Twenty years ago this week, North Tonawanda teenager Amanda “Mandy” Steingasser disappeared after a night of drinking and partying with friends.
Almost five weeks later, two young men, out looking for mushrooms in Lewiston’s Bond Lake Park, found her body.
From the beginning, detectives from the North Tonawanda Police Department were convinced that they knew who killed her. The suspect was a classmate of Mandy’s, who was seen picking her up in his car in the early-morning hours of Sept. 20, 1993.
Two decades later, detectives are still working the case, still trying to obtain enough evidence to help Niagara County prosecutors build a case against the target of their investigation – a Buffalo-area man in his late 30s.
Police have not given up the hunt for Mandy’s killer, said Thomas E. Krantz, chief of detectives with the North Tonawanda police.
“I can’t go into detail, but it is still an open case. We still are working on this case,” Krantz told The Buffalo News.
“It’s the most frustrating case I ever worked on in 35 years of police work,” said Jack Dierdorf, a former North Tonawanda police captain, who worked on the case for nine years before retiring in 2002. “I retired 11 years ago, but it still bothers me to this day ... I know it is a cold case, but it’ll never be a closed case.”
Aside from confirming that the murder case is an “open investigation,” Niagara County District Attorney Michael P. Violante declined to comment.
Mandy’s parents, Richard and Lorraine Steingasser, also declined to comment about the investigation or the loss of their daughter.
The Steingassers are “just too devastated, too heartbroken” to discuss the events of two decades ago, according to a family friend, retired Detective Chief Gabriel DiBernardo.
“They’re still in deep mourning over their child,” said DiBernardo, who has known Richard Steingasser for more than 50 years. “I feel terrible about it, too. I knew this family, and I knew this beautiful young girl. I was the chief of detectives when this happened. I feel like it happened on my watch.”
The violent and mysterious case upset residents of North Tonawanda and especially students at the high school, where both Mandy and the suspect were in the same senior class.
“It was a very traumatic time at the high school,” recalled Mary Jane Clark-Wolentarski, a retired North Tonawanda guidance counselor, who worked at the high school at the time. “Not only were the students very upset about this young girl being murdered, but they were wondering about who did it.
“Some students were thinking, ‘Which one of the students in this building, which one of my classmates is a murderer?’ Some students were petrified by the whole thing. It was also a scary time for staff members, and you also had parents wondering if their son or daughter was going to school with a killer.”
Adding to the discomfort was the fact that some students knew the identity of the classmate who was last seen with Mandy on the night she disappeared.
It was a “difficult year,” Clark-Wolentarski said. “We had to counsel a lot of kids.”
Friends who spoke to The News about the case described Mandy as a good-hearted, strikingly beautiful teenager who enjoyed partying and sometimes made bad choices about the people she partied with.
On the night of Sept. 19, 1993, she embarked on a night of partying and drinking with several friends. They got an older friend to buy them bottles of whiskey and rum. They traveled that night to a house party in North Tonawanda and a rock-and-roll bar in Buffalo, where they were turned away because most in the group were underage.
At about 1:20 a.m. on Sept. 20, 1993, Mandy got into a car at Oliver Street and Fifth Avenue with an 18-year-old male student from her high school. The male friend later told police that Mandy was only in his car briefly and said he dropped her off a few blocks away.
But police believe that the male friend drove Mandy to a “lovers’ lane” area of Bond Lake Park, where she was murdered.
Later that morning, the male friend was seen cleaning up his car at a coin-operated car wash, police said.
There were “numerous discrepancies” in the statements that the male friend gave to detectives after Mandy’s disappearance, police said. Police also told The News that the male friend asked at least two of his friends to lie about his whereabouts after he picked up Mandy.
Because he has never been charged with anything in the case, The News has not published the male friend’s name in connection with the Steingasser case.
“If anyone has any information about what happened that night, please call our office at 692-4312,” Krantz said. ”Even if there is something that they think is insignificant, it may be something that will give us a piece of the puzzle that we’re missing.”
The target of the murder probe spoke briefly to a News reporter during the summer of 2000, insisting that police were wrongfully trying to pin the slaying on him. He said he had no reason to harm Mandy and accused police of conducting a “biased investigation.”
He also said he felt terrible about Mandy’s death.
“I didn’t do it,” he told the reporter. “I’m not the guy they make me out to be.”