The Cranberry Eagle
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Article published November 28, 2012

SV math teacher murdered in 2010

Jim Smith
Butler Eagle

For two years, the person who killed Steven Russo has walked free.

The 48-year-old Seneca Valley High School math teacher was shot in the head Nov. 24, 2010, inside the log cabin-style home in Lancaster Township that he shared with another teacher.
While state police apparently have whittled down the list of suspects, the gunman is still out there.
Meanwhile, the Russo family waits for justice with seemingly no end in sight. And for the third consecutive Thanksgiving, Russo’s place at the table was empty.
“We shake our heads every day we’re together,” said one of Russo’s three brothers, who asked not to be identified as long as the killer remains on the loose. “This was such a senseless death.”
For police investigators, the unsolved case remains a top priority.
“The fact that we haven’t made an arrest is frustrating to everyone involved,” said Lt. Steve Ignatz of the police crime unit. “But we work on this every day.”
Proof of their efforts are the files and files of evidence collected in their investigation. They remain guarded over most of what they’ve learned.
However, some findings have emerged.
The gunman, for example, may have intended to kill Russo the day before, but got scared.
“We believe the person responsible for this killing knew of Mr. Russo,” Ignatz said. “(The killer) knew who he was.”
But they don’t know, or won’t say, if Russo knew his killer.
Police are just as coy when it comes to questions about suspects
“We’ve interviewed many, many people,” Ignatz said, “and narrowed down to who we think are good persons of interest.”
Neither police nor prosecutors will go beyond that.
“It’s a whodunit,” said Butler County District Attorney Richard Goldinger. “We’re trying to pull it all together and complete the puzzle.”
Crime scene
Russo’s daughter, one of his two children, found her father dead when she came to visit him at his Route 19 home the day before Thanksgiving 2010, police said.
Investigators say Russo was fatally shot in the head with a small-caliber handgun. He was killed in the kitchen probably between 7 and 10:30 a.m.
A math and statistics teacher for 20 years at Seneca Valley, Russo shared the home with Heidi Smith, a second grade teacher at Mars Elementary School.
Smith originally rented the house and had been living there for a while, neighbors said. Russo had moved in earlier that year.
Russo in July 2010 filed for divorce from his wife after 24 years of marriage. But that decision, his family claimed, had nothing to do with Smith.
Police and family have characterized Russo’s relationship with Smith as one of friend and roommate. They had their own bedrooms at the house.
His family disclosed that shortly before his death, Russo was planning to move out of the house.
“He realized that it wasn’t a fit with him and Heidi,” Russo’s brother said.
Smith, then 40, was at work when Russo was killed.
Ignatz said police have ruled out any involvement by Smith in the killing. He said she has been “cooperative” with investigators.
Smith, who rents a farmhouse in Franklin Township, Beaver County, did not return a message seeking comment for this story.
Coy on clues
Investigators do not believe robbery was a motive in the slaying because the home was not ransacked and nothing appeared to have been taken.
Police may have their theory about why Russo was killed, but they aren’t sharing that.
The victim had no defensive wounds, suggesting he possibly was ambushed and had no time to react. Or, maybe he knew the killer and had his guard down.
There was no sign of forced entry, police said, which indicated Russo could have let the killer into the house or the door was unlocked.
But the day before the killing, the home was broken into.
Lancaster Township police officer Melanie Hart said Russo on Nov. 23, 2010, reported a burglary.
“He arrived home and heard someone inside,” Hart told the Butler Eagle. She said the burglar forced in a basement door.
Hart said nothing was apparently taken and the house was not ransacked.
Ignatz said police suspect the burglary and the killing were committed by the same person. Possibly, the killer intended to strike a day earlier than he did.
Why didn’t he?
“Maybe,” Ignatz said, “he got cold feet.”
Fingerprints taken from the crime scene have not helped to identify the killer, investigators acknowledged.
Police have declined to discuss other findings, including a typewritten letter found next to Russo’s body.
Previously, asked if he believed the letter was a key piece of evidence or a false clue left by the killer, lead investigator Trooper Randy Guy responded, “I can’t say.”
Investigators have analyzed a cell phone that was found under Russo’s body.
“We’ve done a lot with the cell phone,” Ignatz said, but he would not elaborate.
He said several computers seized from the house have “turned up evidence.” But again Ignatz would not disclose any clues discovered in the computers or in Russo’s diary.
Another possible clue in the investigation surrounds a pedestrian walking near the Log Cabin Inn restaurant not far from Russo’s house on the morning of Nov. 23 or 24, 2010.
Police said they have identified that person, however, Ignatz would not discuss the significance, if any, of that person to the case.
Waiting game
Investigators continue to await for further forensic analysis of other potentially crucial pieces of evidence.
Ignatz only would describe the evidence still being analyzed as “electronic items and recordings.”
He said police have previously taken their case to the district attorney’s office, but Goldinger admits he wants every available piece of evidence before an arrest is made.
“I’m as frustrated as anyone with the length of the investigation,” he said, “but you have to a dot all the ‘i’s’ and cross all the ‘t’s.’ And that takes time.”
Thoroughness, he noted, is vital, because prosecutors only have one chance to win a criminal trial.
“You have to get it right the first time,” Goldinger said.
That, too, is not lost on the Russo family.
“We understand how the legal system works,” his brother said. “It’s the nature of beast. We get frustrated just because of the time it’s taken but we’ve never been frustrated with the police work.”
Guy, who is heading the investigation, meets regularly with the family to keep them up to date with the status of the case.
While neither police nor prosecutors see an arrest soon, Goldinger sees light at the end of the tunnel.
“We feel confident this is going to result in an arrest in the relatively near future,” he said. “I just don’t know when.”
All the Russo family can do is wait and hope — and still grieve.
“We miss Steve every day,” his brother said. “Holidays are worse, Thanksgiving especially.
“Steve was a big part of that. We miss his demeanor We miss his personality.”