Knigge gets 40 years

Sentenced for role in Jessica Gomez’s death in 2017

-Messenger photos by Peter Kaspari
Senior District Court Judge Thomas Bice gestures toward Mackenzie Knigge during her sentencing hearing in Webster County District Court Monday. Bice sentenced Knigge to a maximum prison term of 40 years for attempted murder, abuse of a human corpse and aiding and abetting robbery.

The family of Jessica Gomez took the opportunity to tell Mackenzie Knigge how her actions, which played a role in Gomez’s death, have impacted their family.

Knigge, 28, of Clare, was sentenced on Monday to a maximum 40 years in prison after pleading guilty to attempted murder, aiding and abetting second-degree robbery and abuse of a human corpse.

She had admitted that, on Aug. 5, 2017, she was present when Phillip Williams, 26, of Lafayette, Indiana, put Gomez, 26, of Fort Dodge, in a chokehold and that she helped Williams control Gomez. Knigge also admitted to assaulting Gomez, as well as buying gas to help burn Gomez’s body.

Her burned body was found in a field not far from Clare on Aug. 12, 2017.

Knigge and Williams were arrested in Indiana on Aug. 10, 2017.

-Messenger photo by Peter Kaspari
Mackenzie Knigge reads a prepared statement Monday in Webster County District Court, apologizing to the family of Jessica Gomez. Knigge pleaded guilty to attempted murder and other charges in connection to Gomez’s death. Knigge’s attorney, Christopher Kragnes, of Des Moines, looks on.

Williams pleaded guilty March 25 to attempted murder and abuse of a human corpse and is serving a 30-year prison sentence.

Knigge had originally been charged with first-degree murder, but after a pre-trial ruling negatively impacted the state’s case, prosecutors and defense reached a plea agreement in the case where Knigge would plead guilty to attempted murder and the two other charges.

First Assistant Webster County Attorney Ryan Baldridge said the family supported the plea agreement, something the family also said during an interview with The Messenger last month.

Three of Gomez’s family members read victim impact statements, including her brother, Shawn Halbur.

“Aug. 5, 2017, is a day I’ll never forget,” he said. “This is the day you took a person I cared for and loved very much. Not only did you take away a sister, you took away something a child should never have to experience; you took away a mother.”

-Messenger photos by Peter Kaspari
Mackenzie Knigge listens as members of Jessica Gomez’s family read victim impact statements Monday in Webster County District Court. Knigge was sentenced to a maximum 40-year prison term after pleading guilty to attempted murder and other charges in connection to Gomez’s death.

Halbur told Knigge that every day, Gomez’s children have to deal with her being gone and not knowing what happened.

His sister’s death has impacted him in many ways.

“Mackenzie, I hope what you did to my sister affects you every day, knowing that your actions affect many,” he said. “I can’t even think about my sister without tearing up. I can’t go anywhere in public without anybody asking what happened. I can’t focus on my studies because of this. I can’t even be around my nieces and nephews, because knowing the pain of them knowing their mother isn’t there kills me.”

Halbur said he can no longer live a normal life.

“I hope karma gets the best of you,” he said. “I hope you suffer as much as my sister has suffered.”

Family friend Audrey Douglas read a prepared statement from Shiloh Halbur, Gomez’s youngest brother, who wrote that the proceedings against Knigge and Williams have changed his life.

“It has impacted me by making me mad and sad, and it also makes me happy because Jessica got to move on and go to heaven,” Douglas read from Shiloh Halbur’s letter. “I’m mad because people killed her and sad for the same reason. I miss Jessica when I think about her.”

Halbur wrote that he has fond memories of his older sister.

“Whenever I think about missing her, I remember her carrying me down the stairs, taking me to bed and tucking me in,” he said.

While Halbur wrote that he has forgiven Knigge and Williams, Gomez’s grandmother, Jacqui McCollum, wrote that she cannot do that at this time.

McCollum’s letter was read to the court by her grandson, and Gomez’s brother, Shane Halbur.

“I have not been able to do that (forgive) at this time,” Halbur read from his grandmother’s letter. “I pray that someday I will be able to forgive you. He (Shiloh Halbur) understands that you will get a second chance at this life. You did not give Jessie that opportunity.”

“She will never have the opportunity to share her children’s childhood,” McCollum continued. “Never again be able to tuck them in at night, hug them or kiss them and tell them how much she loved them.”

Gomez’s siblings have all suffered because of Knigge’s actions, McCollum wrote in her letter.

“She was more than just their sister; she was another mother to them,” the letter stated. “She took care of them when they were little as if she had been their mother.”

McCollum wrote that what Knigge had been a partner to was “absolutely despicable.”

“You mutilated her body and burned her remains,” Halbur read from the letter. “You attempted to hide what you had done. We as a family cry together. I’ve had nightmares about what has happened. I have cried and tried to explain to her youngest brother what happened to his sister.”

She also said in her letter that she wants Knigge to always remember her granddaughter.

“You have many years to reflect on what you have done,” McCollum wrote. “I hope you remember for the rest of your life, each and every Aug. 5, what you did to Jessica. Maybe someday you’ll forgive yourself.”

Knigge will be eligible for parole after serving 24 and a half years of her sentence. McCollum vowed that her family will make sure Knigge stays in prison for all 40 years of her sentence.

“I will probably not be here when you come up for parole,” McCollum wrote, “but Jessica’s brothers and sister will be at every hearing. I pray you see Jessica’s face every night for the rest of your life.”

Just before being sentenced, Knigge made her first and only statement to Gomez’s family during the trial proceedings. Standing up and facing them, Knigge read from a handwritten note.

“I know the words I say will never be enough,” Knigge said.

She went on to say that she failed as a friend to Gomez.

“Jessica was my friend, and I failed to protect and help her when she needed it most,” Knigge said, adding that she never imagined that she would ever let people like Williams “to have such a negative effect on me and those around me.”

Knigge said she is not asking Gomez’s family to understand, and will not ask for their forgiveness.

“I am so very sorry,” she said.

Senior Judge Thomas Bice, of the 2nd Judicial District, explained to Knigge why he was going to order her sentences to run consecutively, or back to back, as opposed to concurrently, or all at once. One reason is because Knigge had signed the plea agreement and understood it.

“Second of all, the crimes you committed were violent,” Bice told Knigge. “They were against a person, and the law and the court has no tolerance for that. Consecutive sentences here are most appropriate.”

Bice also noted that, at the time of Gomez’s death, Knigge had been on probation in an unrelated case.

“That, from the court’s perspective, is significant because you had a taste of the criminal law portion of the District Court proceedings,” he said. “And yet, you disregarded that. You ignored it. You got yourself involved with others.”

The job of the court is to protect the public, Bice said, and he believes that sentencing Knigge to the maximum possible term allowed by law is the way to do that.

“People like you, demonstrating conduct that you displayed in this particular instance, cannot — and I emphasize the word cannot — be in our society,” he said. “Prison is the only alternative.”

Bice said Knigge will serve her sentence at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women, in Mitchellville.