Cold Case Files: Mystery of girl's death began when she got in friend's car

Cold Case Files: Mystery of girl's death began when she got in friend's car

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Amanda “Mandy” Steingasser was a fun-loving 17-year-old with a dazzling smile and a wide circle of friends at North Tonawanda High School.

She loved animals, loved her family, loved classic rock bands like Led Zeppelin and loved to party. Like many teenagers, she sometimes made mistakes in judgment.

After a night of partying at several different locations, Mandy got into a car with a male classmate around 1:20 a.m. on Sept. 20, 1993. The car headed off into the night, north on Oliver Street.

None of Mandy’s friends or family members ever saw her alive again. Someone got away with murder that night.

Five weeks later, two men searching for mushrooms found Mandy’s body, dumped near a pond at Bond Lake County Park in Lewiston. Someone had strangled her and fractured her skull in two places.

Twenty-three years later, friends still mourn the girl they remember as a kind and thoughtful friend.

And the long-unsolved case still haunts North Tonawanda cops – and retired cops, including former Chief of Detectives Gabriel DiBernardo.

“Not getting an arrest or conviction in this case is the biggest disappointment and my biggest failure in 38 years as a police officer,” said DiBernardo, 79, who retired in 1998. “I knew this little girl. I knew her family. Her father was my friend. Every single night, after I pray for my own family, I pray for Mandy. I feel like I let her down. I let her family down.”

Almost from the beginning of the investigation, DiBernardo and other detectives were convinced that they knew who killed Mandy – the teenage male classmate who picked her up in his car. He still remains the prime person of interest. The Buffalo News is withholding his name because he never was charged and possibly never will be.

Now in his early 40s, the former classmate’s actions on the night of Mandy’s disappearance are still under investigation, sources close to the case told The News.

Twenty-three years after the disappearance, police still possess the car he was driving – which belonged to one of his relatives – as evidence in a homicide investigation.

But the former classmate vehemently denies any involvement in the slaying. He told police – and a News reporter – that, soon after Mandy got into his car, she changed her mind about going with him and asked to be dropped off. He said he let her out of his car at another location on Oliver Street, near a church about four blocks from where he picked her up.

The former classmate – who spoke to The News in 2000 and again in October, insists that he had no idea where Mandy went after that.

“I don’t want them to stop investigating,” the former classmate said. "I want them to find out who did this. But it wasn’t me. As long as they keep looking at me as the suspect, they’re never going to find out who did it, because it wasn’t me.”

The former classmate spent time in prison in the late 1990s after he was convicted of stealing and burning a car. He lives in the Buffalo area and now has a family of his own.

“Was I a screw-up back in the day? Yes, I was, but I never did anything on this order. I have a beautiful wife and young kids of my own … I have a good job,” he told a reporter. “These investigations … all these years, I have been through pure hell over this.”

Shortly after Mandy was slain someone fired shots outside his home, the man told The News. He believes it was an attempt to scare him. He also said that one night in 1999, he was out drinking in a North Tonawanda bar when a friend of the Steingassers' called him a murderer and started a fistfight. He said people occasionally post threatening or insulting remarks on his Facebook page.

Sources close to the case said police have good reasons for looking at the former classmate as a person of interest in the case. In the days, weeks and months after the slaying, they say detectives caught him lying several times about his actions that night. They also said witnesses saw him washing his car at a coin-operated car wash around 2:15 a.m. – not long after police believe Mandy’s body was dumped at a muddy location at Bond Lake.

“Who goes out and washes his car at 2 a.m.?” asked Glenn Gardner, a retired North Tonawanda detective whose daughter was a close friend of Mandy’s.

Authorities said they have other evidence that led them to the person of interest, some of which they declined to discuss.

[Cold case: 34 years later, Halloween murder haunts family]

According to police, the person of interest failed two polygraph tests after the murder, one administered by State Police and another by the FBI. Authorities said he walked out of a police office during the first polygraph test because he was upset by the tone of the questioning. During the second test, a polygraph operator felt the subject gave untruthful answers to two questions: “Are you involved in the disappearance of Mandy?” and “Are you withholding any information?”

The former classmate answered “no” to both questions.

"I was nervous and upset when I took those tests. I was a young kid,” the former classmate told The News. “And I never saw the lie detector results … I gave them my DNA sample. It didn’t match anything.”

While many police agencies – and even some defense attorneys – use polygraph tests as an investigative tool, a lot of questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the "lie detector” test, said Buffalo defense attorney Florina Altshiler, a former sex crimes prosecutor.

Some researchers insist that polygraph tests can give incorrect readings, especially when the person being interviewed is extremely nervous, Altshiler said.

“For that reason,” she said, “ polygraph evidence is inadmissable in almost every state court in the country, except in New Mexico and in some cases in Alaska.”

DNA analyses conducted in the case provided no concrete evidence, but they deny that DNA evidence in any way cleared Mandy’s former classmate, authorities told The News.

Police are again are closely examining the actions of the classmate on that night in 1993. Niagara County is about to get a new district attorney, Caroline A. Wojtaszek, and she said solving the murder will be one of her top priorities.

“I am very well aware of the case and it is an absolute priority for me,” said Wojtaszek, who the Democratic, Republican and minor party endorsements in the November election for DA.

“I am going to start a new Cold Case Bureau in the office, and the Mandy case is the inspiration for that. I’m a mother of three, and I live in North Tonawanda. There has hardly been a day in the past 23 years that I have not thought about this case, especially when I drive down Oliver Street. It’s very unsettling to me and other people in North Tonawanda that this has not been solved.”

Wojtaszek said she will work closely with Assistant District Attorney Heather A. Sloma, North Tonawanda Police and the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation in Batavia “to determine who did this.”

“I will give them every possible resource to make this a successful prosecution and I will not rest until the case is resolved,”Wojtaszek said.

That came as great news to DiBernardo, Gardner and to Thomas E. Krantz, the current North Tonawanda chief of detectives. Krantz said the department has never given up on catching Mandy’s killer.

“This is the best news I’ve heard about this case case in 23 years,” DiBernardo said. “Over the years, we have gone to several different DAs with our case, but none of them ever felt there was enough to put the case before a grand jury. I think there is a very strong circumstantial case.”

Authorities asked that anyone with information – or possible information – about the case contact the North Tonawanda Police detective bureau at (716) 692-4312.

“We definitely believe that there are people out there who have not told us all they know about this case,” Wojtaszek said. “These people were teenagers when this happened. They’re adults now, maybe with sons and daughters of their own…We really need them to come forward now.”

DiBernardo knew Mandy’s father, Richard Steingasser, for more than 50 years and kept in touch with him after the murder. Steingasser died last year at age 70.  Mandy had no brothers or sisters. Her mother, Loraine, is still alive, still in the same home where Mandy grew up.

“I feel so bad because I always promised Richard and his wife that we would find out who did this,” DiBernardo said.

In 2003 -- 10 years after his daughter's death -- Richard Steingasser told The News he didn't know what to believe about the person of interest.

"Whoever did this, I still hope they catch him," Richard Steingasser said at the time. "If anyone has information, please talk to the police. You don't want a guy like this running around. Somebody else's daughter could be the next victim."

Mandy’s mother declined to talk to the News for this story.

“You can only imagine how hard it has been for this woman, losing her daughter like that. She has told me she doesn’t want to talk about it anymore to anyone,” DiBernardo said. “She’s given up.”

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