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Alaska husband sentenced to die in prison for using splitting maul to murder wife, setting remains ablaze in fire pit

Michael James Kilgo

Michael James Kilgo (Image via KTUU screengrab)

The 63-year-old Alaska man convicted of brutally murdering his wife with a splitting maul before setting her body on fire in 2018 was sentenced Tuesday to spend the rest of his days in prison.

Michael James Kilgo claimed that he repeatedly beat his wife in self-defense and in a heat of passion with a splitting maul — a long-handled tool with a sledgehammer and axe on its head. Those arguments did not sway jurors, so the defendant was found guilty in October 2022 of first-degree murder at the end of a five-week trial. Kilgo was also convicted of second-degree murder and tampering with evidence. The tampering charge stems from the fact that Kilgo burned Hattie Labuff-Kilgo’s body in a fire pit and burned the splitting maul, a blade in the style of a “survival knife,” and a hatchet, according to the Alaska Department of Law.

After the victim’s family reported her missing in August 2018, the fire pit was located in a remote area off the side of a road near Petersville, prosecutors said. Hattie’s co-workers had also requested a welfare check after she did not show up for work.

The burning of Labuff-Kilgo’s remains left her “nearly unrecognizable,” prosecutors said.

“On Aug. 28, 2018, Troopers located Hattie’s remains in Petersville, approximately five miles from where her truck was found. Hattie’s remains were located in a fire pit, off the roadway, in a small remote pul-out [sic] area,” a state press release said. “Her body had been severely burned and was nearly unrecognizable. There were two pools of red stains consistent with blood approximately three to five feet from the fire pit leading to it. Also burned inside the same fire pit were a hatchet, a splitting maul, and a fixed blade knife, similar to a ‘survival knife.'”

The state medical examiner’s office found she was murdered by “blunt force with sharp force trauma.”

Prosecutors emphasized that Kilgo clearly intended to murder his wife, pointing to the brutality of using a splitting maul to hit someone multiple times. Attorneys for the state also argued that people who act in self-defense don’t then try to destroy all the evidence of a body. That argument memorably didn’t work in the Texas case of Robert Durst, who was infamously acquitted of murder despite chopping up Morris Black’s body. Notably, the weapon, in that case, was a pistol, not a splitting maul; a knife, saws, and an axe were subsequently used to chop up the body. Jurors in the Alaska case of Kilgo, however, were persuaded of his guilt.

Citing his lack of remorse, Palmer Superior Court Judge Kari Kristiansen on Tuesday sentenced Kilgo to 80 years, ensuring that the convicted killer will never get out of prison.

Those who knew Hattie – many of them knew her as Miss – said that she was loved and that she was a great friend. An obituary said that she had four children, five grandchildren, and numerous nieces and nephews.

“Hattie loved her family very much. She was an example of patience, and perseverance. She was a remarkable person and she had a spirit about her that always made you smile. She was a loving mother and grandmother and a friend to all who knew her,” the obituary said. “Most people after meeting her, would comment that they felt they had known her all their lives. She had a great ability of making people feel comfortable and safe around her. Her genuine personality is quite hard to come by. The saying, ‘they don’t make ‘em like her anymore’ rings true for Hattie.”

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.