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After quarter century, a jury to decide if Joseph Belstadt killed Mandy Steingasser

In the weeks ahead, a jury will be asked to consider a question that has long haunted North Tonawanda: More than 26 years ago, did 18-year-old Joseph H. Belstadt kill 17-year-old Mandy Steingasser?

Monday, the process of choosing a jury to answer that question will begin in Niagara County Court in Lockport.

"It's been a long, long wait. Too long a wait," said Gabe DiBernardo, the former North Tonawanda chief of detectives who worked on the case for five years until he retired in 1998.

Belstadt, now 44, has been the prime suspect almost from the day Steingasser disappeared on Sept. 19, 1993.

Steingasser's body was found in Bond Lake County Park in Lewiston on Oct. 25, 1993. An autopsy concluded she had been strangled.

Belstadt is the last person known to have seen the young woman alive – or, as he told police in September 2017, the last person who admitted seeing her alive.

"The only thing that's out there is rumors about me," Belstadt told North Tonawanda Detective Capt. Thomas Krantz when Krantz delivered a plea offer from Niagara County District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek.

Her offer: admit to first-degree manslaughter and serve up to 25 years in prison, or face indictment for murder with a potential life sentence.

Belstadt rejected the offer. On April 24, 2018, he was arrested at his Town of Tonawanda home and charged with second-degree murder in the death of Steingasser, his former classmate at North Tonawanda High School.

From left, defense attorney Dominic H. Saraceno, defendant Joseph H. Belstadt and defense attorneys Michele G. Bergevin and Mark Murphy confer before a hearing in Niagara County Court on May 3, 2019. (Thomas J. Prohaska/Buffalo News)

Mandy Steingasser disappeared Sept. 19, 1993, after spending the evening drinking with friends. Her body was found at Bond Lake Park five weeks later.

For more than a quarter century, as North Tonawanda police ran down hundreds of possible leads, the case languished. Former DAs Matthew J. Murphy III and Michael J. Violante decided not to submit the evidence to a grand jury.

"We felt way back then that we had enough to present it, but the DA always wanted more," DiBernardo said. "When you're an investigator, you want to present your case."

DiBernardo credited a former assistant district attorney, Heather A. Sloma, for moving the case along in the mid-2010s.

"Mike Violante let her take the case on a part-time basis," DiBernardo said. "She spent so much time talking with us."

Heather A. Sloma. (News file photo)

For three years, Sloma worked on the case, with her sister, fellow prosecutor Holly E. Sloma, advising her.

"Then she turned it over to Caroline (Wojtaszek) and she looked it over and agreed, we do have a case," DiBernardo said.

As pretrial hearings disclosed, Wojtaszek caught a break that her predecessors never had – DNA tests that showed two of Steingasser's pubic hairs were found in Belstadt's car when police seized it in 1993.

Belstadt told police at the time of the her disappearance that he gave Steingasser a ride in his car at about 1:30 a.m. Sept. 19, 1993. He said he dropped her off in front of a church at Oliver Street and First Avenue, where he said another man was waiting for her.

Wojtaszek, who will lead the prosecution team, said at Belstadt's arraignment that a witness saw Belstadt driving his car back from a car wash between 2 and 2:30 a.m. Wojtaszek said it had been washed inside and out.

Police examined the vehicle and found plenty of dirt, hairs and fibers.

In 1997, a test in the Erie County Central Police Services lab on one of the hairs concluded that it wasn't Steingasser's.

But in March 2018, using more advanced technology, another test by Niagara County forensic criminalist Keith Paul Meyers concluded both hairs came from her.

A month later, a grand jury indicted Belstadt.

The evidence

Prosecutors intend to offer more than DNA as evidence.

Belstadt set a stolen Corvette on fire in May 1995 in North Tonawanda, and he was sentenced to three to nine years in prison. Pretrial hearings showed that while serving his time, Belstadt allegedly was talkative behind bars.

Niagara County District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek. (John Hickey/News file photo)

Wojtaszek said during a 2019 court session that she had 10 jailhouse informants to choose from, but in the end she decided to put two on her witness list – the only two who avoided further arrests after their release.

One of those, Carlos Rodriguez of North Tonawanda, was barred from testifying after County Judge Sara Sheldon ruled he was a police agent.

The other informant, Christopher Grassi of Endicott, testified at a pretrial hearing 13 months ago that while they were in state prison together in 2001, Belstadt offered him two accounts of the young woman's death.

In one, Steingasser was having sex with another man in the back seat of Belstadt's car, but resisted when Belstadt sought to join in, and the unidentified man strangled her. In the other version, Belstadt himself helped strangle Steingasser.

But Grassi said Belstadt later disavowed both versions. One of the three defense attorneys, Dominic H. Saraceno, asserted in court in October that both of Grassi's accounts were "made up."

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Prosecutors also may call Karrie Belstadt, the defendant's first wife, to talk about her ex-husband telling her during their courtship that he gave Steingasser a ride in his car.

Co-defense counsel Mark Murphy argued unsuccessfully against allowing her to testify because she might get into whatever Belstadt might have told her while they were married, which is protected from disclosure by "marital privilege."

Sheldon also has ruled that the prosecution can enter evidence about Belstadt crashing his car head-on into a van without braking the day Steingasser's body was found.

Sheldon will allow his attorneys to make a "third-party culpability" defense: the notion that Steingasser's ex-boyfriend might have killed her.

The Buffalo News is not identifying the man, who was about 21 at the time and now lives in Florida, because he has not been charged with anything.

Wojtaszek has said she can offer witnesses to prove the man left North Tonawanda before Steingasser's disappearance, but co-defense attorney Michele G. Bergevin contends the ex-boyfriend's statements have been inconsistent.

Tests have shown his DNA was on Steingasser's underwear, and Bergevin said Belstadt's DNA was not on the young woman's body. But that doesn't tie the ex-boyfriend to the homicide, argued the prosecution team, which includes Mary Jean Bowman and John P. Granchelli.


The court process

A crew from the NBC newsmagazine "Dateline" is expected to videotape the opening statements, summations and the delivery of the verdict. Two authors are believed to be planning books on the case.

Local media outlets, which have covered the case over two decades, will attend the trial in force.

Because of the publicity surrounding the case, Sheldon will use an unusual jury selection process.

She will choose 21 prospective jurors and ask them if they know anything about the case.

Those who admit to some knowledge will be questioned by the attorneys behind closed doors, one at a time, to see what they know and if they can keep an open mind about the case.

Those who are disqualified will be replaced by newly drawn jurors who will go through the same weeding-out process.

The purpose of the closed-door questioning is to prevent potential jurors with knowledge of the case from spreading it to those who lack such knowledge, Sheldon said during a pretrial court session.

Once there are 21 prospective jurors with open minds, the sides will have a half-hour to question them in open court before the attorneys decide whom to challenge.

Since it's a murder case, the sides will be able to throw out 20 jurors each without having to give a reason. Others can be challenged "for cause."

After some trial jurors are chosen, 21 more names will be drawn and the whole process will be repeated. Eventually, 12 jurors and at least three alternates will be chosen, Sheldon told the lawyers.

Besides the publicity issue, a court official said it may prove difficult to find people who are able to place their lives on hold for six weeks to serve in this trial.

DiBernardo said one of his biggest regrets is that Steingasser's father, Richard Steingasser, died three years ago so he won't be around to see the outcome of the case.

"He was a big bear of a man, a wonderful man," DiBernardo said. "For the father not to be there is hard."

For those involved in the case, the trial looms as another test of their patience. But after 26½ ½years, they're used to that.

"It's so important," DiBernardo said. "We've just got to get there."

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