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Sister of strangled Lockport woman blames police, DA for case 'at a standstill'

Holly A. Seiler, found dead in her Lockport home after a fire in 2016, was strangled to death, according to her death certificate.

Then-County Coroner Kenneth V. Lederhouse signed the death certificate, which lists the cause of death as "manual strangulation," and the manner of death as homicide.

Not until Wednesday was it publicly known that Seiler's death was a homicide.

Mary Seiler gave The Buffalo News a copy of her sister's death certificate, driven by frustration over how she said law enforcement authorities have handled the case.

"They won't solicit help from anyone," she said Wednesday. "The case is at a standstill, and they won't go to the FBI and Crimestoppers."

Holly Seiler, 54, was found dead after a 3:30 a.m. fire Oct. 20, 2016, in her second-floor bedroom at 605 E. High St., Lockport.

No one has been charged with the killing.

Seiler said her suggestions and questions about the case have been met with a cold shoulder from the Lockport Police Department and the Niagara County District Attorney's Office.

"They haven't followed up on tips I've given them," Seiler said. "A witness mentioned the condition of the body, and no one knows the condition of the body except the police, the DA and the coroner. I put that in an email. Now, if you were an investigator, wouldn't you get on the phone and say, 'Mary, who is that? We want to talk to him or her?' "

Lockport police and the District Attorney's Office had refused to disclose the cause of death.

Woman's body found inside Lockport home after early morning fire

"That's helpful – not," District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek said of Mary Seiler's actions. "Releasing information that is not officially privy to the public compromises an investigation."

On Monday, Crystal C. Bell, the dead woman's daughter, called the death a murder in a Facebook post.

Seiler said a witness offered information while waiting outside the crime scene on the morning of the fire, and two officers told him to go away.

"It's a very tough position to be in," Wojtaszek said. "We can't give the family all the answers they want because it's a pending investigation. I'm sure they do feel justifiably frustrated with the process."

"They have nothing to tell," Seiler replied. "I have more information than they do.

"I gave her a two-page list," she said. "I understand they can't give me the information on an ongoing investigation. I'm not asking you for the answers. I want to know if you did it."

"This is still a very active investigation. To characterize that we're not doing anything is simply inaccurate," Wojtaszek said.

Police confirm name of woman killed in Lockport fire

"I understand her frustration, but I was trying to assure her we were doing everything we could," Wojtaszek said. "Every single one of the emails that Mary Seiler wrote to this office with ideas, her thoughts on the case and her helpful background that she provided this office, we have gone through line by line in our meetings with law enforcement, and followed up on every lead that we saw value in."

Since Wojtaszek took office at the beginning of 2017, she and assistant district attorneys have met repeatedly with Lockport police about the case, and at times, the entire Lockport detective bureau has taken part, she said.

"It is our No. 1 priority to bring justice to this victim and to this family," Wojtaszek said. "Because it's a continuing investigation, I cannot comment on Ms. Seiler's specific allegations. I can tell you I feel very comfortable with all the leads we have followed, all the people we have questioned and the other investigative tools we have used."

Wojtaszek confirmed Seiler's statement that officers from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms gathered evidence in the dead woman's bedroom on Oct. 27, 2016, a week after the fire. But the DA said there hasn't been talk of calling in other investigators.

"There's never been an idea to call the FBI in. It's certainly something I would consider if they could bring resources to this case," Wojtaszek said.

She said she will bring it up at the next investigative meeting next week.

Seiler also suggested that police obtain a search warrant for the cellphone of a potential suspect. So far as she knows, that hasn't happened.

"Unfortunately, I can't respond because it's still an ongoing investigation. I don't want to say anything that would jeopardize our ongoing investigation," Lockport Police Chief Michael F. Niethe said.

Wojtaszek said Seiler has called her and other prosecutors often, and at least one of the calls became angry.

Seiler said Wojtaszek called her "an antagonist."

Wojtaszek said she might have asked Seiler why she was being antagonistic.

"We know everybody who was at the scene," Wojtaszek said. "We have a number of people that we are interested in. I'm not going to be specific as to whom."

Lockport police were called to the home at 7:24 p.m. Oct. 19, about eight hours before the fire, after Crystal Bell said that she was punched in the nose by Thomas C. Anderson, Holly's boyfriend, in a dispute over a car.

The officers who handled the call reported that they talked to Holly Seiler, "who was intoxicated and difficult to understand. She stated that what her daughter said did not make sense, and Anderson would not do that to the victim (Bell)."

The report said Bell wanted to press charges against Anderson, who had left the scene, but plans to do so were halted at the request of the DA's Office five days after the death of Seiler "pending further investigation."

Less than three weeks later, on Nov. 8, 2016, another fire was set in the already damaged home. Holly Seiler's son, Caleb E. Bell Jr., pleaded guilty to setting the second fire and was sentenced in January to five to 10 years in prison.

Caleb Bell's attorney, Brian J. Hutchison, said during court proceedings that Lockport police interrogated his client about whether he set the earlier fire, a charge Bell always denied. No one has been charged with anything in connection with the first fire.

Asked if the second fire set back the investigation into Holly Seiler's death, Wojtaszek said that was "not a fair characterization."

"There's always facts in the case you hold back from the public so as the investigation's ongoing, there are only things that law enforcement knows that only the killer would know," Wojtaszek said. "But now that it has been released to the public, we don't have that tool at our disposal."

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