State police commends SteensmaPublished 8:50pm Wednesday, February 8, 2012
NILES — A missing mother “snowballed” into a murder case.
Thanks to Trooper Aaron Steensma’s sharp judgment and investigative techniques, Douglas Stewart was successfully prosecuted for the murder of his estranged wife, Venus Stewart, though her body has never been found.
Stewart is serving a mandatory life sentence at Carson Correctional Facility in Montcalm County.
At a Jan. 26 recognition ceremony in Lansing, Michigan State Police Director Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue presented the Niles trooper and 1989 Cassopolis graduate with the MSP Meritorious Service Award for his professionalism and diligence and for going beyond what is typically expected of law enforcement officers.
The award is the top honor given by MSP for work on a criminal investigation.
“His initial crime scene response, briefing of responding officers and observations in this case proved to be critical in the successful prosecution” in 2011 for first-degree murder of Stewart, of Newport News, Va. He was arrested by June.
Steensma, who still lives in Cassopolis, with his wife, Lesley, and two children, took several critical actions in a matter of minutes, guided by gut instinct that “something was wrong. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.”
On April 26, 2010, the mother of two girls, ages 3 and 5, went missing from her parents’ Leonidas home in St. Joseph County’s Colon Township when she went to the mailbox to leave a change of address and a child’s weather drawing for the Sturgis Journal.
Quick action at the scene
“I was the closest car when someone called from the (McComb) residence and said their daughter was missing,” he recalled Wednesday. “Her purse and cell phone were still at the house. Her father was home sleeping. He woke up when the children got rambunctious and found her missing. When I arrived, I was met by the mother, who was hysterical and screaming, ‘He took her! He took her!’ When I got her calmed down, she started explaining to me her daughter was estranged from her husband. They were living in Newport News, and she had just come back a month and a half earlier to live with them. There had been a court custody battle the week prior for temporary custody of the children.
“As I’m talking to her, I’m looking around the driveway, which is 75 to 100 feet long, and notice some rocks disturbed by a propane tank by a sidewalk. There was a pink scrunchy hair tie on the sidewalk. Then there was a pontoon boat in the driveway, by which there was plastic packaging.”
When the father returned from driving around to look for Venus, “He pointed out those same items,” Steensma said. “He had manicured his yard a few days earlier, and those stones were meticulous and the hair tie wasn’t there. There could have been a struggle. She didn’t have a car and borrowed her parents’ vehicle. You don’t leave the house without those two things (purse and phone) and leave two young children when (their grandfather) was asleep.”
A detective sergeant phoned Stewart’s employer in Virginia and learned he had called in sick to work. Additional officers arrived to help secure the scene, including a partial fresh footprint leading away from the house.
A deputy conducting a neighborhood canvass found someone who saw a suspicious vehicle in a field, which drove off when it was observed, but not before leaving a tire impression.
“Luckily, we found that,” Steensma said, “because 20 minutes later a grader came down the road. We were able to stop the grader to secure the tire impression. If we had waited, as sometimes happens with missing persons, it would have been lost. The packaging had Douglas Stewart’s fingerprint on it. We gathered a bunch of evidence but couldn’t find him. About a week into it, we were able to find his vehicle in Virginia with a search warrant. That’s when we found a Walmart receipt from Ohio for a tarp, shovel and hat that he was on camera buying.
“And there was a 19-year-old accomplice from Delaware he met playing video games online. He got him to come to Virginia and pose as Douglas Stewart, going to his lawyer’s office, paying a bill and pretending to be him in a sweatshirt, hat and sunglasses because the apartment complex he lived in had video. He tied in all the pieces.
“I hope she’s found for the family’s sake so we can give them some closure. Douglas Stewart is the only person who knows where she is,” Steensma said. “They went over his pickup truck with a fine-toothed comb. Our theory is he used a choke hold so there’s no blood and wrapped her up in the tarp. With a plea agreement, the accomplice got a year in the St. Joseph County jail.”
The case attracted national notoriety. It was shown on TruTV’s “In Session” and “Dateline NBC.”
• Steensma enlisted with the department in 1998, graduating as a member of the 117th Trooper Recruit School.
• Assigned to the Niles post Nov. 1, 2011, he was with the White Pigeon post until it downgraded to a detachment when the department closed posts as part of restructuring for a regional policing plan.
• Steensma lived in Wayland during his time at the Hastings post.
• Before his state police career, he was a Marcellus officer for Tom Jacobs in 1994, then Albion and, in 1996, the Cass County Sheriff’s Office.
• “I didn’t get in this job to get awards,” he said, “but it’s sometimes nice to get a pat on the back. He’d be walking around scot-free with his children with him. He planned it pretty well.”
Tags: Michigan State Police