CHRISTIANSBURG — McKenzie Kyle Hellman answered “yep,” “nope” and “yep” again Monday as a judge questioned if he really wanted to plead guilty to the murder and abuse of a 2-year-old, if anyone had made him promises in exchange for his pleas, and if he understood that he faced up to 45 years in prison.
That could be in addition to the more than two life terms that a jury recommended earlier this year for sex crimes and child pornography charges related to the same toddler.
At the hearing in Montgomery County Circuit Court, the 27-year-old Christiansburg man entered guilty pleas to charges of second-degree murder and child abuse. He told Judge Colin Gibb that he was pleading without an agreement with prosecutors and with no recommendation about sentencing. Defense attorney Fred Kellerman of Christiansburg said that there had been no plea offers from the prosecution.
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Gibb said that he was finding Hellman guilty and that he would be sentenced on Aug. 10, which already was the date set for a judge to impose a sentence for the sexual abuse and child pornography charges on which Hellman was convicted in March.
Monday’s convictions came after Hellman, chained at the wrists and ankles, and wearing a face mask stretched across his beard, listened as a court clerk read the accusation that he killed and abused Steven Dale Meek II, the son of his girlfriend Kayla Nicole Thomas. Hellman stood to answer Gibb’s questions, bouncing slightly on his feet as the judge spoke.
Asked if he had anything to say before being found guilty, Hellman was silent.
Hellman’s pleas preempted a second jury trial that was scheduled for next month on the second-degree murder and child abuse charges. Second-degree murder indicates a killing that occurred accidentally, during the commission of another felony.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Obenshain read a summary of the prosecution’s evidence that added several details to prior public accounts of Steven’s death 2½ years ago.
Obenshain recounted how on Jan. 11, 2019, police and emergency workers rushed to Hellman and Thomas’ residence in the 400 block of Zinc Lane in Christiansburg. They had been called by Hellman, who said Steven was unresponsive.
Thomas, also 27, shared custody of Steven with his father, so the boy lived with her some of the time. Hellman’s young son also lived with the couple.
Obenshain said Thomas was at work that night. The emergency crews found Steven lying on the floor with bruises on both eyelids and his forehead. He had no pulse, but a police officer and medics performed CPR and managed to restart the boy’s heart.
Steven was rushed to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. But when no signs of brain activity returned, life support was removed. Steven Meeks died on Jan. 13.
Obenshain said that Hellman initially said that he thought his son and Steven were jumping on the toddler’s bed, which officers measured as standing 13 inches above the floor. Hellman said that he’d heard a thud and came into the room to find Steven on the floor.
But Hellman’s son told investigators that Hellman hit and kicked Steven, Obenshain said. At the hospital, doctors said there were clear signs of abuse.
Interviewed further by officers, Hellman said that he could not recall what happened to Steven, then said that the boys had fought and that in separating them, Hellman had pushed Steven and he had fallen into a dresser, Obenshain said.
But a search of Hellman and Thomas’ phones found messages in which Hellman said that he was sleeping with his son and that Steven was in another room, Obenshain said. In the phone messages, Hellman called Steven stupid and said Thomas should stop worrying about him, Obenshain said.
An autopsy identified 22 separate blunt force injuries to Steven’s head, Obenshain said. Thirteen more injuries were found in an examination of the underside of the boy’s scalp. There were two “pattern injuries” to his head that appeared consistent with footprints, although investigators were unable to conclusively link the pattern of the scrapes to that of Hellman’s shoes, Obenshain said.
Steven had 10 more injuries to his torso and significant bleeding around his brain. The plates of the boy’s skull, which grow together in a baby, had been sprung apart by the force of some of the blows, Obenshain said.
Of Hellman’s statements that Steven’s injuries came from falling from his bed or into a dresser, Obenshain said that an assistant medical examiner commented that if that were true, “no child would survive childhood.”
Unmentioned Monday was the sexual abuse that was the subject of Hellman’s jury trial in March and of Thomas’ trial in June.
Testimony at those trials recounted how investigators looking at Hellman’s phone found a picture of Steven being sexually abused. On Thomas’ phone they found videos of her committing sex acts on her son a few days before his death.
Officers also found messages in which Hellman urged Thomas to carry out the abuse, saying it would help them move past a downturn in their relationship. Hellman told investigators that in directing his girlfriend to abuse her son, he was exploring his own sexual desires and wanted to see if it excited him, according to a recorded interrogation played at his trial.
At both trials, jurors read the messages between the couple, watched the videos of Steven being abused, and quickly found both defendants guilty.
Hellman was convicted in March of possessing child pornography and of being an accessory before the fact to object sexual penetration, to sodomy by force, to the production of child pornography, and to the distribution of child pornography. Jurors recommended that he be given two life sentences plus another 45 years in prison.
Thomas was convicted of inanimate object sexual penetration, forcible sodomy, making child pornography, and distributing or electronically transmitting child pornography. She was not charged with her son’s death.
For Thomas, jurors recommended two life sentences plus 10 years.
She is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 23.