After a hard past, she had found joy
NORTH ADAMS — They were married on the shore of Windsor Lake in April. The trees had just begun to unfurl their bright green buds; the wind still carried a chill. Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien wore a wedding dress she had made herself, with beads stitched lovingly to the bodice, and Mark Steele-Knudslien told her she was unlike anyone he had ever met.
“That’s why I fell in love with you,” he said in his vows, recalled Christa’s friend A. Vickie Boisseau, an ordained elder in the Presbyterian church who officiated the small, private ceremony last year.
This was Christa’s dream, her friends said: a handsome man who adored her. They had moved into a new place together, a fixer-upper that they were renovating room by room. She baked for him. He painted and hammered and laid flooring.
Nine months later, on Jan. 5, Mark walked into the Adams Police Department and told an officer that he had done something very bad. Christa was dead. He had smashed her head with a hammer, he allegedly said, and buried a stainless steel kitchen knife in her back.
News of her death ricocheted around the town and the Internet, the first known murder of a transgender person in 2018, in what activists say is an all-too-common occurrence. In 2017, the Human Rights Campaign counted 28 transgender people killed in America — the highest annual total the civil rights organization has ever recorded. Mark has pleaded not guilty to murder.
And while it is not clear how Christa’s transgender status factored into her death, her gender identity had made her vulnerable during her life. She had been estranged from her parents, and she had been homeless; she had been severely beaten for being trans; she told a girlfriend she had been raped.
But she never talked about it.
Christa, 42, was a flamboyant and beloved transgender activist, founder of the Miss Trans New England beauty pageant and cofounder of the New England Trans United Pride March and Rally. She believed that being trans was something to celebrate. She was forever cajoling friends to try the higher heels, the shorter dress — “Show your legs, hon!” Her joy seemed boundless.
But her life and end tell a messy, complex story of pain and violence — where she was both victim and perpetrator — and a lifelong, elusive quest for acceptance.
“That’s what she wanted. White picket fences. Happy hubby, romantic, man and woman,” said Ben Power, Christa’s longtime friend. “And yet, she had the body she had, and she was who she was.”
She had overcome so much to stand on the edge of that lake in April and imagine her future.
“I love the fact that you love me for me,” she told Mark, Boisseau said. “Not my body. You love my uniqueness.”
As they walked back toward the car, it began to rain. They laughed: It was good luck.
. . .
Christa’s parents named her Christopher Steele when she was born in Minnesota in 1975. As a child, her father, Robert “Willie” Steele, said, she played with Barbie dolls and put pajama pants on her head to imagine herself with long hair, though she did not begin transitioning until her late teens.
It was a traumatic childhood. When Christa was about 5, her parents divorced, Steele said. She was placed in foster care, and wound up with Al and Madelyn Sisson, a Rochester, Minn., police officer and his wife, when she was in fifth grade.
Christa seemed to flourish, taking piano lessons, attending Sunday school, and going on vacations. But she still yearned for her family and visited her grandparents and cousins on weekends.
“He always wanted to go back,” said Al Sisson, who knew Christa before she transitioned. “He would go visit with family, and he’d come back more of a challenge.”
Christa left the Sissons’ home by eighth grade, and her next stop was a group home, the couple said.
At 16, Christa met 17-year-old Tina Katusky, who said Christa was emancipated by the state that year.
The two teenagers went off on their own, sleeping in parks and sometimes at friends’ apartments. Sometimes, Katusky said, Christa dressed as a woman, but Katusky thought it was a joke. Then, one day, Christa showed up with a boyfriend.
Katusky said she was angry with Christa, saying, “You’re not even a girl,” and Christa backhanded her, sending her to the ground. It was one of many violent attacks Katusky said she endured at Christa’s hands. Once, she said, Christa cut herself while beating Katusky with a glass ashtray, then ordered her to wash her hair and take Christa to the hospital. Another time, she said, Christa beat her with a pan until the handle broke off.
“He’s not the gentle soul people speak of at all,” said Katusky, who knew Christa before she transitioned.
Still, they stayed a couple, and when Katusky was 19, she got pregnant. When their daughter was 3 months old, Katusky said, she left Christa after a fight, taking the baby. After that, she said, Christa transitioned to living full-time as a woman and dating men exclusively. By 2000, she officially changed her name to Christa, court records show.
Even though Christa had finally emerged as a woman, as she felt she was meant to be, she foundered as she tried to build a life. Her father said they were estranged for years, though they ultimately reconciled. Christa had no job, no family support, and no money. She was attacked for being trans, she told her father later, suffering head trauma and nerve damage, and developing memory loss.
Between 1995 and 2005, she had frequent brushes with the law, racking up charges for domestic assault, prostitution, and escaping custody, online court records show. Rochester Police Captain John Sherwin said she was well-known for panhandling outside the Mayo Clinic with a man she called her husband, and two poodles.
The last time she saw her foster parents, they said, she was panhandling at their church, dressed as a woman. When Christa saw them, the Sissons said, she fled.
There was no place for Christa in Minnesota, she told her friends later. She moved to Northampton sometime in the mid-2000s, and married John Hilfers, a divorced cook from Minnesota, in 2007 at First Churches of Northampton.
Christa had found the community that would become her home, and she almost never spoke of the life she had left behind.
“I’ve known her since about 2008, gotten drunk and gone dancing with her. But for that, I had very little idea of who she had been before she was the person I knew in the present. . . . She was Christa,” said her longtime friend Lorelei Erisis. “I can’t even imagine her having had another name or identity.”
. . .
More than a thousand miles from Rochester, Christa set about creating the world she wanted to live in. She threw herself into trans activism, having long conversations with her friend Ben Power, executive director of the Sexual Minorities Educational Foundation in Holyoke, about the sad fact that the only time the trans community came together was for the Transgender Day of Remembrance — a day that honors trans people killed in hate-motivated violence.
It was not enough to mourn, they agreed. The movement needed joy. And so, in 2008, Christa, Power, and several others cofounded the pride march and rally. That first year, more than 1,000 people braved 90-degree June heat to celebrate, according to a news report from the event.
Those early years in Massachusetts, she and Hilfers struggled with money, but they seemed happy. When they first arrived in Northampton, they were homeless, said Power, living in a van, but they soon cobbled together enough money from odd jobs to move into an apartment in Ware.
When the van broke down, Power said, Christa bought herself a used motor scooter to ride to activism planning meetings, and would chug down Route 9 going 40 miles per hour — determined to get there, danger be damned.
With the march and rally launched, Christa turned her attention to beauty pageants.
“She made it a mission to have a party around being trans,” said Erisis, who won the first pageant Christa organized, Miss Trans Northampton, in 2009. Other pageants for trans women were drag-oriented, said Erisis and Power. Christa’s vision was different: She wanted trans women to celebrate their beauty and femininity, not as a costume but as an identity.
And she wanted to give trans women a platform. When Erisis won, she began marching in Pride events around the country in her sash and crown. She gave news interviews about trans issues. Today, she said, she does a show called “Twist” at the Broadway Comedy Club in New York City with another trans woman she met in the pageant, Tammy Twotone. It is, she says, the only trans produced, hosted, directed, and focused comedy show in a mainstream comedy club in the country.
“She was sort of responsible for giving me the boost I needed to do almost everything I do today,” said Erisis of Christa. “She almost single-handedly created the community that all of us benefited from.”
Christa did not fit neatly into the world of straight women or the gay world, Power said. But the pageant world? The world of floor-length gowns, hair spray, acrylic nails, and glitter, where photographs snapped by friends show her affixing a crown to a winner’s head with bobby pins, and mugging, tongue stuck out, wearing tight velour at the center of a grinning group?
“It was a world she fit in precisely,” said Power. “She was trying to create a positive reality for herself and for trans women despite — as an answer to, really — tremendous oppression.”
Christa expanded the pageant in 2010 to Miss Trans New England, and later to Miss Trans America. She was always dreaming of something bigger.
. . .
But her home life was tumultuous. Interviews with those who were closest to her reveal a slow descent back into the violence she had tried to escape in Minnesota.
Transgender people are more vulnerable to violence than people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. One 2015 review of research by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy found that 31 percent of transgender people had experienced domestic violence, compared with 20 percent of people who were not transgender.
The reasons are complex: Transgender people often lack family support or fear going to the police, and so have fewer people to turn to for help. And society remains deeply transphobic: A national survey of transgender people conducted in 2015 by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that nearly a third of transgender people reported being fired or otherwise penalized at work for their gender identity within the year they took the survey; almost half reported being harassed; and nearly 10 percent reported being physically attacked. Almost half had been sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
Partners of transgender people do not get much support, said Power.
Straight men dating or married to transgender women often have their sexuality questioned, he said.
That dynamic can sometimes lead to tension within the relationship, said Erisis.
“Most of the men I meet who are attracted to me as a trans woman or as a woman, they’re fragile flowers. They’re insecure,” she said. “They’re afraid that being attracted to me is going to make them gay.”
And when things go badly in that context, Erisis said, they can turn violent quickly.
Christa’s first marriage ended in divorce in 2014. Her friends say there was no abuse: She and Hilfers simply led separate lives.
She met her second husband, 31-year-old Jose Torres, online, and pursued the relationship even after he got locked up for armed robbery. They married in a ceremony at a county jail in Ludlow in March 2015, court records show.
The union soon soured. By March 2016, court records show, Christa said he was threatening to take her vehicles and come to her home. By June, when he was released from jail, she sought a restraining order against him.
“I’m fearful for myself,” she wrote in an affidavit. “He has stabbed me and [tried] to [stab] friends in the past.”
Christa’s longtime roommate and friend, Steven Haskell, said Torres once pulled a knife on him.
“She’s kind of attracted to bad guys,” he said.
By the end of 2016, Christa divorced Torres, and met the man who now is alleged to have killed her: Mark Mann, a divorced tree-trimmer from Connecticut who, with Christa, would change his last name to Steele-Knudslien when they wed.
Christa’s friends were impressed by Mark. He was handsome and good with his hands, always fixing something around the Adams duplex where they lived. Boisseau, who officiated their wedding, said that when Boisseau met him in 2016, Boisseau thought he was “macho,” a guy’s guy, who seemed to adore Christa. They spent a weekend together, Boisseau said, and he showed off the “man-cave” he had built in their basement. They played pool and drank beer, and he and Christa kissed and teased each other.
Haskell, Christa’s former roommate, said that when Mark was sober, he was “wicked nice.” When he got drunk, Haskell said, he was violent. Adams police reported many calls to the home, but detailed records were not immediately available.
Haskell said Mark hit Christa. Once, he said, he came home to find that Christa had called police about Mark. When he went upstairs, he could hear them fighting. He heard the smack of Mark’s hand connecting with Christa’s body, he said, and Christa’s pleas for him to stop.
The police took Mark away, but Christa took him back.
She always forgave him.
. . .
After they married, they moved into a house on a hill in North Adams that Christa bought. They spent most of their time fixing it up. When it was warm outside, they sat side by side on a bench at the top of their sloping front yard.
When Halloween came, Christa struck up a friendly decorating contest with Jennifer Serre, who lives across the street. They one-upped each other, Serre said, adding lights and signs and ghouls until Christa’s yard sported a guillotine, a fortune teller, a ghost, a clown, a girl hanging from a tree, a man dressed in black carrying a shovel, and a graveyard.
Mark was a quieter presence, mostly hanging around close to the house, painting or working.
“She was the light, and he was the darkness,” said Janice Rawlins, who lives down the street.
When Christmas rolled around, Christa turned her yard into a garden of huge candy canes.
Her neighbors never heard a thing — not in the months Christa and Mark lived there, and not on the night of Thursday, Jan. 4, when Mark told police he “snapped.”
The couple got into an argument in their living room at about 5 p.m., Mark later told police, according to court documents. Christa was always “belittling” him, he said, and calling him names. So he took a hammer and smashed her in the head, again and again, he said, and then stabbed her in the back.
Mark told police he took a shower and left to go buy alcohol, before coming home and wrapping her body, the hammer, and the knife in blankets, plastic, and a tarp. He allegedly dragged her into the basement, where police found her body.
The autopsy concluded that Christa’s skull was fractured, and she had bled to death. She had defensive wounds on her body. The blade that Mark allegedly plunged into her back had punctured her heart.