DNA leads to arrest in 1980 Minneapolis homicide

  • Article by: MATT MCKINNEY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 12, 2012 - 11:06 PM

Kansas man charged in brutal attack on a Minneapolis woman.

The two Minneapolis detectives traveled to Kansas to talk to a man about a savage rape and murder that had occurred more than 30 years earlier. They knew he was the former caretaker of the victim's apartment building, but he told them he never lived there, never met the woman, never went into her basement apartment.

Mary Cathryn Steinhart had been dead for 32 years, yet evidence remained, including DNA samples from her bedsheets, clothing and the scrapings from under her fingernails.

The two investigators ended their interview that day in February 2011 with one more question. Could they get a swab from the man's cheek?

The DNA profile built from that swab has led to a murder charge against Robert William Skogstad, 57, of Edgerton, Kan., in what could be the oldest Minneapolis cold case revived by an arrest, said Minneapolis police Capt. Amelia Huffman.

"He ... couldn't explain how his DNA was present at the scene of the crime," Huffman said at a Wednesday news conference outside the Uptown apartment building where Steinhart died.

Skogstad was arrested last week, charged with second-degree murder and now sits in jail in Johnson County, Kan., awaiting extradition to Minnesota. His criminal record includes numerous convictions for purse snatching, theft, burglary and a sexual assault in California in the mid-1980s, according to public records.

Lead investigator Sgt. Barbara Moe said the arrest brought relief to the Steinhart family, some of whom still live in northern Minnesota.

Building's former caretaker

The Hennepin County medical examiner at the time said that it was among the more violent killings she had seen.

Steinhart was last seen alive by two friends on Nov. 22, 1980. A girlfriend who had spent the night at her apartment at 3242 Girard Av. S. said the two of them met up that day with a guy who worked with Steinhart at a downtown urology clinic. The girlfriend went to her Roseville apartment, and the man and Steinhart went to a model train show at Har Mar Mall before he drove Steinhart back to her apartment.

The next day, Steinhart missed a party she said she would attend, and after she didn't show up for work on Monday or Tuesday, her employer called her family. Steinhart's sister found her apartment door closed but unlocked. Steinhart was in the bedroom.

Her body had some 25 stab wounds to the head, chest, neck and abdomen. Steinhart was also strangled, police said. Someone had covered her face with a pillow. It appeared two stabbing weapons had been used, one of them a kitchen knife found in a wastebasket.

Investigators found a bloody flip-flop sandal near Steinhart's body, along with blood in the bathroom sink, floor, counter and soap dish. There was no sign that anyone had broken into the apartment.

Skogstad, who according to jail records is 6 feet 2 and at one time weighed 205 pounds, had been a caretaker at the apartment building in 1978 and 1979, and still lived nearby at the time of the murder, according to police. He eventually left Minnesota, and a trail of public records show he was convicted of crimes while living in Utah and California.

He was convicted in the mid-1980s of sexual assault in California in a case that was similar to the Steinhart murder: he entered a woman's apartment, raped her and used a pillow to cover the woman's face, according to the criminal complaint. He worked as a maintenance man in the victim's building, police said.

He was caught and served time in prison for rape and burglary. His DNA profile was entered into a database.

In 2001, Minneapolis police were reviewing cold cases when they looked again at evidence gathered in the Steinhart murder. They were able to generate a DNA profile using semen collected from the crime scene, but it didn't match any known sex offenders in Minnesota at the time, said Huffman.

In 2008 the Minneapolis police got a $500,000 grant from the National Institutes of Justice to assist with cold cases and DNA evidence. The grant ran out, but the department's homicide investigators continue to look through cold cases as well as new ones, Huffman said. Advances in DNA technology have allowed investigators to draw up profiles from smaller bits of evidence, sometimes giving them new leads.

Case reviewed again in 2010

The Steinhart case was reviewed again in 2010 and another DNA profile was created using semen collected from the crime scene and fingernail scrapings taken from Steinhart's left hand, presumably as she fought against her attacker. On Sept. 2, 2010, the DNA profile registered a match with Skogstad.

Moe and Sgt. Tammy Diedrich traveled to Kansas the following February to interview Skogstad, who had been living in the town of Edgerton, population 1,671, southwest of Kansas City, since his release from a California prison. He lived with his wife in a single-story white house with red trim.

During his interview at the Johnson County Sheriff's Office, Skogstad denied knowing anything about the murder, Steinhart or even the Girard Avenue South apartment building. His parole officer from the 1970s, however, said Skogstad lived at the building and had been its caretaker.

Moe said it took time to build the rest of the case, when asked why Skogstad wasn't arrested after his interview.

The owner of the apartment building since 1965, Robert Haugh, said Wednesday that he was among the last people to speak to Steinhart.

"She was a nice person," he recalled. In fact, a few days before her death, he had talked to her about a job. He wanted to hire her as the building's new caretaker.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747

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