Public Safety

Investigators call on TV show to help crack old murder case

Killing of Susan Kersten in Johnson County featured Friday on Cold Justice

Steven Klein answers questions from the judge during his initial hearing at the Johnson County Jail in Iowa City on Satu
Steven Klein answers questions from the judge during his initial hearing at the Johnson County Jail in Iowa City on Saturday, July 18, 2015. ¬ (KC McGinnis / The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — There was nothing much to lose.

After nearly 20 years of investigating the September 1995 death of Susan Kersten, there still had not been an arrest in the grisly killing.

The body of the 38-year-old mother of four had been discovered in a burned-out car, driven off the road and into a field. Authorities soon learned she had died from several blows to the head.

“We had continued working on it, and we weren’t getting anywhere,” Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said.

So at the suggestion of one of his lieutenants and with the permission of Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness, Pulkrabek allowed a team from the cable television show Cold Justice to join the investigation. Still, he was apprehensive about it.

“This was sort of a last-ditch effort because of all the things that come with it,” he said. “When you do a case like that with a TV show, everything becomes open ... and you can’t hold back any ace up your sleeve any more.”

Authorities said the Cold Justice crew arrived July 7 in Iowa City and work began July 9. On July 17, the Sheriff’s Office announced the arrest of 54-year-old Steven Klein on a count of first-degree murder for the death of Kersten. He’s set for a November trial.

Kersten’s body was found in her car in a farm field southeast of Iowa City on Sept. 24, 1995. Her body was severely burned, but police believe she was killed by blunt force trauma to the head. Klein, Kersten’s former boyfriend, was long a person of interest in the case. He was living in Mount Pleasant and working in Muscatine at the time of his arrest.

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The Cold Justice episode, “Up in Flames,” is set to air at 7 p.m. Friday, Iowa time, on TNT.

The program focuses on former prosecutor Kelly Siegler and former crime-scene investigator Yolanda McClary as they work with local authorities to try to close the book on cold murder cases. According to the program’s press kit, the show has resulted in 24 arrests, 11 criminal indictments, four confessions, four guilty pleas and four convictions.

Siegler and McClary were not made available for an interview, but did provide answers to emailed questions from The Gazette.

“This case got on our radar because the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department reached out to us for any expertise and resources we might be able to provide, which we gladly did,” Siegler said. “We do not work on cases unless contacted by the local law enforcement agency and only when agreed upon by the elected prosecutor who has jurisdiction. The family also has to want our involvement before we work on any given case.”

Lt. Doug Gwinn, head of the department’s investigations unit and lead detective on the Kersten homicide, said he was the one who reached out to the show. Gwinn said the homicide had been an open case since 1995 and had been worked hard by several investigators. When the case was assigned to him earlier this year, he was open to a new approach.

“We’ve got to do something different and we need some help,” he said.

After getting approval from Lyness and Pulkrabek, Gwinn invited in the Cold Justice team. He said he was given permission to focus on this case exclusively.

“I disclosed everything to them,” he said. “I had to, I needed their help. The folks I worked closely with were ex-prosecutors, ex-investigators. These people had a lot of experience and knowledge that helped.”

One of the biggest contributions were the resources provided by the show. Gwinn said the Cold Justice team digitized the entire case file and helped authorities track down witnesses.

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“We didn’t pay these people anything,” Gwinn said. “They didn’t pay us, either.”

Gwinn and retired detective Kevin Kinney, a state senator hired back as reserve deputy to work this case, conducted their own interviews and handled the evidence. Another retired detective, Mike Scheetz, also assisted. Along the way, the Cold Justice crew added expertise.

“It was high energy,” Gwinn said. “We went hard every day. Long hours. It was a good two weeks. Obviously, it ended with an arrest. We found out some things we didn’t before and it made the difference.”

He said everyone involved in the investigation “deserves equal credit.”

“Cold Justice helped us a lot,” he said. “They had a lot of experience. They had a lot of money, a lot of resources. They were there every step of the way.”

The program, though, has drawn the ire of Klein’s attorneys.

On Aug. 14, one of his attorneys, John Bruzek, filed a motion seeking to ban witnesses in the case from viewing the show. Bruzek described the decision to contact Cold Justice as a “desperate move.” He also notes the program is the subject of a recent civil rights lawsuit filed in Ohio.

The motion also accuses the state of withholding new evidence until after the episode airs.

“Not a single police report in the discovery already provided is dated within this decade,” he wrote.

He continued, “Defendant’s right to due process and a fair trial, as well as his right to a competent defense, are all compromised if the witnesses identified by the State are not subject to sequester and prevented” from watching.

“The Reality series and Ms. Siegler purposely sensationalize facts and focus the viewer on particular evidence while ignoring contrary facts and exculpatory evidence,” he said.

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On Aug. 17, Judge Chad Kepros ordered the state’s 28 witnesses not to watch the program or any rebroadcasts.

In a separate motion related to the case, Klein’s attorneys have requested a bill of particulars — asking the state to lay out its case.

The motion states the minutes of testimony include “multiple witnesses utilizing gross speculation, irrelevant information and inadmissible evidence.”

A hearing on the motion for a bill of particulars will be scheduled later, records show.

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

Mitchell Schmidt of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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