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'What happened to Mandy?': Jury to deliberate Steingasser case Monday

'What happened to Mandy?': Jury to deliberate Steingasser case Monday

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Niagara County's top prosecutor said Friday that Joseph H. Belstadt's lies and forensic evidence should convict him of the murder of Mandy Steingasser.

But Belstadt's lead attorney said the deficiencies of the forensic evidence show that North Tonawanda police chased the wrong man for 28 years.

After a week of jury selection and three weeks of evidence and argument, a Niagara County Court jury will begin deliberations Monday morning.

Their assignment is to decide whether Belstadt, the prime suspect since the earliest days of the case, killed the 17-year-old Steingasser in 1993.

Belstadt, 46, of the Town of Tonawanda, wasn't arrested until April 2018, after DNA testing showed that two of Steingasser's pubic hairs were found on the floor of his car.

Two women saw Steingasser enter Belstadt's car at Fifth Avenue and Oliver Street in North Tonawanda sometime after 1 a.m. Sept. 19, 1993.

Thirty-six days later, the victim's badly decomposed body was found, with her own bra knotted around her neck, in a ravine near Meyers Lake, part of Bond Lake County Park in Lewiston.

An autopsy determined she had been strangled, and also found a hairline fracture of her skull in front of her left ear.

Belstadt, then 18, went to North Tonawanda police on Sept. 21, 1993, to report that he had picked up Steingasser. He said he dropped her off in front of a church at First Avenue and Oliver Street, where a man was waiting.

"This case isn't really that complicated, but when they throw everything at the wall to see what will stick, I have to talk about every little thing," said defense attorney Michele G. Bergevin, whose closing argument lasted two hours and 16 minutes.

"It sounds gruesome, it sounds horrible, it sounds like something a psychopath would do, but it isn't Joe," Bergevin said.

District Attorney Brian D. Seaman, who followed Bergevin for an hour and 52 minutes, said the forensic evidence – Steingasser's pubic hairs found in Belstadt's car and three fibers from the carpet of Belstadt's car on the corpse – is enough to convict Belstadt.

Bergevin emphasized other forensic evidence – the DNA of Christopher Palesh, Steingasser's ex-boyfriend, which was found in her panties even after more than a month out in the weather, making it impossible for scientists to confirm even the presence of Steingasser's own DNA.

She noted this discovery came a year after Belstadt's arrest.

"After indictment, they found Chris Palesh's DNA and they didn't say, 'Oops, we made a mistake,'" Bergevin said. "They doubled down. This is the kind of evidence that exonerates people."

Palesh testified that he left North Tonawanda and moved to Florida on Sept. 17, 1993. Bergevin pointed to Palesh's record of three domestic violence arrests and animal abuse accusations in Florida.

"Keep it going," Bergevin advised police, "because they haven't found the killer. Maybe the killer's dead. Or maybe the killer's back in the Sunshine State, beating up his girlfriend and abusing her cats. But it's not Joe."

Seaman said Belstadt couldn't keep his story straight, lying repeatedly to police about where he drove Steingasser, whether she was drunk, and what he was doing after he purportedly dropped her off.

The DA noted Belstadt told police that he couldn't see the face of the man on the church steps, but he said the man was 18 to 19 years old, had short hair and wore a USA jacket.

During the trial, it was revealed by the widow of Donald Kohlbrenner that her husband met up with Steingasser that night, and a policeman who had questioned the two earlier saw them on the church steps. Kohlbrenner was 24, had a mullet and didn't own a USA jacket, the widow said.

Seaman said he doesn't have to prove where or when Steingasser was killed. He said it might have happened at Meyers Lake, or perhaps outside the old Roblin Steel plant in North Tonawanda.

"Then she's found 36 days later in this secluded place the defendant knew," Seaman said. "Isn't that a remarkable coincidence?"

The DA said that presence of Steingasser's hairs in Belstadt's car and auto carpet fibers inside her clothes, after being in the car for only a few minutes, also could fall into that category.

But Seaman said putting it all together is "no longer a series of incredible, unbelievable coincidences. It's proof – proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It's the answer to the question, 'What happened to Mandy?' "

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