Police Captain Remembers Pain of Steingasser Case

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By: Tony Farina

I ran into retired North Tonawanda detective chief Gabriel DiBernardo a couple of years ago, before the arrest of a suspect last year in the 1993 murder of 17-year-old Mandy Steingasser whose broken and battered body was found in Bond Lake Park in Lewiston five weeks after she disappeared.

“That case still haunts me,” DiBernardo told me as we chatted about the teenager’s disappearance and death, at the time a still unsolved murder even though police had a prime suspect from early on, the last person to be seen with her before she disappeared. 

I had covered the girl’s disappearance while I was working as an investigative reporter at Ch. 7 and had gotten to know DiBernardo and felt his frustration at being unable to make an arrest in a case where he knew the victim and her family.

About a year after that chance meeting with the retired detective, new Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek announced a one-count indictment charging Joseph Belstadt, 46, with second-degree murder in the death of his North Tonawanda High School classmate.

Wojtaszek said at the time, “this case was always a strong circumstantial evidence case.  We now have new forensic evidence tying the defendant to the case.”

DiBernardo told Dan Herbeck of the Buffalo News after the indictment was announced in April of 2018 that “for years I prayed for this.  Every night, I would pray for my own two daughters and then say a prayer for Mandy.  I knew this beautiful little girl.  I knew her family.  Her father (now deceased) was my friend for 50 years.”

Belstadt has denied he killed his classmate, but now he faces a scheduled murder trial beginning Sept. 16 and his defense team, led by Michele Bergevin, is challenging the government’s case on several legal issues, including seeking the transcripts of the grand jury proceedings now, not on the eve of trial, as is permissible under new state law.  That request is under review by Judge Sara Sheldon.

Sheldon has asked attorneys in the case not to make comments to the media although there is no formal gag order in place.  It remains a case of extreme public interest and as in most cold cases, there is no easy path to conviction for Wojtasek.  She has put an emphasis on cold cases as district attorney.

It is legitimate to wonder, given the strong circumstantial case the government has previously discussed, why it took so long to bring a formal indictment against the suspect who has admitted he had Steingasser in his car before she disappeared and was never seen alive again.  The defense will likely attempt to discredit the new forensic evidence the government will likely present during the upcoming trial.

As the legal wrangling goes on and Belstadt remains free on bail, one can only imagine what would be going on in the mind of the victim’s late father, Richard, who said before his death, “I try not to think about it.  I know we’re never going to get her back.  You got to get on with your life.”

But he added in that same interview with the Buffalo News:  “I try to keep it out of my mind, but there are 20 things that happen every day to remind me of her.  The memories keep coming back.”

For the late father who lost a daughter, for the police captain who pursued the case, and for all those friends of the teenage girl who lost a friend and a classmate, the tragedy of it all lives on.

 

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