Regardless of relationship issues or financial problems or extreme intoxication, Judge Holly Brown said that nothing explains or justifies Jake Collins murdering his wife, Crystal, by first beating her head with a cast-iron frying pan and then slitting her throat.

"The defendant knew what he was doing and knew that it was wrong," Brown said. 

The comments came Monday afternoon just before Brown sentenced Collins to 105 years in the Montana State Prison for felony counts of deliberate homicide, tampering with evidence and a weapons enhancement for murdering his 32-year-old wife in their Bozeman home on New Year's Day 2017.

Collins will have to serve nearly 26 years before he is eligible for parole.

Brown called the crime calculated, outrageous, aggravated and intolerable, and said that Collins could not be trusted to safely function in the community and needed a long prison term.

"It is impossible with what has been given to the court," Brown said, "to actually comprehend what happened on Jan. 1, 2017."

Collins was arrested in the days following Crystal's disappearance. While he initially told family and law enforcement he didn't know where his wife was, he later admitted to killing Crystal while five children were in the house and then trying to dump her body in the Logan landfill a day later.

The defense argued that the killing was "so out of character" for Collins and that it was the culmination of growing stress in the couple's "rocky and tense" marriage. The defense team also claimed that Crystal had mental health and drug issues and was abusive. 

Collins had said while at a New Year's Eve party earlier that night, the couple fought and Crystal hit him several times and threatened to leave him and take the children with her. He said he "snapped" after they had returned to their Eastwood Drive trailer home. 

At Monday's sentencing hearing, Crystal's family begged Brown to give Collins the maximum punishment. 

Crystal's mother, Margie McGivern, was the first of the family to testify and brought with her to the stand a silver urn containing her daughter's ashes. The urn stayed on the witness stand as one by one, six other members of Crystal's family spoke to Judge Brown and, pointedly, to Collins.

"This is what I have left of my daughter," said McGivern, pointing to the urn. "I would have never given my daughter to you, ever. I'm ashamed I gave her to you, Jake.

"I will probably always hate your guts," she continued, through tears. "You killed my family, Jake."

Many of those who testified said the family has been left with one question: why?

"Why couldn't you leave? Why didn't you stop beating her when she was unconscious?" said Sara Loeffler, Crystal's older sister. "You're a coward, not a man."

"There's no reason why you couldn't have just left," echoed Jason Keller, Crystal's brother. "That was psychotic, to say the least."

Family described Crystal as a devoted mother, a lover of music and dancing, a caring and giving free-spirited woman.

"She was my whole life," said one of Crystal's daughters. "She always knew what to do. I don't know how, but she always did. And that's horrible that's not here with us anymore. That got taken away."

Crystal's other daughter said she always thought her mom would be there for her, like for her first dance that is coming up.

"She was never gonna go," the girl said. "But Jake took that away from me."

Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert, who prosecuted the case, asked for a 102-year prison sentence for the "brutal" murder.

"He showed Crystal Collins absolutely no mercy," Lambert said. "None."

Lambert also took exception with the defense's arguments that Crystal was violent and an abuser of drugs.

"If that's not victim blaming," Lambert said, "I don't know what is."

Lambert did not, however, ask for any parole restrictions, giving Collins credit for pleading guilty and sparing Crystal's family from having to go through a lengthy trial.

Collins' supporters, however, asked for mercy.

In letters to the judge and in testimony Monday, his family and friends described him as a kind, soft-spoken "gentle giant" who is a hard-working and talented stonemason devoted to family.

"He was kind," said Linda Carson, his mother. "He's been an open and easy, not just son, but friend."

Folks who knew Collins all said they were shocked to hear the news of Crystal's murder. The man they knew wasn't capable of such violence, they said. It was an anomaly, they said.

Supporters said Collins has been accountable for murdering Crystal.

"I see a man that has taken full responsibility for the damage that he's caused, without excuse, with pain and remorse," said his step-father George Carson. "I would appeal to the court that mercy be considered in his sentencing."

Richard Wood, a private investigator hired by the defense who interviewed Collins and his family members, noted that he has no criminal history or mental illness, has no history of violence, and suffers from "a very deep dependency" on alcohol.

"From the very beginning, there was a great deal of remorse and a tremendous amount of regret," Wood said.

Defense attorney Greg Jackson recommended Collins receive a 50-year prison sentence with no parole restrictions, echoing the points his family and friends made, saying Collins is "a man worth salvaging."

Jackson said the crime was a "spontaneous, isolated incident in Jake's life."

"Jake reached a point and he snapped," Jackson said. 

Collins briefly spoke, apologizing to his children for taking their mother away from them, to Crystal's family for the anguish he caused and to his own family for the pain they've also endured.

When handing down her sentence, Brown said Crystal's murder has resulted in a loss "that cannot be described."

Brown noted that after striking Crystal with the pan, instead of calling 911, Collins dragged her to the shower to cut her throat and "ostensibly, to put her out of her misery." He then lied to his children, to Crystal's family and to law enforcement before finally admitting to what he did, Brown said.

Brown said that Collins is smart, hardworking and had his own job, so should have known that he had options if he felt like his relationship with his wife wasn't working. There was separation, divorce, and other options that he had spoken with Crystal's family about, Brown said.

As part of the sentence, Collins was also ordered to pay $5,500 in restitution for funeral and counseling costs. He received credit for 652 days already served.

Whitney Bermes can be reached at wbermes@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2648. Follow her on Twitter @wabermes.

 

Whitney Bermes is the city editor and covers cops and courts for the Chronicle.

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