Steingasser trial moving forward later this year

Joseph H. Belstadt, left, listens as his attorneys Dominic Saraceno, center, and Mark Murphy look on as his other attorney Michele Bergevin gives an opening statement at the Niagara County Courthouse on March 12, 2020. (John Hickey/Buffalo News/Pool Photo)

A year after the Mandy Steingasser murder trial came to a crashing halt in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the case is now set to move forward in October with a new jury, a new judge and, likely, a shuffle in the ranks of the prosecutors.

Acting Niagara County Court Judge Sheila DiTullio has scheduled jury selection to begin on Oct. 18 for a cold case trial anticipated to last between six to eight weeks. At a hearing to set the new trial date, DiTullio guardedly suggested the trial might be concluded by Thanksgiving.

State courts, which have largely conducted their business via internet streams and phone conferences for the past year, have begun to resume in-person proceedings. New York's Office of Court Administration has given the go-ahead for jury trials to begin on March 22.

DiTullio suggested she was scheduling the trial to begin in the fall to allow time for normalcy to return to the courts.

The now more than 27-year-old murder investigation led to the arrest of the man police always said was their prime suspect. Joseph Belstadt was charged in April 2018 with a single count of second-degree murder in the death of Steingasser.

If he is convicted on the murder charge, the North Tonawanda man could face a sentence of life in prison. He has pleaded not guilty to the murder charge and is free on $250,000 bail.

Belstadt had been the prime suspect for police ever since Steingasser, who was 17 at the time, disappeared in the early morning hours of Sept. 19, 1993. She was last seen alive at around 1:30 a.m. at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Oliver Street in North Tonawanda.

Information developed by investigators looking into her disappearance pointed to Belstadt as the last person she had been with before vanishing. Witnesses told police they saw Steingasser getting into Belstadt’s car.

When detectives wanted to speak with him, Belstadt was uncooperative. And investigators said he wasn’t any more cooperative five weeks later when Steingasser’s body was discovered and recovered from Bond Lake in Lewiston.

Although investigators recovered evidence from the scene, including DNA, much of it was degraded. Police and prosecutors concluded then that they lacked enough evidence to present the case to a grand jury or to arrest Belstadt at that time.

In late 2017, prosecutors reopened their investigation and took another look at the evidence. That reopening included a retesting of the DNA evidence using more sophisticated technologies that weren’t available in 1993.

Prosecutors say that the retesting of two hairs found in Belstadt’s car provided them with the forensic link they needed to finally charge him with Steingasser’s murder.

The trial will see a shift in the lead prosecutor, as Caroline Wojtaszek, the former Niagara County district attorney who led the cold case investigation, has left the office for a seat on the county court bench.

With Wojtaszek gone, Executive Assistant District Attorney Mary Jean Bowman and Assistant District Attorney John Granchelli are expected to take the lead in the prosecution of the case. Both were a part of the original prosecution team.

The case was originally on the calendar of Niagara County Court Judge Sara Sheldon. Sheldon, who reached the mandatory retirement age for judges in New York, stepped down from the bench at the end of September.

State Supreme Court Justice Paula Feroleto, the chief administrative judge of the state's Eighth Judicial District, then tapped DiTullio to take over the case.

A Lockport High graduate, DiTullio is a former assistant Erie County district attorney, who has served as an acting State Supreme Court justice as well as an Erie County Court judge.

Belstadt's trial was halted in March 2020 in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

After opening statements and just one day of testimony, Sheldon granted a motion by the attorneys for the accused killer to declare a mistrial.

Belstadt's attorneys had argued that it would be impossible to conduct and complete the trial amid the cascading effects of the escalating COVID pandemic. After the trial stopped on March 16, the Office of Court Administration, which oversees the state's superior courts, declared a shutdown of the court system, except for emergency proceedings, on March 17.

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