Mandy Steingasser was in the back seat of a car with another man in September 1993 when Joseph H. Belstadt tried to join their sexual encounter, according to a former convict who did time with Belstadt 18 years ago.
The 17-year-old girl was strangled when she resisted, Christopher Grassi of Endicott recounted of the 2001 prison talk between him and Belstadt at the Cayuga Correctional Facility.
Grassi testified Wednesday during a pre-trial hearing as part of Belstadt's murder case in Niagara County Court.
Grassi, who called Belstadt by his prison nickname "Squirrelly," said Belstadt brought up the Steingasser death when the two were in prison. He said Belstadt told him that he and Steingasser attended a party on the night of her disappearance.
After the party, Belstadt and a friend of Belstadt's gave her a ride, Grassi said.
"The friend was having sex with her in the back seat of the car," Grassi testified. "Squirrelly wanted to join in. She wanted no part of this. One thing led to another and they ended up strangling her."
Another jailhouse informant, Carlos R. Rodriguez of North Tonawanda, testified Wednesday that Belstadt mentioned to him that Steingasser's body was found with her bra around her neck.
"I was thinking, 'How would he know that?' " Rodriguez testified.
Both Grassi and Rodriguez said they approached their attorneys to get in touch with police so they could relay Belstadt's comments.
Steingasser was last seen alive in the early hours of Sept. 19, 1993, on Oliver Street in North Tonawanda. Her body was found in Bond Lake County Park in Lewiston five weeks later.
Belstadt, now 43, has been a prime suspect from the early days of the investigation, but he wasn't charged with murder until April 2018.
Wednesday's session in Niagara County Court was held to determine whether the testimony of the two ex-convicts should be admissible at Belstadt's trial, now scheduled for Sept. 16.
In 1995, Belstadt and two other men were arrested and charged with setting fire to a stolen car. After a stint in the Niagara County Jail, Belstadt served about three years in state prison following his arson conviction.
Rodriguez said he talked to Belstadt about the Steingasser case in the County Jail in December 1995. Grassi said he talked to Belstadt in the exercise yard at Cayuga Correctional Facility in the spring of 2001. Grassi was serving time for paying a man $5,000 to burn down a nightclub Grassi co-owned so he could collect the insurance money.
"They took her out of the car and put her in the woods someplace," Grassi testified.
On cross-examination, co-defense counsel Dominic H. Saraceno established that North Tonawanda police came to Cayuga Correctional in May 2001 looking for information about a homicide. Grassi met with them three times – in May, June and July.
"I'm pretty confident I spoke to (Belstadt) prior to the police being there," Grassi said.
He said he talked to Belstadt further about the homicide after his first meeting with investigators.
Grassi said he wasn't aware until Wednesday that Investigator Alan Brooks of the Niagara County District Attorney's Office wrote a letter to the state Parole Board in 2002 commending Grassi for his cooperation.
Grassi was paroled that year, on the earliest possible date for his 3½-to-10-year sentence.
Rodriguez was in the County Jail for 13 months in 1995-96, awaiting action in a drug case that eventually put him in state prison for eight years.
Rodriguez said he met Belstadt in the "double-lock" section of the facility, where Rodriguez was sent after his then-girlfriend smuggled marijuana to him.
He said Belstadt told him a similar story to the one Belstadt told police, that he dropped Steingasser off in front of a church at Oliver Street and First Avenue in North Tonawanda. Rodriguez said Belstadt told him a Puerto Rican male was waiting there.
"How did he know he was Puerto Rican? There's only three of us in North Tonawanda," Rodriguez testified.
"There's one thing that stood out, is when they found her, her bra was still around her neck," Rodriguez said Belstadt told him.
Rodriguez said his girlfriend was a friend of Steingasser's and when she learned that the two were in jail together, "She told me to beat him up."
But he said he found Belstadt likable as they sat in adjoining cells.
Rodriguez said he derived no benefit from telling his story to police.
"I'm just doing this because someone's daughter was killed," he said.