PARIS – Midway through his sentencing hearing Thursday, Christian Nielsen faced the family and friends of four people he confessed to murdering last year.

“I’m sorry for what I did,” said the 32-year-old Augusta psychiatric patient, referring to the shootings and mutilations.

The brief apology was not accepted by grieving relatives seated in Oxford County Superior Court.

Dori Cabral, mother of victim Cindy Beatson, 43, of Bethel, said any apology by Nielsen is “empty and disgusting.”

Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson called the apology “grossly insincere.”

Justice Robert E. Crowley said he considered Nielsen’s reported lack of remorse in the killings a result of a mental disorder. He also dismissed some of the aggravating factors put forth by Benson. But when the time came to make a ruling, the sentence was even more severe than Benson’s request for three life sentences to be served consecutively.

Nielsen, 32, was given four life sentences, to be served concurrently.

“I think that there is net mitigation,” said Crowley, speaking of factors that may have reduced the sentence. “But when all is said and done, Christian Nielsen has committed four of the worst criminal acts in recent Maine history.”

Crowley said the defense may appeal the decision within 21 days.

Nielsen pleaded guilty Oct. 9 to shooting and dismembering James Whitehurst, 50, of Batesville, Ark.; Julie Bullard, 65, of Newry; Selby Bullard, 30, of Bethel; and Beatson over the 2006 Labor Day weekend. All were connected to the Black Bear Bed & Breakfast on Sunday River Road in Newry, where Nielsen was living while working as a cook at a Bethel restaurant.

The sentences came after several emotional testimonies by family members, many of whom asked for the harshest penalty allowed by law.

“Honestly, my first thought was any form of torture permissible, by law, every day,” said Brooke Bullard, Julie’s daughter and Selby’s sister.

Other testimonies expressed similar anger toward Nielsen.

“He destroyed our lives,” said Dianna Taylor, Whitehurst’s sister.

“Shame on you, Christian,” said Lynne Bullard Short, Selby’s sister. “How dare you play God?”

Short also read a letter from Selby’s 10-year-old son, Eliot.

“You changed my life, and I hate you,” the boy wrote. “No one will ever come close to being as great as my mom.”

Family members also spoke of the effects the murders had on their lives. Brooke Bullard said she had become anxious, fearful for the safety of her children, and impatient and intolerant of people in the wake of the murders.

“I’ve lost my faith, and I’ve lost my belief in the goodness of people around me,” said Laura Siklossy, Julie’s sister.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t cry when I think of her,” said Charles Cabral, Beatson’s brother. “My life and countless others will never be the same without her.”

Charles Nielsen of Woodstock, Christian’s father, apologized “for the grief and emptiness Christian’s acts caused you.” When he finished speaking to them, he turned to his son and quietly said, “Christian, I love you.”

“I can only pray that the grief which fills people’s hearts today will heal in time,” said Pat Kenyon, Nielsen’s mother.

Nielsen’s family asked that he receive help for his mental disorder, which has kept him at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta since May.

“No one in their right mind would do those things he did,” said Trina Nielsen, Christian’s sister. “He is sick, and he needs help. There is still some good that can come of this tragedy.”

Nielsen killed Whitehurst, a guest at the inn, on Sept. 1, 2006, after luring him to woods in C Surplus Township near Upton. He was shot, and his body burned and buried the next day.

Then he shot Julie Bullard, the inn’s owner, on Sept. 3, telling police she would wonder what happened to Whitehurst. The next day, he shot Selby and her friend Beatson shortly after they arrived and asked where Julie was. All three women’s bodies were dismembered.

Thursday’s proceedings began with testimonies from two doctors, who declared that the motives for the murders remain a mystery. Dr. Ann Leblanc, head of the State Forensic Service, said Nielsen is not psychotic but suffers from a personality disorder with antisocial, narcissistic and schizoid features.

She and Dr. Charles Robinson, a forensic psychologist retained by the defense, agreed that Nielsen has the capacity to understand his actions.

“Folks like Christian have emotions,” Robinson said, “but with levels so much lower they don’t impact them.”

According to a memorandum filed by Benson, Nielsen told police that he had aspired to be a serial killer for five years prior to the murders. Leblanc said she did not recall such a statement, but did recall Nielsen saying he would have committed more murders if he had not been caught.

Robinson said Nielsen’s actions constituted “spree killing,” in which murders are committed with little interval between them and are usually prompted by “real or anticipated loss.”

Benson said Nielsen’s illness makes him an “extremely dangerous person,” and his uncertain mental state makes it possible that he will re-offend if released from prison.

In discussing the aggravating factors of the case, Benson said the murders were premeditated and that Nielsen intended to cause multiple deaths. He also argued that Nielsen desecrated the victims’ bodies, killed Julie’s three dogs, and had used a dangerous weapon to commit the murders.

“This case isn’t a tragedy,” concluded Benson. “What Mr. Nielsen did is an abomination.”

Defense attorney Ron Hoffman argued that Benson was downplaying Nielsen’s recent actions. He said Nielsen’s unemotional personality inhibited his apology and that Nielsen had taken responsibility for the crimes with his guilty plea.

Hoffman said previous murder cases in the state have only resulted in life sentences if the defendant does not take responsibility for the crime.

Defense attorney Margot Joly said Nielsen had been cooperative with police and was trying to improve his life before the murders. She said his mental condition may be treatable in the future.

“I disagree with Mr. Benson that he would commit these terrible crimes again,” Joly said.

Crowley agreed with much of the defense argument. He rejected Benson’s arguments that the murders were for financial gain and that Nielsen had taken “trophies” by cutting fingers from Selby and Beatson to remove their rings. He also described Nielsen’s criminal history, consisting of seven misdemeanor motor vehicle offenses as “minimal.”

“Christian Nielsen is not in denial about what he did,” Crowley said.

However, Crowley said the mitigating factors were not enough to reduce the sentence from life in prison. Since a life sentence has no possibility of release, Crowley said consecutive terms were “symbolic,” and that four would allow family members to know that Nielsen was serving a term for each of their loved ones.

“We are relieved that we were not subjected to a full trial, and we are grateful that the state has imposed the highest possible legal penalty, honoring the value of each life that was taken,” said Michele Bullard Ahl, Selby’s sister, reading a statement on behalf of the Bullards after the hearing.

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