Teacher's presumed killer ID'd, but dead
July 25, 2013
Thirty-two months after Steven Russo, a popular Seneca Valley High School math teacher, was gunned down at his home, investigators have identified his suspected murderer. But state police will never arrest 46-year-old Richard Laszczynski — the presumed killer. Laszczynski, who apparently spent the better part of his life battling mental demons, blew himself up last month with a homemade bomb at his Hampton Township home, authorities said. An autopsy ruled the June 27 death a suicide caused by a “blast injury to the head and neck,” according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's office. “It appears he may have had something to do with his own death, while making bombs at his house,” said one investigator who did not want to be identified. But the source also seemed to leave open the possibility that Laszczynski's death by explosive could have been accidental. know.”
Problems in the past
“He had a past history of problems,” the investigator said, declining to elaborate. Those problems — psychological, pathological or whatever, say friends — also may have contributed to his criminal past. Laszczynski in 1994 was convicted of the armed robbery of a post office in Warrendale. While serving time in federal prison, he would later become a jailhouse informant for prosecutors investigating a triple murder in Virginia. More recently, he was arrested last fall after attacking his wife and stepson with a hammer and knife, Hampton Township police said. But before Hampton officers could get there, the highly intoxicated Laszczynski used the same knife to intentionally cut himself on the side of his face, according to court documents. The assault and endangerment case that was pending against him in Allegheny County Court now is awaiting formal dismissal, upon his death. “He was a suspect in the Russo homicide,” Butler County District Attorney Richard Goldinger said of Laszczynski on Wednesday. “But our investigation is still ongoing.” While state police suspected Laszczynski almost from the outset of their investigation, they never publicly named him or anyone as a suspect in the slaying. Russo, 48, was shot in the head Nov. 24, 2010, inside the log cabin-style home in Lancaster Township that he shared with girlfriend Heidi Smith. Russo's daughter, one of his two children, found her father's body when she came to visit him at his Route 19 home the day before Thanksgiving, police said. Police during the investigation obtained numerous search warrants. They simultaneously got court orders that kept those warrants sealed, arguing that public disclosure of the material could jeopardize their probe.
Quickly a suspect
But at least some of those court papers were unsealed with Laszczynski's death. In some of the documents is evidence suggesting why police suspected him of killing Russo. “I think it's pretty obvious,” Goldinger said. “He was the former boyfriend of (Russo's) live-in girlfriend.” The motive was an age old one. “We believe it was just jealousy,” said state police Cpl. Daniel Herr. And a lot of rage. “He had some real anger issues,” Herr said of Laszczynski. Heidi Smith, 43, of Beaver County, a second grade teacher at Mars Elementary School, briefly dated Laszczynski while she and Russo lived together in 2009 and 2010 at their Lancaster Township rental home. Smith declined to comment on Laszczynski's suicide or investigators naming him as a suspect in Russo's murder. However, in an interview last fall with the Butler Eagle, she revealed that she long believed Laszczynski killed Russo. She described Laszczynski as a “selfish sociopath” and a “monster.” So convinced of his guilt, Smith wore a wire and secretly recorded conversations in hopes of getting incriminating statements from Laszczynski to aid the police investigation. Goldinger declined to comment about those surveillance techniques. However, he acknowledged that Smith “cooperated with police from the very beginning.” It was Smith's decision to end her short-lived relationship with Laszczynski. But he was not so ready to walk out of her life for good. He made sure he kept in touch with Smith, whether she liked it or not. She admitted to the Butler Eagle that in the days leading up to Russo's killing she received “disturbing” text messages from Laszczynski. She would not disclose their contents. While the messages worried her, she acknowledged that she never conveyed any concerns to Russo.
A tragic event
On the morning of the Russo's killing, Smith left for work about 7 a.m. Russo had the day off due to the Thanksgiving holiday school recess. Police believe Russo was killed between 7 and 10:30 a.m. with a small-caliber gun. Investigators quickly ruled out burglary or robbery because the house was not ransacked and nothing was apparently stolen — not even Russo's wallet. 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. Her principal granted her request to leave and she sped home. She was met by scores of police cars and troopers. “I ran up to a bunch of police standing by the door,” she told the Butler Eagle. “I yelled, 'Where's Steve?' One of the police blurted out, 'Steven Russo is dead.'” Within an hour, Smith was question by the police. She provided investigators with Laszczynski's name, and why she believed they should look at him as the killer. Police then brought Laszczynski in for an interview. But any hope of getting a statement ended quickly when he asked to speak to his attorney. Laszczynski's attorney, Carl Parise of Pittsburgh, did not return telephone calls left his at his office or his home Wednesday. Laszczynski's wife, Heather McClain, also could not be reached for comment. Police acknowledged that Smith was quickly ruled out as a suspect based on her cooperation and a solid alibi. About as quickly, Laszczynski went to the top of the list of potential suspects. Goldinger would not say how many names ever made it on that list. But police admitted it was a short list. “(Laszczynski) was the only suspect,” Herr said.
Family kept waiting
During the more than 2½ years of investigating the case, police have methodically collected evidence and conducted countless interviews. “Our family got frustrated as time went by and there still was no arrest,” Jayme Russo, one of Russo’s three brothers, said Wednesday. It also did not help, he said, that police did not share much about their findings with the family. But the Russo clan never lost confidence in police. “Sometimes we’d like to know more,” said the 49-year-old Jayme Russo of Butler Township, “but the police have a job to do. Besides, whatever they did, it wasn’t going to bring Steve back.” Since the killing, the family has met regularly with Trooper Randy Guy, the lead investigator, and Patricia McLean, the lead prosecutor, to get updates about the investigation. Only recently learning of Laszczynski’s suicide, the family hastily arranged a meeting with Guy on Tuesday at the state police barracks in Butler Township. Tuesday, purely coincidental Jayme Russo assured, was his late brother’s birthday. “We didn’t know if (Laszczynski) was a prime suspect,” he said, “but we kind of had an idea.” Not surprisingly, police provided the family with few details about their case against the suspect or what Laszczynski’s sudden death means for the investigation. “The investigation doesn’t end just because he died,” Goldinger said. “We’re still going to try to prove he was the one.” He noted that police are “very close” to solving the crime once and for all. “We’re waiting for tests to come back on one more piece of forensic evidence,” Goldinger said. He would not elaborate. For the Russo family, Laszczynski’s death gives no comfort. “It’s the worst thing that could have happened,” Jayme Russo said. “It leaves a lot of unanswered questions. “We would have liked to have seen this go to trial and get some of those questions answered. But now there’s probably a lot we’ll never know."