Joseph H. Belstadt has known for the past 24 1/2 years that he was the prime suspect in the murder of his North Tonawanda High School classmate, Mandy Steingasser, according to his defense attorney.
Now, after his arrest for the crime, Belstadt is anxious to go to trial and prove he is not guilty, the attorney told The Buffalo News on Thursday.
"We anticipate that he will be released on bond tomorrow, and we'll begin to prepare defense for the trial," said Dominic Saraceno, who has been retained by Belstadt to defend him. "From the first day, he's adamantly denied doing this. He has never made any admissions to the crime. We look forward to having our day in court, and we plan to fight these allegations, vigorously … My client says he is not guilty, and I believe him."
Saraceno described his client as a devoted husband and father of four who allowed police to question him several times about Steingasser's 1993 death and never skipped town to try to avoid prosecution.
Belstadt, a former tow truck driver who has recently worked as a mechanic at a recreational vehicle dealership, was arrested on a murder charge Tuesday evening, outside his home in the Town of Tonawanda. He pleaded not guilty Wednesday in Niagara County Court.
According to Niagara County District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek, new forensic evidence led to the arrest. She and North Tonawanda police declined at a news conference to reveal what the new evidence is, and Saraceno said Thursday that information has not been provided to him.
"This case was always a strong circumstantial evidence case," Wojtaszek told Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon during a bail hearing for Belstadt. "We now have new forensic evidence tying this defendant to this case."
Here's what law enforcement officials have told The News about the case in the past:
- Strangulation was identified as the cause of death in an autopsy conducted after Steingasser's body was found in October 1993. The autopsy report also noted she had suffered two significant blows to the head.
- Belstadt, the last person seen with Steingasser before she was murdered, was required under court order to provide police with blood and hair samples.
- A relative's car that Belstadt was driving the night Steingasser disappeared was seized by police in the early stages of the investigation. The vehicle is still held by police, who have repeatedly searched it for fibers and DNA evidence.
- Belstadt admitted to police that he offered Steingasser a ride home early in the morning of Sept. 20, 1993, after the 17-year-old Steingasser had engaged in a night of drinking and partying. Belstadt told police that Steingasser changed her mind soon after getting into his car and he dropped her off on Oliver Street in North Tonawanda. He denied harming her in any way. Belstadt offered the same scenario during a 2000 interview with a News reporter.
- Steingasser's body was found in Bond Lake Park in Lewiston by two men searching for mushrooms five weeks after she disappeared. Belstadt denied ever taking Steingasser to Bond Lake Park.
- In the early days of the investigation, Belstadt agreed to be questioned twice while being monitored by a polygraph – or lie detector – machine. Belstadt became upset at some of the questions and walked out of the first polygraph examination. During the second test, Belstadt gave what the polygraph operator considered untruthful answers to two questions: "Are you involved in the disappearance of Mandy?" and "Are you withholding any information?" Belstadt said he was not involved in the disappearance and was not withholding any information.
- During an interview in 2016, Belstadt told a News reporter he was nervous and upset during the polygraph interview.
- Witnesses told police they saw Belstadt washing his car at a North Tonawanda car wash within an hour or two of when police believe Steingasser was murdered. Wojtaszek cited that as suspicious behavior at Wednesday's bail hearing.
"Everyone knows that polygraph tests are highly unreliable and are not admitted as evidence in the courts," Saraceno said on Thursday.
He also discounted the allegation about Belstadt being seen at a car wash the night Steingasser disappeared.
"This car wash was near Joe Belstadt's home. It was a hangout for him and some of his friends. They would sometimes go there at late hours, and take their cars up there to meet up with friends," Saraceno said during his conversation with a News reporter.
Wojtaszek stated at the bail hearing that Belstadt has "has no alibi" for the time period when the teenager was believed to be murdered. She added that Belstadt later asked "three people to lie for him and make up an alibi that he was in Canada."
"I haven't had a chance to discuss that with him yet," Saraceno said.
A tentative trial date has been scheduled for Sept. 10. In an unusual step, Wojtaszek said she plans to prosecute the case herself, assisted by Second Assistant District Attorney Mary-Jean Bowman and Assistant District Attorney John Granchelli.
"This is a 25-year-old cold case, and I think it is going to be a very interesting trial," Saraceno said.