Oct. 23—LOCKPORT — Opening statements are set for Monday in the trial of a North Tonawanda man accused of the 1993 murder of Mandy Steingasser.
Niagara County prosecutors and defense attorneys for Joseph Belstadt completed jury selection this week in a case that was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, just as it was starting in March 2020. Since that time, the case has taken on two new judges, lost its lead prosecutor and at least one prosecution witness has passed away.
The case will also be tried under a controversial gag order, first issued by now retired Niagara County Court Judge Sara Sheldon and renewed by the latest judge to handle the case, Wyoming County Court Judge Michael Mohun. He was named to replace Erie County Court Judge Sheila Ditullio as the presiding judge for the trial of by Erie County Family Court Judge Kevin Carter, who serves as the chief administrative judge for New York's Eighth Judicial District, which is made up of the eight counties of Western New York, including Niagara County.
DiTullio replaced Sheldon, who retired in September 2020.
Because Mohun will have to continue to handle matters in Wyoming County, the trial is expect to be off on Wednesdays, while also accommodating days off on Election Day and Veterans Day. Testimony in the case, which is expected to last until Thanksgiving, will take place in a State Supreme Court courtroom in Niagara Falls.
It will be the second time that Belstadt will face a Niagara County Court jury. His first trial came to a grinding halt on March 16, 2020, after just two days, in the face of the exploding novel coronavirus pandemic. The jurors had heard the opening statements of defense attorneys and prosecutors and the testimony of four witnesses, before Sheldon said the trial could not continue over concerns arising from the burgeoning COVID pandemic.
The now 28-year-old murder investigation led to the arrest of Belstadt in April 2018. The man North Tonawanda Police detectives always maintained was their "prime suspect" in the homicide, is charged with a single count of second-degree murder in the death of Steingasser.
If he is convicted on the murder charge, he could face a sentence of life in prison. He has pleaded not guilty to the charge and is free on $250,000 bail.
Belstadt quickly emerged as a suspect for police after 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 asked to speak with him, after Steingasser was reported missing, Belstadt was reportedly 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 said they 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 will take the lead in the prosecution of the case. Both were a part of the original prosecution team.