Forensic advancements led to arrest in Steingasser case

MIA SUMMERSON/STAFFOfficials from the Niagara County District Attorney’s office and North Tonawanda police announce an arrest in the 1993 murder of Mandy Steingasser in 2018. From left are District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek, NT Captain of Detectives Thomas Krantz, Second Assistant District Attorney Mary-Jean Bowman, Assistant District Attorney John Granchelli and NT Police Chief Roger Zgolak.

Over the past three decades, advancements in forensic chemistry have helped authorities make arrests in cold cases and exonerate those wrongly convicted.

Mark Henderson has experienced and trained on many of these advancements in his 28 years as a forensic chemist at the Niagara County Sheriff's Office Forensic Laboratory. For 26 of those years, he has applied that training and progress to the search for Mandy Steingasser's killer.

That forensic analysis eventually culminated in the April 2018 arrest of Joseph Belstadt, 44, of the Town of Tonawanda, on a second-degree murder charge. Belstadt has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to stand trial beginning Jan. 13, 2020.

Police say Belstadt was the last person seen with Steingasser, 17, about 1:30 a.m. Sept. 19, 1993 in North Tonawanda. 

Witnesses told police they saw Steingasser getting into Belstadt’s car.

Five weeks after her disappearance, Steingasser’s body was recovered from Bond Lake Park in Lewiston.

North Tonawanda police investigators visited Belstadt's home Sept. 30, 1993 and searched his bedroom and the 1984 Pontiac sedan that Belstadt was driving early Sept. 19. Belstadt objected to the search, but the vehicle belonged to his grandmother, who consented to the search.

Niagara County Court Judge Sara Sheldon ruled last week Belstadt had "no standing" to contest the search.

Investigators vacuumed 30 bags of material from the vehicle, including hair, fibers, dirt, dust, gravel, fingernails and paint chips, according to a 10-page affidavit Henderson submitted to Niagara County Court last week.

Henderson wrote he took custody of the sealed evidence bags and began analyzing hairs, fibers, paint chips and a fingernail recovered from the vehicle.

The county forensic laboratory obtained evidence collected from Steingasser's autopsy Oct. 26, 1993, which it compared with evidence seized from Belstadt's vehicle. 

In February 1995, Henderson examined a hair seized from the vehicle and compared it with a public hair collected from Steingasser's autopsy. He later sent the hairs to the Erie County Central Police Services Lab, which concluded in December 1997 that the hairs were "dissimilar."

Other early analyses produced negative or inconclusive results. 

Investigators reviewed several items seized from the vehicle that exhibited a "red substance" and compared them with blood and hair samples collected from Belstadt, pursuant to a order order, in March 1994, according to Henderson. But forensic chemists at the county lab were unable to identify the "red substance."

At the request of North Tonawanda police, Henderson enlisted Buffalo State College students to comb the trunk of Belstadt's vehicle and found five fibers that appeared to match a black shirt Steingasser was wearing the night of her disappearance. The Niagara County lab sent the fibers to the FBI for analysis in June 1995, but over seven months later, the FBI determined the fibers were not a match.


Nascent DNA analysis

At the time, DNA profiling was an emerging science, and it was time intensive and costly.

The Niagara County Forensic Laboratory did not have capability to conduct DNA analysis, and instead relied on outsourcing to the FBI and private companies, such as LabCorp and Cellmark, Henderson wrote. The District Attorney's office had to approve every submission for DNA testing because of the expense.

“The outsourced methods typically involved significant financial resources and lengthy time commitments," Henderson wrote.

Henderson added that one sample sent to the FBI for analysis in September 1996 was not returned until Nov. 5, 1997. His affidavit did not offer the FBI's conclusions of the analysis.

Beginning in 2001, Niagara County gained access to nuclear DNA analysis through the Erie County Central Police Services Lab. That same year, forensic chemists sent samples collected from Steingasser's clothing and Belstadt's vehicle to the Erie County lab. Additional samples from Steingasser's clothing, autopsy, the vehicle and a liquor bottle found on Steingasser that night were sent to the Erie County lab over the next four years, though it's unclear from the affidavit if the analysis discovered any useful evidence.


Technology improves

As DNA profiling techniques advanced, Henderson took multiple courses at the FBI, state Department of Criminal Justice Services and the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science in West Haven, Conn.

Henderson wrote he took over a dozen courses on evaluating evidence since he came on the case. He said the investigation utilized all of his investigatory skills, including hair and fiber analyses learned at the FBI and DCJS and evidence collection techniques taught by the Institute of Forensic Sciences.

"In the years I have worked on this case, many of the techniques I have trained on have become far more refined," Henderson wrote. 

In 2017, Henderson met with then-newly-elected District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek and Assistant District Attorney Mary Jean Bowman on the nearly quarter century old case. 

Henderson said he told Wojtaszek his training and experience made him more confident in his hair analysis, but due to his caseload, he lacked the time to thoroughly examine the evidence.

"After that meeting, I was provided the necessary resources and authority to re-review all the evidence in my possession, hair-by-hair, particle-by-particle," Henderson wrote.

During the latest review, Henderson re-examined two hairs collected from Belstadt's car — including one that the Erie County lab determined did not match Steingasser's pubic hair in 1997. Henderson now found the hairs matched the Steingasser hair, and sent them for additional DNA analysis in January 2018.

About two months later, a report from Niagara County Senior Forensic Criminologist Keith Paul Meyers confirmed Steingasser was the source of both hairs.

Less than a month later, North Tonawanda police arrested Belstadt for Steingasser's murder.

Henderson wrote he has continued to work on the case even after Belstadt's indictment on second-degree murder.

Undersheriff Michael Filicetti declined to make Henderson available for an interview, citing Belstadt's ongoing criminal case. 


Manpower, funding

Henderson's affidavit underscores the enormous amount of funding and manpower devoted to the case. He wrote investigators collected 250 separate pieces of evidence — enough to occupy an entire room at the sheriff's office.

What's more, Henderson said the office devoted thousands of man-hours to evidence collection and that he attended at least 10 courses to "enhance my skills to evaluate evidence on this case."

Filicetti said the office does not have an "exact number" on the amount of time or funding the office has devoted toward the Steingasser investigation, but said "it's in the thousands of dollars."

"I can tell you this: we’ve put in a lot of man-hours in our forensic unit, our crime scene investigation and in our criminal investigation bureau," Filicetti said.

Wojtaszek also declined to comment, as she is under a court order to not speak to the press during Belstadt's trial.

Last week, defense attorney Michele Bergevin argued the murder charge should be dismissed because prosecutors had taken too long to charge her client. 

"That evidence has been there from the first sweep (of Belstadt's car)," Bergevin said. "The evidence has been available for decades. The technology has been available for decades. The passage of time is an impairment to the defense."

Henderson wrote investigators collected 250 pieces of evidence and most were seized during an early sweep of Belstadt's vehicle. However, his affidavit details evidence analyses conducted every year since Steingasser's disappearance.

“As time has gone on, there have been periods of vigorous examination, but there have also been periods of limited progress," Henderson wrote. "I have watched the development of forensic science unfold and applied it directly to the evidence collected.”

"This was never dropped. This is a case that was worked on continuously for 25 years," Wojtaszek said last week.

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