Public Safety

Newly disclosed phone call leads to break in 20-year-old Johnson County murder case

Cold Justice TV show looks into killing of Susan Kersten 20 years ago

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Steven Klein is escorted out by John Bruzek (left) and Quint Meyerdirk (right) during Klein's Bond Review Hearing at the
Steven Klein is escorted out by John Bruzek (left) and Quint Meyerdirk (right) during Klein's Bond Review Hearing at the Johnson City Courthouse in Iowa City Friday, August 21. Klein was charged with first degree murder for the death of his former girlfriend Susan Kersten in September of 1995. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Recollections of a phone call the night Susan Kersten was killed two decades ago — publicly revealed for the first time Friday night on a television show — clinched the case investigators had been assembling for years against Steven Klein, leading to last month’s arrest of the former boyfriend.

Working with local authorities, the cast of Cold Justice helped track down witnesses last month to interview them again after the unsolved 1995 homicide case was resurrected. Ten days after the crew arrived to help officials, Klein, 54, was arrested July 17.

Although he faces a first-degree murder charge and is held at the Johnson County Jail on $1 million bail, the new evidence the Cold Justice crew helped uncover weeks ago was not publicly disclosed until the show aired Friday night.

That gap led Klein’s defense attorneys last week to lambaste the show in court papers and, earlier Friday, express frustration.

“This is a 20-year-old case and the state flat out does not want to share what new evidence they have,” Quint Meyerdirk, one of Klein’s attorneys, said during a court hearing. “If there is new evidence, show it. The citizens of this county have a right. My client has a right, Show it … we should know what the new evidence is.”

That evidence, as laid out hours later on the nationally broadcast TNT program, centers on the apparently recently discovered recollections of Pam Tompkins, a cousin of the 38-year-old victim.

Tompkins told investigators she had called Kersten about 8 p.m. Sept. 24, 1995 — the night of the killing. According to the TV broadcast, Kersten was in her mobile home with Klein when Tompkins said she heard shouting over the phone and the line went dead.

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One of the TV program’s main personalities, former prosecutor Kelly Siegler, said that revelation caused investigators to change the timeline of the killing to be about an hour earlier than they had thought for years.

And that, in turn, made them rule out another man — a neighbor of Kersten’s — who also was under scrutiny.

In 1995, authorities found Kersten’s body in a burning car that had been driven off a road and left in a field near Iowa City. Authorities soon determined she died from several blows to the head — not the fire.

According to authorities at the time, Klein was a person of interest for nearly 20 years. It had not been publicly revealed that another man also was being looked at in some detail. Siegler, on the broadcast, called Klein and the other man “strong suspects.”

The broadcast featured interviews with people who knew both men, although in many instances it gave only their first names or no names at all. At one point, Siegler led authorities inside a mobile home on the lot where Kersten had lived near Iowa City to re-enact the crime — even though there is a different mobile home there now.

Siegler said on the broadcast that blood stains found on a recliner in the original mobile home — and a phone cord that appeared to have been yanked from the wall — led her to believe the killing had happened there.

A former girlfriend of Klein’s also recounted on the show what she described as a chilling conversation with him years earlier — that he knew how to cover up a crime by putting some sort of chemical on a car and torching it, along with the evidence.

Questioning the role of the TV show, a defense attorney for Klein tried Friday afternoon during a court hearing to get his client released from jail.

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In addressing Judge Chad Kepros, attorney Meyerdirk argued that “nothing has changed” in 20 years and that $1 million bail is a “made up number” a vast majority of Iowans couldn’t pay. He said his client is not a flight risk or a danger to the community.

“He stuck around for 20 years, nothing has changed, nothing whatsoever,” he said.

In a rebuttal, Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said the only issue they were discussing on Friday was Klein’s bail — and she did not divulge additional information about the case.

She pointed to Klein’s extensive criminal record and the nature of the murder as reason to maintain his bail.

“He is somebody who is a danger to the community,” Lyness said. “He is now charged with murder in the first degree. That alone is reason for the court to retain a high bond.”

She added, “A lot of people were investigated. That doesn’t mean there was a reason to flee. Now that he has been charged, there is a great reason to flee.”

Kepros said he will rule on the matter later.

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