PORTLAND – Weeks after Chad Gurney killed 18-year-old Zoe Sarnacki and desecrated her body, his sister had the difficult job of sorting through his belongings.

“It was like he was dead but he was alive,” Demarie Bateman recalled.

There were photographs of the two of them, Gurney 22 months older, growing up in Maine. That brother had disappeared, and been replaced by the man who was convicted of murder Friday.

On May 25, 2009, Gurney strangled and head-butted Sarnacki, had sex with her corpse and decapitated her. He piled her belongings around her on the bed in his loft on Cumberland Avenue in Portland, doused them and the body with gasoline, poured a trail of gas to the spiral staircase and set fire to the apartment.

Gurney never denied killing his one-time girlfriend, whom he had known for about 2½ months. He said he had heard voices and been delusional, and sought to purify her so she could have eternal life. He asked to be found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.

Justice Roland Cole rejected that plea, finding Gurney guilty of murder and arson in a nine-page ruling the judge read Friday in Cumberland County Superior Court.

“I find that the defendant knew that his conduct carrying out the criminal acts . . . was wrong, that he was not psychotic on that date,” Cole said in a courtroom packed with family members and friends of Gurney and his victim, and attorneys and police who followed the case.

Cole’s verdict came two weeks after the conclusion of a trial in which there was no jury. The judge has not yet scheduled Gurney’s sentencing. Murder carries a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

Cole explained the rationale for his decision, describing the differing conclusions of experts who tried to assess Gurney’s mental state.

Some said that a serious head injury Gurney suffered in a traffic crash in 2005 changed his personality, and that his effort to wean himself off painkillers contributed to his aggressive behavior.

Evaluations after Sarnacki’s death showed that Gurney reported hearing voices and seeing signs in mundane things that others did not see. In one evaluation, Gurney, 27, said Sarnacki’s youth made him feel young, “like before the accident.”

Gurney received a large cash settlement from the traffic crash, which occurred while he was in college. He relinquished most of that to Sarnacki’s family to settle a lawsuit.

In a medical evaluation in 2007, Gurney said of his behavior after the crash: “My fuse is shorter. Frustration tolerance is less.”

But he showed no psychotic symptoms, Cole said in his ruling.

An evaluation two months before the murder included no reports of delusions or voices.

Six months after the killing, Gurney told another doctor that he was listening to the band A Perfect Circle and the lyrics reflected the way he felt. “The universe was pushing me to hurt her,” he said.

Eight months after that interview, he said his spiritual guide, Lavi, told him that killing Sarnacki was “the ultimate test.” Gurney said he believed he was performing a ritual of purification with the strangulation, beheading and fire.

Cole gave more weight to Gurney’s account from right after the murder, when he told his best friend he had killed Sarnacki because she had hurt him and he “lost it.” He told his friend to tell investigators that he might not be “all there” mentally because of the accident.

“The facts in this case strongly suggest that this was a domestic violence homicide,” said Cole, who also noted Gurney’s efforts to cover up the crime.

After killing Sarnacki, Gurney showered and changed his clothes, got a gas can and filled it, then doused his loft with gasoline. He grabbed a bag, a computer, an empty shotgun and his passport, then ignited the apartment.

The judge’s recounting of the attack drew sobs from members of Sarnacki’s extended family who were in the courtroom Friday. Her parents did not attend.

Sarnacki’s aunt, Kathy Kosnow, said the verdict was a relief after the agony of hearing the account of her niece’s killing.

“With the horror of what happened, and then to have to go through hearing this foolishness that he was trying to do something good to Zoe, that was very difficult for the family,” she said.

Gurney sat stoically, absently stroking his beard, as the verdict was read. His family, including his mother and sister, broke down crying as Cole concluded his verdict.

Bateman, Gurney’s sister, said afterward that she prays daily for Sarnacki and feels terrible for her family. Now they can start healing, she said.

“They have closure today,” said Bateman, who is a nurse in North Carolina. “She’s in a better place and, unfortunately, my brother is still here, but in a way he’s dead to us.”

But she said she will stand by him.

“I’ve supported my brother for two years and I’m not going to give up,” she said.

“He’s a human being,” Bateman said. “He really isn’t a bad person. He just needs help. Hopefully, where he’s going, he gets help.”

Gurney was impassive during Friday’s proceedings, beyond acknowledging his family as he entered the courtroom.

He has changed in the nearly two years he has been in jail. His hair, once shaved close to his scalp, is now long, some of it pulled into a ponytail. Beneath his orange jail suit he wore a long-sleeve thermal undershirt; the clothing covered most of the intricate, multicolored tattoos that cover his arms, torso and legs.

Gurney’s lawyer, Robert LeBrasseur, said his client continues to feel sorry for Sarnacki’s family. LeBrasseur said the evidence could have justified a not-guilty verdict, but he conceded that the insanity defense succeeds in just 3 percent of the cases nationally in which it is used.

Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese said Gurney clearly had mental health issues, but the threshold for guilt is whether Gurney knew that what he was doing was wrong.

“Not criminally responsible is a verdict for the sickest of the sick,” Marchese said. “That was not Chad Gurney.”

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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