who encouraged those around her to be their best selves.
Haskell, who met Steele-Knudslien through the Miss Trans New England Pageant she organized in 2009, shared a home on Friend Street with her and her then-boyfriend, Mark, until March.
Steele-Knudslien enjoyed getting dressed up before having girls' nights out on the town, said Haskell, who added that she would do his makeup and hair.
Christa Steele-Knudslien, a tattoo artist, was looking into going to school for cosmetology this year, he said.
"Sometimes I do blame myself," Haskell said. "If I stayed there, maybe I could have done something."
While the three lived together, Christa Steele-Knudslien confided in Haskell about concerns with Mark's drinking, which occasionally caused him to get mean or even violent, he said.
But in March, the couple's relationship seemed to be improving, so Haskell moved into veterans' housing in Holyoke.
"It looked like it was going to work out, so I wanted to give them their space," Haskell said.
In April, the couple got married and spent the following months fixing up their new Veazie Street home in North Adams, where they lived with their many pets.
Haskell said that when he visited the couple on Thanksgiving and Christmas, he was impressed with the amount of work they put into the house and didn't see any problems in their marriage, making it even more of a shock when he heard the news of her death last week.
"I didn't think he could do that," Haskell said. "The saddest part is when I left them in March I thought they were going to work out."
Christa's marriage to Mark wasn't the first time she encountered domestic violence, according to her friends and court documents.
In general, issues of domestic violence impact transgender people at higher rates than their cisgender counterparts, according to Jennifer Wahr, an LGBTQ counselor and advocate for North and Central Berkshire County said.
Cisgender is a term for people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth.
In 2015, Christa Steele married her second husband, Jose Torres, according to Berkshire Probate and Family court records. A year later, in a divorce filing, Christa told the court that Torres threatened to "beat (her) senseless" a week after he was released from jail after serving a sentence for robbery.
"He just got out of jail for armed robbery and I'm fearful for myself," she wrote in the filing. "He has stabbed me and tryed to stabb (sic) friends."
Jasmine Noelia Andino, another friend of Christa's, said that the two bonded with each other over their shared experiences of domestic violence.
"Of course, in the trans community, we're high at risk for suicide, bullying, sexual abuse and domestic violence," Andino said. "It could make it hard to be who we are."
When Andino was struggling in life, Steele-Knudslien would offer her support.
Last week, when Andino, who is in recovery from substance abuse, relapsed, she knew to whom to turn.
"I was talking to her about making my comeback," Andino said. "She was basically doing what she always does: she just told me that I'm strong."
Andino said that she was troubled by the reaction to her friend's death online, which included commenters discussing whether or not she should be labeled a "transgender" victim of homicide and domestic violence.
"A person lost their life and was murdered," she said. "The title harms us more than it does good. It's taking away from what's happening."
Mark Steele- Knudslien pleaded not guilty in Northern Berkshire District Court on Monday to one count of murder and is being held without bail.
After turning himself into police, he signed ownership of their pets to the city of North Adams.
Their two pit bulls, a miniature pinscher, a chihuahua and three cats were dropped off at the Berkshire Humane Society, according to the organization's executive director John Perreault.
The animals are in the process of being spayed and neutered and will be adopted out to new families in the coming weeks, Perreault said.
"Overall, they're quite nice," Perreault said of the couple's dogs and cats.
Several reptiles and fish were also removed from the home, but are not with the Humane Society.
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at email@example.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.