When I was a sophomore at North Tonawanda High School, Mandy Steingasser was a senior. She was kind, cool, openhearted and beautiful. Everything that I wanted to be.
A devoted Grateful Deadhead, she wore the oversized Guatemalan sweaters and delicate hemp necklaces that I coveted (all my sweatshirts were from Hills). Mandy managed to be bubbly and laidback at the same time. A free spirit, she spent her weekends going to concerts and festivals, camping with friends, hiking or skiing, and seemed to be living the perfect, happy life she deserved.
Then, one day, Mandy wasn’t there anymore. In her place were paper posters bearing her black-and-white photo, pinned to grocery store bulletin boards and taped to the back windows of her friends’ cars to let everyone in Niagara County know that she was “MISSING.”
It wasn’t until almost a month and a half later that the loudspeaker broke into my math class with an announcement. Mandy wasn’t missing anymore. Mandy was dead.
There were wide eyes and gasps. Sobs erupted. I heard the shuffling of feet as students left their seats and ran to the halls to hug and cry. Teachers didn’t try to stop them. Some of them were crying, too.
After school, I gathered with a group of friends to watch news coverage on TV. Mandy’s body had been found by hikers at Bond Lake in Lewiston. When the news was over, we turned off the TV and stared in silence.
Mandy wasn’t just gone. Someone had killed her.
My friend’s house was only a few short blocks from mine, and I had made the walk home alone a thousand times. But that day, the walk seemed longer and scarier. I called my mom to ask for a ride. Instead of grumbling like I had expected her to, she said, “Sure, I’ll be right there. Stay in the house until you see me pull up.”
Many people were aware early on that Joe Belstadt, the guy who was charged with Mandy’s murder Tuesday night and who grew up a block away from me, was the prime suspect in the case. But many of us did not know, or weren’t convinced.
That meant everyone was a suspect in the murder mystery that gripped North Tonawanda. Theories were everywhere, and people weren’t shy about tossing out names or making accusations. Paranoia was plentiful.
I can remember being at a party and scanning all the amber-lit faces around the bonfire. “Could it have been him? Or him? Or him?” One night, a friend’s older brother brought up Mandy’s murder, and shook his head sadly, saying it was such a shame that it had happened. “Was he just saying that to throw us off his trail?” I wondered.
Another night, I snuck into Ellicott Creek Park after hours to sit by the water with a guy I had just started dating. I started thinking about the killer on the loose and about how little I knew about the guy I was with. Then I realized I was alone with him in a secluded park and that no one knew where I was. With my heart pounding, I made an excuse to slip away into the darkness, ran out to the street and called my sister from a pay phone, begging her to pick me up.
Mandy’s murder never went away. It haunted a lot of people for a lot of years. Her senior photo – her luminous blue eyes staring out of a magenta backdrop — has been a constant on social media, years before this week’s news. A group of her friends started a Facebook group in 2014 called “Friends of Mandy seeking the truth” to vet alibis, compare stories and encourage one another that one day there would be justice for Mandy.
When I found out Wednesday that an arrest had been made, my hands were shaking. My friends and former classmates started calling and texting. One heard the news while driving and pulled over to the side of the road to cry.
For all my high school adoration, I barely knew Mandy. And while her death affected my life, it destroyed the lives of others. I cannot imagine the emotion felt today by her friends, the police who worked the case, her mom.
The events of this week have given me and those who knew her permission to remember Mandy. It's given law enforcement the knowledge that justice might be served. But mostly, I hope it has given the people who loved her a chance to finally have some peace.