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Trial begins for man charged in murder of transgender teen in Texas County

Published: Aug. 2, 2020 at 1:06 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 3, 2020 at 6:13 PM CDT
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TEXAS COUNTY, Mo. (KY3) -

The defense began its case against Andrew Vrba, a man facing murder charges after the death of a transgender teen in Texas County three years ago.

Vrba, now 21, is one of four suspects charged in the death of 17-year-old Joseph Steinfeld, who came out as transgender and went by the name Ally Steinfeld before the death. Three others have pleaded guilty and are in prison for their roles in Steinfeld’s death.

Steinfeld had been missing for weeks when her burned remains were found in September 2017 near the town of Cabool, a rural area about 70 miles east of Springfield. Investigators say her eyes were gouged out and that she was stabbed several times, including in the genitals.

Nothing in opening statements indicates the victim being transgender was part of the motive of the crime, and in court, both the prosecution and defense are referring to the victim as Joseph or Joey Steinfeld. Andrew Vrba confessed to stabbing Steinfeld, the state telling the court he stabbed her twice and burned the remains, and that he had reflected on his plan to harm or kill Steinfeld. The defense claims it was not pre-meditated, and it was in the moment, as Steinfeld got drunk and said threatening things about Vrba’s girlfriend and her unborn child. The defense says Steinfeld’s new girlfriend and Vrba’s codefendant, Briana Calderas, had accused Steinfeld of sexually assaulting her.

Steinfeld’s oldest sister and father both took the stand Monday morning for the state, testifying about her disappearance. A Missouri State Highway Patrol crime investigator also testified about searching for burned remains. A Texas County investigator and the county coroner testified about the investigation.

Monday afternoon, the court listened to a nearly two hour interview with Texas County investigators. In that video, Vrba almost immediately confessed to killing Steinfeld. He told investigators that Steinfeld was swinging a knife at him, before Vrba grabbed it and stabbed her twice in the stomach. With repeated questioning, he changed his story, saying he didn’t grab the knife while it was in Steinfeld’s hand, but picked it up off the counter.

In the recorded interview, Vrba said, “I’m just going to come forth and say it. I had no choice. I killed him.” “Where’s he at?” a deputy asked. “I burned him in the back yard,” Vrba said. “What happened?” said the deputy. “He threatened to kill my baby, grandmother, her grandmother, Isis’ grandmother, Brianna’s children, and he raped Briana in front of me,” Vrba said.

He later claimed Briana Calderas asked him to kill Steinfeld. “Before she went to the hospital, she asked you to kill him. Do you remember what her exact words were?” an investigator said. “She said something between the lines of, make it painless and quick, and thank you,” said Vrba.

Vrba told authorities he stabbed Steinfeld in Briana Calderas’ home, then moved the body outside and burned it with help from others. Vbra’s interview shared many graphic details, about disposing of Steinfeld’s body, and the victim’s family members cried multiple times throughout the video. Authorities in Texas County have insisted the crime was not motivated by Steinfeld’s gender identity. Vrba’s charges include first-degree murder, armed criminal action and abandonment of a corpse.

In April 2018, county prosecutors announced plans to seek the death penalty against Vrba, requesting help from the state attorney general’s office. One month later, the head of Missouri’s public defender system said Vrba should be spared from facing the death sentence if he’s convicted because there isn’t enough money to adequately defend him.

Three others have pleaded guilty and were previously sentenced for the death. Briana Calderas, who had been in a relationship with Steinfeld prior to the death, was sentenced to eight years in prison. She pleaded guilty to abandonment of a corpse, concealing a felony and tampering with physical evidence in a felony prosecution. Isis Schauer was sentenced to 20 years in prison, though intends to appeal her conviction. She pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and abandonment of a corpse for the death. James Grigsby was sentenced to four years in prison. He pleaded guilty to abandonment of a corpse.

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