Within moments of sitting down with investigators to talk about a missing person's report, Andrew Vrba confessed: “I had no choice. I killed (Steinfeld).”
Vrba's confession occurred Sept. 20, 2017, in Texas County, six days after Ally Steinfeld's family reported the teen missing and before law enforcement realized Steinfeld was dead.
Three videotaped interrogations of Vrba, then 18, were played this week during his trial in a Greene County courtroom. In the videos, Vrba repeatedly admits to stabbing 17-year-old Steinfeld twice and describes in detail burning Steinfeld’s body over the course of more than a day.
Vrba, now 21, is charged with first-degree murder, armed criminal action and abandonment of a corpse for his alleged role in Steinfeld’s murder in Texas County nearly three years ago.
Steinfeld was referred to by her birth name in court and throughout court documents. But according to Steinfeld's public Facebook and Instagram accounts, she identified as a transgender woman and had transitioned to using the name Ally Lee Steinfeld before her death.
Authorities said early on in the investigation they didn’t believe Steinfeld’s gender identity had anything to do with her death.
Since Vrba admitted to killing Steinfeld, at question in this week's bench trial was not his guilt or innocence. Judge Calvin Holden is tasked with deciding if Vrba's crime was premeditated. The trial concluded Thursday. Holden said he will announce his decision after he reviews all of the motions, evidence, videos and transcripts.
The story garnered worldwide media attention due in part to information made public by law enforcement in 2017. But contrary to information in the Texas County Sheriff’s Office’s original probable cause statement, there was no evidence — other than statements made by one of the co-defendants — that Vrba gouged out Steinfield’s eyes or mutilated her genitals.
According to Vrba’s attorney Tom Jacquinot, the detective who wrote the probable cause statement testified in a deposition that Texas County Prosecutor Parke Stevens insisted those statements be included in the probable cause statement.
“These hearsay statements were at the request of the prosecutor,” Jacquinot said at a motion hearing on July 30. “They created a media circus.”
The alleged mutilation came up on Tuesday when the second interview tape was played. In the video, former Texas County Sheriff James Sigman and former chief detective Travis Davis question Vrba about statements Briana Calderas made.
Calderas was in a relationship with Steinfeld at the time. After just a few days of dating, the relationship soured. Vrba repeatedly said in interviews that Calderas was telling people that Steinfeld raped her and that Calderas wanted Vrba to kill Steinfeld.
In the interrogation video, Sigman and Davis asked Vrba if he gouged Steinfeld's eyes out.
"No! No," Vrba responded.
Asked if he stabbed Steinfeld in the genitals, Vrba again responded, "No! No! I didn't do that." "I did not stab him (in the genitals)," he said. "I did not stab him in the face ..."
Prior to the video being played, Judge Holden ruled the portion of the video when the alleged mutilation was discussed would not be considered.
Calderas was not called as a witness.
Calderas pleaded guilty to abandonment of a corpse, concealing a felony and tampering with physical evidence in a felony prosecution. She was sentenced to eight years last summer and has since been paroled.
COVID-19 PRECAUTIONS TAKEN IN COURT
Due to the pandemic, face masks were required of everyone in the courtroom. Witnesses were given face shields and allowed to remove their masks during testimony. Judge Holden sanitized the witness stand and microphone between every witness.
On Wednesday morning, the courtroom was cleared and sanitized. Holden explained that someone who had been in court on Monday and Tuesday was in quarantine after being in close contact with someone with COVID-19.
According to defense attorney Pat Berrigan, Holden requested that Vrba be tested before going back into the jail population. And for at least the past week, Vrba has been segregated from other inmates.
What happened among this group of friends?
In his opening statements on Monday, Jacquinot described the history and nature of the relationships among the co-defendants and victim.
In the summer of 2017, Steinfeld was in a relationship with longtime girlfriend Samantha Brooks. Vrba and Isis Schauer, then both 18, were also in a relationship. Schauer and Brooks were best friends.
Vrba and Schauer, who was pregnant, lived with and cared for Schauer’s grandmother at a home in Texas County. Steinfeld and Brooks often hung out there and sometimes stayed with them.
Steinfeld had “unusual characteristics and was often bullied,” Jacquinot said. Steinfeld had dropped out of high school in Licking.
“In this group, (Steinfeld) felt accepted,” Jacquinot said. “Not bullied, not ridiculed.”
The group had no troubles with law enforcement. They played video games together, Jacquinot said.
Vrba had dreams of joining the military, although his learning disability would likely have prevented that from happening. He was also looking forward to becoming a father.
Around the end of that summer, Schauer’s older cousin Briana Calderas was going through a divorce.
Calderas was 24 and had two small children. At the time, neither Vrba nor Steinfeld knew Calderas.
Calderas started hanging around the younger group of friends and supplied them with alcohol, Jacquinot said.
Also around this time, Steinfeld and Brooks were breaking up.
Around five to six days before Steinfeld’s death, Calderas begins to flirt with the teen.
Steinfeld “takes the bait,” Jacquinot said, and began a relationship with Calderas.
“This relationship is blissful for all of about 48 hours,” he said.
Two days before Steinfeld’s murder, Calderas began telling Schauer and Vrba that Steinfeld has been raping her, Jacquinot said.
On the day of the murder, Vrba and Steinfeld were at Calderas’ trailer. They were supposed to be cleaning.
In the interrogation videos played during the trial, Vrba told investigators that sometime during that day he could hear Calderas and Steinfeld having sex and that he heard Calderas call out "ow." Vrba claimed he opened the door to the bedroom, saw what he believed to be non-consensual sex and yelled at Steinfeld to get off Calderas.
Vrba told investigators he then asked Steinfeld to play video games and Steinfeld agreed. Calderas went to work and later Schauer took Calderas to the hospital, Vrba told investigators.
While the women were gone, Vrba said Steinfeld started drinking. Vrba said Steinfeld began saying threatening things about Calderas and her children.
Then, according to Vrba in the first interrogation, Steinfeld offered to punch Schauer in her pregnant belly to "get rid of that bastard." Vrba said Steinfeld meant to kill the baby as a favor, but that's what led to the stabbing.
In that interrogation, Vrba claimed Steinfeld came at him, waving a knife. Vrba said he caught Steinfeld's hand and pushed the knife into Steinfeld's stomach. Vrba then said he stabbed his friend a second time and that Steinfeld died in his arms.
The detective asked Vrba if Steinfeld said anything before dying.
"At this point he knew he did wrong and was sorry," Vrba said. "I told (Steinfeld), 'You made me do this.'"
In a later interviews, Vrba said Steinfeld had put the knife down and that Vrba picked it up and then stabbed Steinfeld.
Vrba repeatedly told investigators that he stabbed Steinfeld because Steinfeld offered to kill his unborn baby by punching Schauer and say threatening things about Schauer and her grandmother.
“This case comes down to that crucial moment right before (Steinfeld) died,” Jacquinot said Monday. “It wasn’t the result of cool reflection. It was not deliberate, and it certainly was not murder in the first degree.”
WAS IT PREMEDITATED?
In their arguments that the murder was premeditated, Stevens, the Texas County prosecutor, and Kevin Zoellner, with the attorney general's office, pointed to different statements Vrba made during the interrogations.
Vrba said on multiple occasions that Calderas asked him to kill Steinfeld because she claimed she had been raped. These conversations, according to Vrba, started a few days before the killing. “She said make it painless and quick,” Vrba said in the first interview. Vrba repeated this claim in the other two interrogations.
Vrba later told psychologist Dr. Lauren Richerson that, a few hours before the murder, Calderas told him that if he didn't kill Steinfeld, Calderas would hurt Vrba's mother.
Vrba talked about planning to poison Steinfeld with either bleach or pills during that first interrogation. Vrba said he crushed up four or five diarrhea medicine pills and put them in a drink, but Steinfeld wouldn’t drink it.
And Vrba told investigators that he used Steinfeld’s cellphone to look up “fast ways to kill someone.”
Though Vrba talked to investigators about these statements and actions that seem to indicate premeditation, he also told investigators it wasn’t until Steinfeld talked about hurting his unborn child, Schauer and Schauer’s grandmother that he decided to stab his friend.
“My original plan was honestly just beat him up,” he had said in 2017. “Maybe break an arm or two.”
Vrba did not testify in his trial.
FOLLOWING THE MURDER
Details about what happened after the murder were revealed during the trial. In the interrogation videos, Vrba described in detail how he burned Steinfeld’s body.
Following the killing at around 8 p.m. Sept. 2, 2017, Schauer and Calderas returned home from the hospital. Vrba said Calderas was mad because there was so much blood. He was mad at Calderas because she had brought his fiancée, Schauer, to the crime scene.
The women made two trips to different Walmarts in the early morning hours of Sept. 3, 2017, to buy items including lighter fluid, camp fuel, bleach and gloves.
Former Texas County Chief Detective Travis Davis testified that the women intended to say they were camping and bought marshmallows and chocolate bars to back that up. Receipts from both Walmarts were presented as evidence.
Vrba, in the interrogations, said he put a sleeping bag over Steinfeld’s body, tied a rope around it and brought the body into the yard behind Calderas’ trailer just north of Cabool.
Vrba said he put duct tape on Steinfeld's face because one eye wouldn't shut and he didn't want to look at Steinfeld's face.
He said he used 20-30 wood pallets to keep the fire burning all that night, the next day and into the next night. He said they put trash and Steinfeld’s clothes on the fire, too, to keep the fire going.
Vrba spoke to investigators many times about how bothered he was by burning the body and that he vomited multiple times. He later told Dr. Richerson that he had hallucinations while the body was burned and for several weeks after — hallucinations of seeing Steinfeld jump out of the fire and seeing Steinfeld out of the corner of his eye while he was in jail.
Vrba said in those interviews that he was having trouble sleeping and keeping food down.
Vrba said he sat in a lawn chair watching over the fire for hours. The following day, the group brought James T. Grigsby onto the property. Grigsby was supposed to help dispose of the body, but Vrba said he wasn't much help.
"He sat on his ass basically," Vrba told investigators. "He's not the brightest."
Steinfeld's family reported the teen missing Sept. 14, 2017, saying no one had seen or heard from Steinfeld for a couple of weeks.
Steinfeld's sister, Ashely Boswell, testified that she became worried when Steinfeld wasn't responding to her messages. Steinfeld's parents, who lived in the St. Louis area, drove to Houston to report Steinfeld missing.
Boswell said they made flyers and passed them out around town.
"We didn't get nothing from that," she said.
The family then went to Calderas' trailer and spoke to Vrba and Calderas.
Boswell said Vrba told the family that Steinfeld "got mad and drunk" and "stormed off."
Joey Steinfeld Sr., the victim's father, testified that he spoke with Vrba about Steinfeld's whereabouts and that Vrba looked him in the eye.
"He told me he'd help look for (Steinfeld)," Joey Steinfeld Sr. said. "He shook my hand."
Asked what day he learned of his child's death, Joey Steinfeld Sr. shook his head and said he doesn't remember.
"It's a roller coaster when you are looking for your child," he said.
Rowdy Douglas, who was the lead investigator in the case, testified that he spoke with Steinfeld's sister on the phone on Sept. 14, 2017. He said he went to Calderas' trailer that day, but no one was there. On Sept. 20, Douglas found Vrba and Schauer at another home and they agreed to come to the Texas County Sheriff's Office.
The two were questioned separately. Douglas described how moments after Vrba was read his rights, the young man confessed to stabbing Steinfeld.
Steinfeld's burned remains were found later that day in the burn pile and in a nearby chicken coop.
Grigsby pleaded guilty to abandonment of a corpse and was sentenced to four years. He has been paroled.
Schauer pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and abandonment of a corpse. She was sentenced to 20 years and is appealing her conviction. She has a hearing this week.
A HISTORY OF ABUSE, TRAUMA AND DISABILITIES
Vrba's defense team — Jacquinot with the Capital Division of Missouri State Public Defenders, Berrigan and Devon Pasley — called Richerson to testify on Wednesday.
Richerson, a licensed clinical psychologist, specializes in working with children and adolescents and has worked with the juvenile justice system in California and Missouri. This was her fourth time to testify in a murder trial.
Richerson said she spent about six hours with Vrba, using different cognitive assessments and tools to better understand his mental health and disabilities. She reviewed his medical and school records, as well as the documents associated with the case. She also interviewed Vrba's mother.
Richerson testified Vrba suffers from nonverbal learning disorder, ADHD, developmental delays and has a history of traumatic experiences. His troubles began when he was in the womb, Richerson said.
Vrba was born three weeks premature and spent his first few weeks in the NICU at Mercy. His father was physically abusive with the child, beginning when he was nine months old, Richerson testified.
Asked how Vrba's disabilities and past trauma affect him in social situations, Richerson said he has problems with non-verbal reasoning skills, trouble with social cues and difficulty knowing how to behave.
Richerson testified for about five hours about how Vrba's nonverbal learning disorder diagnosis explains some of his behaviors during the interrogation videos. The disorder causes Vrba to mostly use the left side of his brain, she said, and he has deficits in the right side, which controls reasoning and nonverbal communication.
When Vrba was confessing to detectives about killing Steinfeld and burning the body, he sometimes spoke very matter-of-factly, laughed or smiled. Richerson said that is characteristic of someone with nonverbal learning disorder.
In Richerson's opinion, Vrba doesn't understand the impact of his nonverbal behavior.
"He seems stuck in the left hemisphere (of his brain)," she said.
Richerson said there were times during the interrogations when Vrba seemed to switch from using the left side of his brain to the right. At one point, detectives were pressing Vrba about whether or not Calderas was telling the truth when she said Steinfeld raped her — they believed she was lying to get Vrba to kill Steinfeld.
"Before he was speaking in matter-of-fact mode," Richerson said. "When the officers were presenting information that didn't fit that, it seemed he was kind of stunned. ... He became emotional."
Asked if she has ever noticed a time when Vrba used both sides of his brain at the same time, Richerson said no.
"I haven't seen that to date," she said.
In his cross-examination, Zoellner asked Richerson about Vrba's shifting stories, rather than a "shift in his brain."
Zoellner pressed Richerson about the various reasons Vrba gave investigators for killing Steinfeld.
"This change," Zoellner asked, "might not be a shift in right brain and left brain. Do you agree?"
"It's a possibility, but not my professional opinion," she said.
Zoellner then asked how much she is being paid. Richerson said she charges $150 for her out-of-court services and $250 an hour when she is in court. She said the defense has paid her over $10,000 so far.
"Ever testify on behalf of the state?" Zoellner asked.
"No," the doctor said.
The defense also called Vrba's high school counseler, Tara Volk, who said Vrba was in special education classes and had an IEP (indivualized education plan).
Volk talked about giving Vrba an aptitude test to see if he could get in the military. A 99 was the highest score possible and students had to score a 32 to get into the military. Vrba scored a 2, Volk said.
Volk said she never had a student score so low on the test.
Otherwise, Volk described Vrba as a good kid who didn't get in a lot of trouble.
Vrba's high school English teacher, Sandy Cremer, also testified for the defense. Cremer said Vrba was in her "mentor class" — a smaller group that allowed teachers to build closer relationships with the students.
"I've never saw any cause to think he was violent," Cremer said. "Never violent or aggressive."
When she heard about the killing, Cremer said she was "extremely shocked."
"I thought, 'Did I miss something? What signs did I not see,'" she said. "It can't be."
In his closing arguments Thursday, Zoellner said the prosecution does not believe Vrba told the truth about why and how he killed Steinfeld.
Zoellner pointed out that one of the last statements Vrba made to Dr. Richerson was that Steinfeld's family "will never know what it was for."
"(Steinfeld) was burnt to an extent there's just a few bones left," Zoellner said. "We still don't know why and we still don't know how."
Zoellner said Vrba's stories have shifted several times. Vrba first said it was self-defense, but he later said that Steinfeld put the knife down. Another time, Vrba said he stabbed Steinfeld in the back, the attorney said.
Vrba has also given different versions of why he killed Steinfeld, Zoellner said, from Calderas' claim she was raped, to protecting Schauer and their unborn child, to threats Caleras made to him about hurting his mother.
Zoellner reminded the court about the "painless and quick" conversation Vrba said he had with Calderas.
"How does that statement get made and discussed unless they are planning to kill someone?" he asked.
Stevens, the prosecutor from Texas County, said Vrba's actions fulfill all the elements of the first-degree murder charge, including deliberation "after cool reflection."
Stevens reminded the court about Vrba's consideration of using bleach or diarrhea pills to poison Steinfeld.
Vrba went with the pills, Stevens said.
"His actions show he deliberated on that and went a different route," Stevens said. "The defense is asking for mercy for the defendant. The state is asking for justice for (Steinfeld)."
Jacquinot, the lead defense attorney, accused the prosecutors of "distorting the timeline" and that his client's reason for stabbing Steinfeld has never changed.
"Andrew never had an idea of using a knife until (Steinfeld) waved it," Jacquinot said. "Until (Steinfeld) started making threats against Isis and his unborn child."
He said the state has not met the standard of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the stabbing was premeditated.
Defense attorney Pasley echoed that. "Cool reflection does not exist," she said. "And it certainly does not exist beyond a reasonable doubt." The knife was a "weapon of convenience," Pasley said, and Calderas' and Schauer's two trips to Walmart to buy camping supplies happened after Steinfeld was dead.
As for Vrba's internet search for "fast ways to kill someone," Pasley said investigators never followed up on that search.
"We don't know," she said. "There is not enough to show cool reflection."
Judge Holden wouldn't say how long he expects it will take for him to reach a decision. He also has a number of defense motions to consider, including a motion to dismiss Count III (abandonment of a corpse), a motion to bar a life sentence without parole, and a motion for sanctions due to a lack of good faith in complying with court orders to preserve evidence and law enforcement notes.
"It's not something I want to rush through," Holden said. "I'll have to sift through it."