Oldest cold case in Hennepin County brings killer 11-year sentence

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 3, 2014 - 9:46 PM

Justice came 34 years after the stabbing in an Uptown apartment and was solved on the basis of DNA.

Connie Ferdinand went crazy with pain when she learned in 1980 that Mary Steinhart, her 22-year-old cousin, had been stabbed to death in Minneapolis.

On Friday, nearly 34 years later, Ferdinand was in court when Robert Skogstad was sentenced for stabbing Steinhart 25 times in a fit of anger in the bedroom of her Uptown apartment. Skogstad wasn’t charged until September 2012, when a cold-case review and DNA match led to his being brought to justice. He pleaded guilty in November.

Ferdinand told the judge that she believes Skogstad had 25 chances to recoil in remorse, but a deeper ugliness inside wouldn’t let him stop.

Asked to speak before receiving an 11-year prison sentence, Skog­stad broke down in tears and said he didn’t think he could say anything that would take the pain away. Because he’s already been in jail for nearly four years, he is expected to serve another four years in prison before release on probation for the remainder of his sentence.

The 11-year sentence was the length 1980 guidelines called for in second-degree murder cases. Today, Skogstad could have received a nearly 30-year sentence.

In her statement to the judge, Ferdinand said that even though Skogstad, now 58, is chronically ill, he should have to serve every day of his ­sentence in prison.

Alice Ferdinand, another of Steinhart’s cousins, said he got away with murder for 32 years. He had a family, raised children, and was able to drink beer with friends, she said.

“When Mr. Skogstad admitted in court that he did it, he said he did it because Mary made him angry,” Alice Ferdinand said. “I was dumbstruck. He showed no remorse. It sounded like he was reading a grocery list.”

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said it’s the oldest cold case his office has successfully prosecuted. He praised his office and the work of Minneapolis police detectives Sgt. Barbara Moe and Sgt. Tammy Dietrich for their resolve to bring closure to Steinhart’s family.

“This sends a message to people contemplating crimes who think it won’t follow them if they move away,” he said. “Friends, when you leave DNA behind and commit another crime and DNA is taken by police, we will find you. And we did.”

Skogstad was charged in 2012 in Edgerton, Kan., but had become a suspect in Steinhart’s death several years earlier because of new DNA technology. A sample from evidence in Steinhart’s murder matched DNA from a sexual assault he committed in California in the 1980s.

Steinhart, a medical technician at a downtown urology clinic, had missed a party and two days of work before her sister found her body. There was no sign anyone had broken into the apartment. Skogstad had been the building’s caretaker for two years and still lived nearby at the time of the murder, police said.

The medical examiner told the family it was the worst stabbing she had ever seen. But that won’t be Alice Ferdinand’s memory of her cousin. That memory will be of the last time she saw her in a supermarket, running over to give her a warm hug.

“She wouldn’t harm anybody,” she said. “Maybe someday I can say I can forgive this man. Perhaps. Maybe.”

Poor health exacerbated over the decades by stress over her daughter’s death prevented Joyce Steinhart, Mary’s mother, from attending the sentencing. She asked a court employee who has been working with the family to read her victim’s impact statement.

‘Always one empty chair’

It described a daughter who loved fishing and excelled in 4H, a friend who would defend others through thick and thin. Joyce Steinhart said she now lives with the constant horror of reliving the details of the murder. “No more giggles at jokes,” she said. “There is always one empty chair at ­family gatherings.”

She said she’ll never understand why Skogstad waited so long to admit he did wrong.

“He needed a life sentence to make sure he doesn’t hurt anybody else,” Steinhart said. “He needs to look in the mirror each day and see what he is — a murderer, an empty, cruel killer.”

As Skogstad was led away in handcuffs, the Ferdinands sat quietly in the back of the courtroom, dabbing at their eyes with tissues. Their gaze never left him.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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