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“A twisted form of justice” with Alford Plea
Friday, Feb. 17, 2017 — Steven J. Klein, 56, will now spend 15 years in prison for Susan Kersten’s 1995 death in what her daughter calls a “twisted form of justice.”
Klein on Friday entered an Alford plea on charges of second-degree arson, willful injury causing serious injury and suborning perjury in the death. In an Alford plea, the defendant in a criminal case does not admit to the criminal act and asserts his or her innocence. By entering an Alford plea, however, the defendant admits the prosecution has enough evidence to likely persuade a judge or jury to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Sandra Rohrer, Kersten’s daughter, said the Johnson County Attorney’s Office did not ask for the family’s opinion or blessing before going ahead with the plea deal.
“This sentencing has shaken my faith in the judicial system because to me this is a twisted form of justice,” she said. “He got away with murder today because he pled guilty to willful injury,” Rohrer told the press after the sentencing.
Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 — www.press-citizen.com | Stephen Gruber-Miller
A Mount Pleasant man charged with a 22-year-old murder will enter a guilty plea Friday, a month before he was set to go to trial.
Steven J. Klein, 56, is accused of first-degree murder in the death of Susan Kersten, 38, whose body was found Sept. 24, 1995, in her burned out car 2 miles south of Iowa City, near her home at the Regency Mobile Home Village.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Chad Kepros said in an order filed Wednesday that he was informed that Klein wishes to enter a plea and be immediately sentenced. The sentencing will occur Friday at 9:30 a.m. at the Johnson County Courthouse, where Klein was already expected to show up for a hearing. Klein’s trial had been scheduled to begin March 27.
Court documents do not specify what charges Klein will plead to at the hearing. Full Story
Updated July 25, 2016: Steven Klein’s pre-trial conference has been set for 1:30 p.m. on March 10, 2017. His first-degree murder trial has been scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. March 27, 2017.
July 25, 2016: Steven Klein’s pre-trial conference has been set for 1:30 p.m. on March 10, 2017. His first-degree murder trial has been scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. March 27, 2017.
The first-degree murder trial for Steve Klein of Mount Vernon — charged with killing Susan Kersten of Iowa City 20 years ago — has been delayed.
At a pretrial hearing held Friday, March 18, 2016, Klein’s public defender and Johnson County attorneys agreed to a joint motion to delay the trial, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reported Friday in an online story.
Judge Chad Kepros of Iowa’s Sixth Judicial District suggested the trial be pushed to July 25, and the defense and prosecution agreed. The trial is expected to last 10 to 15 days, Assistant County Attorney Dana Christiansen and Kepros said. Read the full story.
Susan Kersten’s former boyfriend, Steven J. Klein (now 54), was arrested in Muscatine around 11 a.m. Friday, July 17, 2015, and charged with first-degree murder in Kersten’s nearly 20-year-old unsolved homicide.
His arrest came at the conclusion of a visit from the cable television program Cold Justice, which investigates cold murder cases with local authorities. Klein was arrested on July 17, 10 days after the TV crew arrived in Johnson County.
Klein, described as Kersten’s former boyfriend, most recently lived in Mount Pleasant and worked in Muscatine, and was taken into custody at his workplace Friday by the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and the Muscatine County Sheriff’s Office. He now faces a first-degree murder charge.
Kersten’s death came just three weeks before a scheduled child support hearing for the couple’s 1-year-old twin daughters.
Klein is being held in the Johnson County Jail on a $1 million cash-only bond.
He has pleaded not guilty, and his trial originally scheduled to begin November 3, 2015.
On Friday, Sept. 18, 2015, Judge Chad Kepros noted with the amount of work attorneys have yet to do in the case, the November trial date wouldn’t work. Kepros said the trial won’t happen until the “spring” at the earliest.
Susan Kersten was finally coming into her own. The 38-year-old gifted artist and divorced mother of four — including 1-year-old twin daughters — was getting her life together and selling her artwork in eastern Iowa.
She likely shared her dreams for the future with those closest to her during a family reunion she attended in Davenport, Iowa, on Sunday, Sept. 24, 1995.
Those dreams would vanish by day’s end.
Sometime after returning to her Iowa City home that evening, someone would beat her severely, place her body inside her vehicle, roll the car down an embankment into a field and then set the car on fire with her inside.
The burning vehicle was found late that night in a farm field off Highway 923 about one mile south of the Regency Mobile Home Village in rural Iowa City where Kersten lived in Lot 130.
The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office received a report of a car on fire at approximately 11:45 p.m., and the Hills Fire Department responded to the scene. Only after extinguishing the flames did firefighters discover the body inside, which later was identified using dental records.
Kersten was last seen at her mobile home earlier that evening. She allegedly had left the twins, Andrea and Patience, at the residence with Steve Klein, the twins’ father and Kersten’s ex-boyfriend. Klein resided in Tiffin.
According to Johnson County sheriff’s detectives, Klein was the only person known to have had access to Kersten’s home.
Kersten was divorced from Roy Kersten of Williamsburg the year before.
Johnson County Medical Examiner Dr. T.T. Bozek and State Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Bennett conducted the autopsy. Bennett’s final report concluded Kersten died from blows to the head prior to her vehicle being set afire.
Earlier in the year, Klein had denied being the twins’ father. In early July 1995, however, blood tests confirmed his paternity, and a conference to set a civil trial to determine child support was scheduled for October 16 — just three weeks away from the date of Kersten’s death.
In a Cedar Rapids Gazette article dated Oct. 4, 1995, Johnson County Sheriff Bob Carpenter said his office treated the incident as a homicide from the beginning because they had questions that weren’t answered, including how the car ended up so far from the highway and how it caught fire.
“The car went through two fences. We didn’t have the answer as to how in the world it got there. It just didn’t add up,” Carpenter is quoted as saying in the article.
Investigators were also perplexed by the position Kersten’s body was in when discovered. In a Gazette article published Oct. 5, State Fire Marshal’s Office Special Agent Dana Wipperman said Kersten’s legs were in the driver’s side of the vehicle but her torso was stretched across the passenger’s side.
“It seems unusual to us for her to be laying in that location in the car,” Wipperman said.
Items discovered inside the vehicle included burned fireworks, a paper towel soaked with an unidentified liquid and a seat cushion that appeared to have blood on it.
Detectives filed an application to search Klein’s mobile home as well as a car and a pickup on his property, and said they were looking for blood, hair and other body specimens, a tire iron, possible weapons or means of inflicting blunt trauma, clothing and other items.
The search warrant was executed Wednesday, Oct. 4, and a Gazette article published Oct. 7 said officials seized a number of items including a cotton rag, a pair of brown cotton gloves, five matchbooks, a lighter, and a large plastic bottle of paint thinner.
Kersten’s family members started a reward fund two years after her murder in hopes of reminding the public her case was still unsolved. In a Gazette article dated Sept. 17, 1997, Kersten’s sister, Debbie Woodburn of Solon, said the family hoped the money would help them put someone in jail for her sister’s September 1995 murder.
“We want to bring attention back to her case,” Woodburn stated. “We’re not letting anybody forget about her. There’s a murderer among us.”
The twins had remained in their father’s care since Kersten’s murder, and Woodburn said neither she nor the rest of Kersten’s family had seen them since the murder. Woodburn also had twin daughters.
The family planned a vigil for Sept. 23 near the Black Angel in Iowa City’s Oakland Cemetery where Kersten was buried.
Six years later, Sheriff Carpenter told The Gazette his department’s two open cases — which also included the 2001 death of Timothy Becker, 42 — were “actively being worked on.”
“They are difficult, but our guys are reinterviewing, and I think we are close (to filing charges) on one or both of them,” Carpenter said in the Sept. 21, 2003 story. Larry Babcock would eventually be convicted of second-degree murder in Becker’s case on April 2, 2007.
In a story airing Sept. 22, 2006 on KCRG-TV9 in Cedar Rapids, Kersten’s son Jason — 17 years old when his mother was killed — said the family was still trying to move forward 11 years after having lost a loved one.
Jason Kersten said the moving forward wasn’t about finding out who killed his mom; he believes he knows. He simply wanted to stop flipping through his murdered mother’s art and be able to move on with his life.
“It’s been hard to truly see a positive future but day by day,” he told KCRG.
Kersten’s sister Elizabeth Stutzman said she was sad it was taking so long for police to get the evidence they needed to get the person responsible.
“It’s crazy how many different lives one person can ruin,” Stutzman said.
Johnson County officials acknowledged they’d lost time during the investigation’s first critical hours when police initially believed Kersten’s car had simply veered off the road, fell into a ditch and burst into flames.
Johnson County Sheriff’s deputy Mike Scheetz, who has since retired, said the department questioned the prime suspect but there had not been enough evidence to make an arrest.
During the summer 2007, a University of Iowa law student, Mollie Buzzard, worked full-time on the case, reviewing investigative reports and conducting more than 100 interviews. She accompanied Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Detective Kevin Kinney as he re-interviewed people questioned by investigators after Kersten’s death.
In November 2007, Susan Kersten’s family announced a $7,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of her killer. The announcement came at a news conference where several of Kersten’s relatives pleaded for the public’s help in solving the case. The Carol Sund/Carrington Foundation donated $5,000 for the reward fund and Iowa City Crime Stoppers donated the other $2,000.
In a November 15, 2007 interview with the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Kersten’s son Jason Kersten said he’d prayed for a long time that his mother’s killer would be brought to justice. He said he was working with local businesses to display his mother’s artwork to help keep her murder in the public mind and that he’ll keep fighting for a resolution to the case.
“It would give me closure and put a lot of things to rest in my mind,” he said.
Family and investigators encourage anyone with information to come forward.
When the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) established a Cold Case Unit in 2009, Susan Kersten’s murder was one of about 150 cases listed on the Cold Case Unit’s new website as those the DCI hoped to solve using latest advancements in DNA technology.
Although federal grant funding for the DCI Cold Case Unit was exhausted in December 2011, the DCI continues to assign agents to investigate cold cases as new leads develop or as technological advances allow for additional forensic testing of original evidence.
The DCI remains committed to resolving Iowa’s cold cases and will continue to work diligently with local law enforcement partners to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice for the victims and their families.
According to Roy Kersten, one of his ex-wife’s paintings hangs in the Williamsburg, Iowa, post office.
Her paintings, said son Jason, often included nature and people in reflective moments.
The family has now had nearly two decades to reflect on a life that could have been.
On Friday, July 17, 2015, Kersten’s former boyfriend, Steven John Klein, 54, was arrested in Muscatine and charged with first-degree murder in her death.
Klein, formerly of Mount Pleasant, was taken into custody at his workplace around 11 a.m. by the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and the Muscatine County Sheriff’s Office.
He is being held in the Johnson County Jail on a $1 million cash-only bond, and made his first court appearance inside the jail early Saturday morning.
A Gazette article dated July 18, 2015, said District Associate Judge Deb Minot did not set additional court hearings but that Klein was given an application for a public defender.
During the hearing, the judge informed Klein of the charge filed against him — first-degree murder, a Class A felony — and if found guilty will face a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Due to the charge’s severity, Klein is allowed representation by two attorneys.
In an Iowa City Press-Citizen article published July 18, 2015, Lt. Doug Gwinn of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office said Klein was the original person of interest in the case, and that there was “overwhelming evidence” that pointed to Klein.
Gwinn declined to go into any details about what led to the breakthrough in the case, but did say Klein was not the only person of interest over the years.
“We were able to get new information, and it was enough new information where we were confident the person was guilty, and we made the arrest,” Gwinn told the Press-Citizen.
On Friday, Feb. 17, 2017, Steven Klein entered an Alford plea in Johnson County District Court to charges of second-degree arson, willful injury causing serious injury and suborning perjury in the death. In an Alford plea, the defendant does not admit guilt, but acknowledges that prosecutors likely have enough evidence to secure a conviction.
Kersten’s daughter, Sandra Rohrer, told the Iowa City Press-Citizen the Johnson County Attorney’s Office did not ask for the family’s opinion or blessing before going ahead with the plea deal.
Under the Alford plea, Klein was sentences to 15 years in prison; the arson and willful injury charges are both class C felonies punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Under the plea deal, those sentences will run concurrently. The suborning perjury charge, a class D felony, is punishable by up to five years in prison. That sentence will run consecutively for a total of 15 years.
Susan Pearl (Bollinger) Kersten was born July 27, 1957, the daughter of Carol Ann Moeller and Alex Bollinger, Sr.
She died September 24, 1995.
Memorial services were held at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, September 28, 1995, at the George L. Gay Funeral Home. Burial was in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.
Survivors included three daughters, Sandra of Williamsburg and twins Patience and Andrea, both of Iowa City; a son, Jason of Williamsburg; her father, Alex Bollinger Sr. of North Liberty; three sisters, Debbie Woodburn of Solon, Elizabeth Stutzman of North Liberty and Tina Sullivan of Coralville; and three brothers, Nolan and Scott Stutzman, both of Iowa City, and Alex Bollinger Jr. of Wisconsin.
Her mother, Carol Ann (Moeller) Stutzman, and a daughter, Erin, preceded her in death.
If you have any additional information about Susan Kersten’s murder, please contact Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek at (319) 354-3729, or contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.