**While it may seem obvious that a write-up about a homicide case will contain violent and disturbing details, I am putting this extra special content/trigger warning here. This is a homicide that definitely qualifies as an ‘overkill’, and is describing violence against someone from a targeted minority group (trans/intersex). There are also mentions of transphobic comments and actions by individuals other than the perpetrator of the crime itself.**
I first met Christa in the hours following another Trans friend’s suicide, January 5th, 2008. She was the last person to see him alive, and I was cleaning up his apartment so his widow did not have to do that. Christa stopped by to see his widow, and that is when we met. I recognized her from activities in the local LGBT community as the organizer of the Miss Trans New England beauty pageant, which a few of my friends had participated in. It was exactly ten years almost to the day that Christa was murdered by her husband, Mark.
In the early morning hours of January 4th, 2018, Christa and Mark were trying to sleep on an air mattress in their living room downstairs from their bedroom, because the temperature in the bedroom was uncomfortable. They had been living in and working on renovating their new home in a residential neighborhood in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, trying to create the kind of life Christa had always wanted. They loved Halloween, and had gotten into a fun competition with neighbors with Halloween yard decorations. Christa’s birthday was December 4th, and she posted a picture of her cake, and then her feed turns to decorating for Christmas along with more photos of home improvements. On December 10th, she shared a photo of a holiday wreath she made with white poinsettias and butterflies in it, hanging on the living room wall around a wooden sign reading “All you need is LOVE.” Less than one month later, while struggling to try to get some sleep in that same living room, Mark made the decision to get up and grab a hammer and started hitting Christa in the head with it repeatedly. He said he was tired of being “belittled” and indicated they had argued over the air mattress. So, he hit her with the hammer in the head more than twenty-five times. It was clear that his goal was murder, because in his own words, “She wouldn’t die.” He kept striking her but she was still conscious, so he went to the kitchen and got a butcher knife. Her last words were, “Baby, what are you doing?” She died when he stabbed her in the back with the knife, puncturing her lung. Loss of blood was her official cause of death.
After killing Christa, Mark went upstairs and took a shower, and then went to the liquor store for some alcohol. When he returned to their house, he wrapped her body up in some sheets and a tarp with rope and dragged her down to the basement. He attempted to do some cleanup, as they found some bloody paper towels and sponges in the trash. Then he walked himself into the police station and announced that he should be arrested because he had done something “very bad”. Following a detailed confession, he was charged with first degree murder. He then entered a not guilty plea with the courts.
I heard about Christa’s death while I was in the middle of recording a memorial song I had written to honor a decade passing since our mutual friend’s suicide. Details of the crime were something her friends did not have right away. I think we wanted them and also didn’t want them. When the details came, it was really a lot to comprehend. This was the post I made that day, when I found the article that linked to the official documents with the details of the confession:
“This article has the most detail of any so far. TOO MUCH detail. Don't read it if you are not totally sure you are prepared. I had to cry and take a nap and had nightmares after reading it. I almost don't want to share it, but I know more and more will come out throughout the case, and it feels important to hold this space so she won't have to keep being alone in those final horrific moments. I don't know, I say the wrong things and grieve in weird and probably unhealthy ways. I hadn't seen her in a couple of years. Our spotty path-crossings were starkly marked by extremely intense shared experiences. She was very good to a couple of folks dear to my heart who are also gone. And to several who are still here, still breathing, still fighting, still loving. Take care of each other.”
The local trans community gathered to hold a memorial service for her in Northampton, MA, which was where the Miss Trans New England pageant had been held. The service was standing room only, and had to be livestreamed because there were so many community activists who were unable to attend but who needed to share in the grieving process with the community. It is always shocking when someone is killed, but this was particularly disturbing because of her seeming to have a pretty healthy marriage. She had posted about them having some problems occasionally, and then would post that they were working it out. I think people in the community were just shocked into the reality that it really could be any one of us next.
According to Christa’s close friend Er. A. Vickie Boisseau CPS, the New England Director of Intersex Campaign for Equality IC4E (who also happens to have been the officiant for Christa and Mark’s wedding), says, “Nowhere is it mentioned that she was intersex. She was born with XXY Klinefelter syndrome.” Vickie describes Christa as “naturally feminine” in her physical body as well as voice. She told me that Christa was born intersex but AFAB (assigned female at birth), however she was raised as a boy, and then transitioned to female at age 18. Vickie is a long time activist and educator in the intersex community, and has been consulting with the Trans Doe Task Force. We have talked about what would happen if one of our Doe cases turned out to be someone in the approximately 2% of the population who has some kind of intersex variation. When Vickie and I went to the sentencing, we had the opportunity to discuss some of this in relation to Christa afterwards. We talked about how if Mark hadn’t put her in the basement and turned himself in, but instead had dumped her body somewhere and tried to get away with it, what scenarios could have happened if her remains were found? Would she have been able to be identified? It sounds macabre to think about your friend in such a way, but when you do this kind of human identification work every day, these are the questions you begin to ask. What can we learn from Christa that could help our Doe cases?
If Christa’s remains were found skeletonized, anthropologists would have a very difficult time making a sex estimation for her as an unidentified decedent. They might have checked the male check box on their forms, and then not match with a missing person report if she was reported as a missing female. Or, vice versa. She might have been found right away and recognized as somehow gender-variant and had her case stuck at the bottom of the pile because of whoever handled that case deciding to deprioritize it, because that happens sometimes. Christa’s homicide and these ensuing questions were a large part of the idea behind the formation of the Trans Doe Task Force. Knowing that she was both Trans and intersex, and being married to someone who is also both of those things, and working in the field of human identification via Forensic Genetic Genealogy, I wondered if we could find people who weren’t identified because their cases were treated with either implicit or observer bias, and mishandled in some way that caused them to go unidentified. After only two years of looking for these cases, we have found over a hundred.
Arguments that people felt the need to have on social media surrounding media coverage of the crime left family and friends with further pain. Primarily, there was the repeated question, “Does it matter if she was Trans?” even while some articles were going out of their way to deadname her in their narratives of her life. Some hateful commenters took the opportunity to leave stinging comments: “They were married so obviously it wasn’t a hate crime so shouldn’t it just be stated like “‘guy killed his wife’ instead of ‘trans wife’ if transgenders want to be treated like regular people?” And, “If he didn’t kill her for being trans, then why does it matter if she was trans or not?” “Obviously he wasn’t transphobic if he married her.” And finally, “Trans people are just trying to use her to look more like victims. SEE? They’re already excitedly reporting counting her as the first trans victim of 2018.”
Here is the only answer to these and similar questions/musings: It absolutely does matter that Christa was Trans, because of the well-documented increased incidence of intimate partner violence against Trans people and the trend toward overkill/extreme violence specifically of Trans women to the point of it being a mutilation, as we saw with Pillar Point Doe. The statistic is tragic: ‘According to the 2015 US Transgender Survey, 54% of people experienced some form of partner abuse.’ (The Network/La Red)
The unresolved part of this crime is WHY did this happen? Not what made him ‘snap’, because that line of questioning often leads to victim blaming. But rather, why does this happen to Trans women so disproportionately and with such excessive violence? While we know who did it, we have the sequence of events, and we have a conviction and he’s serving a sentence, people who knew Christa are still left wondering and hurting. The truth of what happened is something that is really too much for most people to face, and that is this phenomenon of the overkill of Trans women, of the unrelenting violent targeting of trans women for unfathomable kinds of violence. If you just look at the circumstances of the deaths of the Trans women on the Transgender Day of Remembrance list from any year, you will understand what I am talking about.
I posted on the day of Mark’s sentencing: “Home from court. He plead guilty to Murder in the second degree, and was sentenced to life in prison with possibility of parole in 25 years (likely minus the two already served) which is less years than the number of times he struck her. Nevertheless, this is a good outcome for her family and friends, as a lengthy trial would have added unnecessary pain, and he is unlikely to get paroled even after that time. He is being treated for depression and psychosis while incarcerated, he told the judge. He did not make a statement, other than to answer the judge’s questions. Her family did have a statement that was read, and I hope he was listening. He did not turn his head to look at anyone, and I did not observe any outward expression of emotion from where I was seated. He maintains that he snapped. The public defender described a psych evaluation from a previous incarceration when he was a young man in the 90s that involved the doc predicting that he would eventually do something like this. I’m not sure why that was brought up since his mental fitness was not legally in question, but maybe it was entered so it will be read at any future parole hearing. Love from Massachusetts to all of you who loved Christa.”
I’m going to repeat that: Mark will serve fewer years in prison than the number of times he struck his wife’s skull with a hammer.
And this is still far closer to justice than anything most families of murdered trans people will ever see. That is not okay.
Eight states have outlawed the Trans Panic defense and Massachusetts is not one of them. Given that it’s repeatedly noted in reports that Mark said he “snapped” it is possible that his defense team may have been angling to leverage this type of defense despite the fact that he was married to his victim. One way that the trans panic defense can be colored is by combining it with citing previous mental health issues.
A long time was spent at the sentencing talking about Mark’s mental health, though his mental health wasn’t being called into question - so that leads me to believe that it will be a focus of his future parole hearings. It can also be that they went over it because it was mentioned as part of the intended defense before the plea agreement was reached. I don’t know because I have not seen all of the court filings on this case. But it is not outside the realm of possibility that they could have been preparing to riff on the Trans Panic defense in combination with his mental health diagnoses to claim he could not be held accountable. “Despite these grim statistics, there is hope. As of July 1, 2019, eight states have passed legislative bans on the use of gay/trans panic as a legal defense: California, Illinois, Rhode Island, Nevada, Connecticut, Maine, Hawaii, and New York. 6 It must be noted that gay/trans panic is not an affirmative legal defense; it is a tactic to strengthen the defense by playing on prejudice. It has, however, been used to not only explain a defendant’s actions, but to excuse them as well.” - American Bar Association
A couple of days after we met at the sentencing, after returning to his home state, Christa’s father contacted me. He had read my post and wanted to ask me to help him write about what happened to his daughter.
Mr. Steele would like people to know that Christa is loved by her family and especially by him, even though it took him a long time to accept her for who she was. He blames himself quite a bit for her hardships in life, and his pain about having disowned her when she was younger when she transitioned to female is extremely evident. “I might have been able to have saved her life if I would have only understood how things were. I could have helped her so she didn’t have to do some of the things she did. I will always hold myself partially responsible for her death, and believe me, that’s a hard thing to deal with and I don’t want another parent to feel this.” I told him that even with full parent support, these terrible things can still happen. He said, “I know that but it doesn’t help. I want everyone to know- don’t make my mistake.” They had become estranged when Christa left home to transition as a young adult, which at the time was a decision her father did not support due to his lack of education on transgender and intersex individuals before becoming a parent of one. She subsequently spent many years struggling with issues relating to substance use and stable housing.
As a parent of a Trans person, it is natural to want to protect them from a world you fear will not accept them, or is likely to treat them violently. It is often misdirected by parents into efforts to prevent or discourage their child from transitioning, rather than decrease their personal risk by affirming their identities. Mr. Steele stated, “It’s horrible to think about if she goes out with someone and they find out she’s trans and get pissed and beat her or kill her. It’s always on your mind, more than like with my other daughter. I always thought one day I would get a call and they would say your daughter was murdered, but I didn’t expect it to be her husband.”
Christa and her Dad reconnected a few years prior to her death, and he recalled their sometimes nightly phone calls in his heartbreaking victim statement he made at the sentencing. Mr. Steele told me, “I could call her any time of the night and she would always answer and we would talk for hours. And I really do miss that. She was the only one I had that way.” He also says, “Parents, don’t do what I did. Love your kids endlessly.”
Sources https://www.advocate.com/crime/2020/1/27/husband-trans-beauty-pageant-founder-sentenced-her-murder https://www.cbsnews.com/news/miss-trans-america-founder-beaten-stabbed-to-death-in-her-home/ https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/01/13/after-hard-past-she-had-found-joy/k6bra8WgDuoqbQJ2alXdRO/story.html https://www.oxygen.com/crime-news/mark-steele-knudslien-setenced-for-killing-wife-christa-leigh https://people.com/crime/mass-man-kills-transgender-activist-wife-goes-to-police-station-to-confess-i-did-something-bad https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/davidmack/transgender-murder-wife-christa-steele-knudslien https://www.masslive.com/news/2018/01/husband_told_police_he_snapped.html https://www.berkshireeagle.com/archives/husband-given-up-to-life-for-killing-trans-wife-in-north-adams-in-2018/article_5872eb64-9215-5255-b749-b49d7a2eb332.html https://www.tnlr.org/en/partner-abuse-in-lgbq-t-communities/ https://isna.org/faq/conditions/klinefelte http://transdoetaskforce.org/2020-transgender-day-of-remembrance/ https://tdor.translivesmatter.info/ https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/member-features/gay-trans-panic-defense/ IC4E