AUGUSTA, Maine — Having grown a full beard and looking like he lost weight, Christopher Knight appeared in Kennebec County Superior Court on Tuesday morning, where he pleaded not guilty to 13 counts of burglary and theft.
Knight, 47, also known as the North Pond Hermit, was indicted by a Kennebec County grand jury last week on six burglary charges and five theft charges. Earlier this month, he was indicted by a Somerset County grand jury for one count each of burglary and theft.
The Somerset County case was transferred to Kennebec County.
Wearing green jail attire, Knight spoke quietly when he said “not guilty” to each of the charges while his attorney, Walter McKee of Augusta, stood alongside.
Knight has been incarcerated at Kennebec County Jail in Augusta since his arrest April 4 in Rome. His bail remains at $25,000, with the condition that only family members could post bail.
McKee, who spoke with reporters outside of court, said his client has adjusted from spending the past 27 years alone in the North Pond woods area to sharing a jail cell with two other men the past four months.
“I think he’s doing better than expected,” said McKee. “I think it’s really a surprise that he has done as well as he could under the circumstances. Obviously, being by himself in the woods for so many years and now inside is a huge transition.”
Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, said Knight mostly keeps to himself in jail.
“I know he reads a lot. He told me he’s re-reading ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ right now,” she said.
Knight admitted to police that he had committed more than 1,000 burglaries in the nearly three decades he spent living in the woods near Rome and Smithfield.
McKee said Knight has been remorseful about the burglaries and thefts.
“He’s always 100 percent completely accepted responsibility for what he did,” he said. “It’s awkward in a format like this to say he’s not guilty, when he’s told the police that he was guilty.”
Although Knight pleaded not guilty on Tuesday, both McKee and Maloney said they expect a plea deal to be reached within the next month.
A forensic mental evaluation for Knight has been completed. Maloney said Knight was found competent to stand trial.
However, McKee said there are “some significant issues there, and that’s going to play into what sentence is obviously created here.” He added that he could not give specifics about the evaluation.
How much more time, if any, Knight will serve is still up in the air.
“That’s the big question. Is he in a situation where he should be getting time served?” McKee asked. “There are many defendants who sit up there and plead guilty to burglary charges that will be released or sentenced to time served before five or six months. Why isn’t bail [that isn’t posted only by family] appropriate in this case? He should be treated no worse and no better than anyone else.”
Knight will be evaluated to see if he is suitable for Maine Pretrial Services, a program that enables people to be out on bail even though they don’t have the money to post bail, said Maloney. He will also be evaluated for other programs.
Maloney did not discuss how much jail time, if any, her office will seek while working out an agreement.
“We’re trying to craft something that will make sure Christopher Knight will be successful when he leaves prison so we don’t have any further incidents,” she said.
Victims’ recommendations typically play major roles in what sentence the prosecution recommends to the judge. In Knight’s case, however, there’s no clear consensus from the victims.
“What’s difficult about this case is that the opinions of the victims runs the full range of the opinions of the public as a whole,” Maloney said. “It’s not a typical case where we have one victim who clearly wants a certain outcome. This one is different. I know I can’t make all of them happy because there are some who think no jail is appropriate and some who think life in prison is appropriate.”
McKee agreed that the victims’ wishes are split.
“It’s not surprising that someone wants a maximum penalty,” he said. “But some [victims have] true sympathy [for Knight]. People felt bad as to what was happening when he was clearly taking from them. [Victims were] leaving some things out for him to take in the first place and leaving him notes saying, ‘Do you need some help? Is there something I can do?’ It’s a very strange case, for sure.”
Knight and McKee set up a bank account that helps repay the victims. Different parties have contributed to the fund, Maloney said.
“That is his decision as to what that money is used for primarily,” said Maloney. “There is money in that account now. It’s roughly $1,000, which can be used to pay back the victims, in particular Pine Tree Camps.”
In early May, about 40 camp owners converged on the Maine State Police barracks in Skowhegan, where several people reclaimed items allegedly stolen over the years by Knight. Most camp owners opted not to reclaim their property.
Justice Michaela Murphy set a docket date of Oct. 8 for Knight. If no deal is reached by then, Knight will be scheduled for trial later that week.
Although he expects a deal to be reached within a month, McKee said he’s not worried even if an agreement doesn’t come.
“He can enter a guilty plea and have a judge impose a sentence, and I’m confident a judge would impose a time-served sentence,” said McKee.
Maloney said this case is one of the most unusual she’s ever been involved in, especially given the response from the public.
“I think it’s because we all have a romantic idea of what it could be like to just be away from the world and live in the woods and to enjoy that solitude,” she said. “In reality, I think for Mr. Knight, it wasn’t that romantic. When it’s snowing and it’s cold and you’re in a tent, it was probably quite difficult. But it is that idea of life in the woods that makes this case so interesting.”
Why Knight lived alone in the woods since 1986 until his arrest in April is something few know, said McKee.
“The officer that originally investigated the case [had a] significant, rich discussion about that, but that really hasn’t come out,” he said. “I suppose it will by the time this case ultimately gets resolved.”