Friend of victim talks about SV teacher
Butler Eagle
Written by:
December 17, 2012
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Steven Russo

For more than two years, Heidi Smith has been haunted by fear and hounded by regret.

Hers is a life besieged by a disturbing secret she has shared with few others. She is certain she knows who killed Steven Russo.

“He did it,” she says of the person she insists is the killer. “I know he did it.”

Smith briefly dated the man she believes fatally shot Russo, a Seneca Valley High School math teacher, in the head Nov. 24, 2010.

Russo, 48, was killed in the kitchen of the log cabin-style house in Lancaster Township he shared with Smith for less than a year.

Irrational jealousy, she reasons, was his deadly motivation.

Smith has long since given investigators the man's name; however, no arrests have been made in the two-year-old case.

State police and prosecutors acknowledge they know the man. But publicly, they won't say if he, or anyone else, is a suspect in Russo's slaying.

“We've interviewed many, many people,” said Lt. Steve Ignatz of the police crime unit, “and narrowed down to who we think are good persons of interest.”

Butler County District Attorney Richard Goldinger's public stance even is less forthcoming when discussing suspects.

The 42-year-old Smith of Beaver County, a second-grade teacher at Mars Elementary School, recently spoke with the Butler Eagle.

Her decision to come forward, she said, was primarily to express “how wonderful Steve was and what a fantastic job police have done” in the homicide investigation.

But she also wanted to send a personal message to the killer.

“I'd like the person who killed Steve to know that you're not going to walk around forever,” she said. “You're not going to kill an angel where there are so few, and just walk away.”

Friendship forged

Smith said she met Russo around the autumn of 2009 at the Harmony Inn.

“I thought Steve looked like he would have something interesting to say,” she said.

Her first impression was spot on, and they soon were talking together for hours.

“We were instant friends,” Smith said.

The two shared similar interests. They liked the same kind of reading material, theology, politics and metaphysics, and the same kind of music — blues and bluesy rock and roll.

“He had this wonderful mind,” she said, “and when he spoke I'd hang on every word.”

Both also were going through divorces at the time.

Several months after that first meeting, Russo moved in with Smith at her rental home on Route 19 in Lancaster Township.

She described their living relationship as “roommates” not girlfriend-boyfriend. They had separate bedrooms.

“We were sharing expenses,” she said. “We both wanted to save for homes of our own and we wanted to save on our rentals.”

During their time under the same roof, she said, “We got along so well. We were very open with each other and would talk about anything. We were both very honest when we were together.”

They went on vacations together and compiled mutual “bucket lists” that included parachuting, white water rafting and kayaking.

“We were very close,” she said. But, she noted, each knew that he or she could date others.

Russo's family previously told the Butler Eagle that just before his death, Russo was planning to move out of the home he shared with Smith.

“He realized that it wasn't a fit with him and Heidi,” said one of Russo's brothers.

Smith confirmed Russo was planning to move out. That decision came when they realized they had differences over the direction of their relationship.

She still lives with the regret of that decision.

Only after his death, she said, “I realized I had loved Steve too late. I wanted him more than just as a friend.”

Final days

Smith recounted being racked with trepidation in the days leading up to Russo's killing, based on disturbing text messages she was receiving. She declined to elaborate.

“I had a bad feeling that someone I had dated briefly wasn't going to go away,” she said.

She met the man while living with Russo.

“We dated sporadically for about a month,” she said. He wanted to continue the relationship when she ended it.

Smith never conveyed her concerns to Russo.

“I thought maybe I was just being silly,” she said. “I didn't want him to worry. Or, maybe I was being paranoid.”

Police have acknowledged that Russo never spoke of or wrote in his diary or on his computer of any concern he had before his death.

On Nov. 24, 2010, the day before Thanksgiving, Russo had the day off due to the holiday recess.

That morning he helped Smith get into her costume as part of Mars Elementary School's annual Colonial Day, which celebrates the pilgrim and Indian traditions around the time of the first Thanksgiving.

“I was dressed up as a fur trader that day,” she recalled, “including a fake beard and thick eyebrows.”

That day, Russo was to get together with family members for a Thanksgiving eve celebration.

Later that evening, Smith said she and Russo had their own plans.

“We were planning to cook a small something at home,” she said. “We were going to hang out and relax.

“When I left that morning,” she recalled, “I looked back at Steve. I wished I had taken him with me.

“Horrible regrets.”

Killer known?

At her lunch period about 11 a.m., Smith said she sent Russo a text message. He didn't immediately respond, which was out of character.

Soon after, she got a text from her neighbor, telling her that police helicopters were flying over the house.

“I had a really bad feeling,” she said.

Her principal granted her request to leave and she sped home. There were police cars and troopers everywhere.

“I ran up to a bunch of police standing by the door,” she said. “I yelled, 'Where's Steve?' One of the police blurted out, 'Steven Russo is dead.'”

Police said Russo's daughter found her father dead when she came to visit him.

It appeared the killing was probably premeditated, investigators said.

Robbery was quickly eliminated as a motive, Ignatz acknowledged, because there was no sign of forced entry and no property, including Russo's wallet, was taken.

Evidence was collected, and some of those clues still are being analyzed by forensic experts, Goldinger noted.

Within an hour after learning of Russo's death, Smith was taken away by police for questioning. Not an interview, she recalled, but rather an “interrogation” that lasted for hours.

At times, the session was harsh. But she understood why.

“I wanted them to interrogate me so they'd get into my head,” Smith said. “I didn't want them to waste their time on me. I threw down everything I could think to tell them.”

To this day, she still can't remember police reading her Miranda warnings.

“I was so numb and dazed that I can't recall,” she admitted. “The day was a blur.”

She believed that by the end of the questioning police realized she was being “as helpful as I could.”

Ignatz said police have ruled out any involvement by Smith in Russo's killing. He said she has been “cooperative” with investigators.

Smith said she was particularly eager to answer one question that police asked that first day.

“They asked me if I could think of any possibilities of who did this,” she said.

She thought of three potential suspects, including disgruntled parents of students in Russo's classes. But also there was the man she had dated.

Smith provided police with as much information as she could about the man. She paints a discomforting portrait of the man.

“He's someone very good at making other people believe he's normal when in fact he's a monster,” she said.

Arrest awaits

Smith said she has complete confidence that police in time will solve the case.

“People think that because an arrest hasn't been made that (police) somehow dropped the ball,” she said. “That's not the case. Their tenacity has been amazing.

“I'm impressed with their efforts, and their efforts will pan out. Some have suggested this is a cold case — there's nothing cold about their case.”

Police and prosecutors agree that the case remains active.

“We work on (it) every day,” Ignatz said.

Goldinger said, “We're trying to pull it all together and complete the puzzle. That takes time.”

But he predicted there would be an arrest “in the relatively near future.”

And Smith predicted police will arrest the man she told them killed Russo.

“This man is not getting away with killing an angel,” she said. “They're just lining up their ducks in a row to arrest him.

“This selfish sociopath has caused a lot of people a lot of pain, and I don't think for a minute he's going to get away with it.”