A Family Starving For Answers

Groton –– Roland Berstecher entered his 89-year-old mother's apartment on Christmas Day 2004 to find her bloody, half-naked body wedged under the kitchen stove.

Alexandria Berstecher had a broken rib, and cuts and bruises covered her upper body. According to a medical examiner's report, she died of electrocution from the stove's wiring. A drawer at the bottom of the stove had been removed and her body was under the appliance, head first and face up. She was naked from the waist down.

Roland Berstecher had stopped by to drop off lunch and presents before returning to his family. But after he reported finding the body, police grilled him for nine hours, demanding a confession and refusing to let him leave the police station, he said.

Officers told reporters at the time that Alexandria Berstecher committed suicide. As recently as last month, police told an organization assisting the family that the death likely will be ruled an accident.

Still, more than a year after Alexandria Berstecher died in her one-bedroom apartment in a housing complex for senior citizens, Groton town police have provided no information to the family, leaving them wondering how she died, whether Roland Berstecher remains a suspect and if the department is doing anything to answer these questions.

The family's attorney, Raymond T. Trebisacci, filed a lawsuit Friday against the town and the police department, requesting that the department preserve evidence and release the contents of the investigation file.

Police refused to comment for this article. They also refused to provide a reason for their silence. State police referred questions to the Groton town department.

•••

The following is how Roland Berstecher and his partner of 21 years, Joann Degenhart, recall the incident:

Berstecher, a security guard at Mohegan Sun for eight years, moved his mother into Poquonnock Village at 1039 Poquonnock Road in 1993. A widowed Navy wife, she suffered from arthritis and glaucoma. The 97-unit apartment building was less than five miles from her son's Phillips Avenue home.

Roland took his mother grocery shopping every week and drove her to the bank monthly to get a money order for her rent.

Alexandria kept a diary of the visits and the daily calls she received from her son and Degenhart. Police confiscated the journal and have not returned it to the family.

Alexandria was happy in the apartment, said a friend, Gloria Kiley, who still lives in the complex. Alexandria had a boyfriend in the building and spent most of her time in the dayroom with friends, Kiley said.

On Christmas Eve 2004, Degenhart's son, Edward, brought his girlfriend, Jennifer Arnold, to Roland Berstecher's home for the first time. Berstecher, 63, spoke to his mother on the phone just before 3 p.m., as he did every day. Alexandria could not come to his house because her arthritis prevented her from getting up the stairs to the bathroom.

The family ate dinner with friends and watched two movies before going to bed.

At 11:30 a.m. Christmas Day, Degenhart urged Berstecher to hurry to his mother's because Alexandria was waiting for lasagna Degenhart had baked.

He pressed the lobby buzzer for Apartment 307 at about 12:10 p.m. There was no answer, so he entered the lobby using a spare key given to him by his mother's friend.

He checked the third-floor dayroom, thinking his mother might be waiting at the window. Alexandria did not respond to knocks on her door, which was locked.

As he grew more concerned, Berstecher banged harder, attracting the attention of a neighbor who knew him. She volunteered to get the maintenance man to unlock the apartment.

The usually tidy apartment was a mess. Alexandria's bed was unmade. Two chairs and her walker lay on their sides. Berstecher entered to find his mother's legs and lower torso sticking out from where the stove drawer had been. A button-down cardigan covered her navel, but she wore no pants or underwear.

Berstecher called Degenhart, a nurse, and told the maintenance man to call 911. He then took a washcloth from the bathroom to cover his mother's genitals.

Police arrived within minutes and taped off the scene.

At about 1 p.m., Groton town police took Roland Berstecher into the dayroom, where they asked him general questions about his mother for 15 minutes. They told him to come to the station to sign some papers.

Leading him down a back stairwell, officers put him in an unmarked Ford Crown Victoria and drove him to the station.

“I thought I was going to go down, answer a few questions and leave,” he said. “I figured I was down there to help them catch the bad guy.”

Degenhart and her son arrived at the station shortly after Berstecher. Police put them all in separate, adjacent interrogation rooms.

“They were cordial to me at first,” Berstecher said. “Once they got my statement, they started getting nasty.”

Police never read him his rights, he said. He asked to leave four times, and they said no. An officer followed him to the bathroom. When he asked for food, they gave him a Coke and a donut, saying that all restaurants were closed. They sent him to a break room to stretch his legs, where he found two officers eating Chinese food.

During questioning, detectives from Groton and the state police told Berstecher that forensics expert Henry Lee was investigating the death, but a state police spokesman Thursday denied Lee's involvement.

Degenhart asked police about getting a lawyer. Police told her only Roland could ask for one.

As the interrogation continued, detectives raised their voices, the family said. Roland Berstecher cried. From the other rooms, Degenhart and her son heard them shout, “We know you killed your mother. We'll get you off on manslaughter. Just confess.”

At about 10:30 p.m., police let the family go. Berstecher and Degenhart said that as they walked into the lobby, Groton Detective Sgt. John Varone said, “You know there's bloody fingerprints all over her body, and if they're yours, Roland, it's going to be all four of you,” meaning the family and Jennifer Arnold.

The following week, Groton town police told The Day the death was a suicide. In December 2005, they told the organization Survivors of Homicide that it would likely be ruled an accident.

Either way, the initial investigation seemed to focus on Roland Berstecher.

•••

Police questioned his neighbors.

The morning after Christmas, an unmarked burgundy Ford Crown Victoria parked in front of his house. The car drove off when Edward Degenhart approached it.

Two registered sex offenders lived on the same floor as Alexandria and said they knew her. One of them said this week that he was out of town at the time of the murder and was never questioned by police. The other said he was out of the apartment when police spoke to his wife. Officers never returned to question him, he said.

The family said police did a vaginal swab at the scene, but never revealed whether Alexandria was sexually assaulted.

The only items missing from the apartment were a large potted cactus and a $359 money order for rent, but police never asked the family if anything was missing, Berstecher said.

For months, police did not return phone calls from the family's lawyer, Raymond Trebisacci, the lawyer said. He filed a freedom-of-information request to gain access to the investigation file, but police rejected the request, saying they cannot release documents from an open investigation.

On Friday, Trebisacci listed the Groton Town Police Department, the Town of Groton and Police Chief Kelly Fogg as defendants in the lawsuit to preserve evidence and release information to the family.

Alexandria was buried next to her husband at the Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery in Exeter on New Year's Eve 2004.

Berstecher said he was too distraught to work for a month. He has been receiving counseling since the death.

A photograph of the kitchen taken after the death shows blood on the floor and a smear of bloody fingerprints against the wall where the stove was removed by police as evidence. The family wonders if Alexandria was raped. Why would an otherwise happy woman climb under a stove to kill herself? If it was an accident, why won't police say so?

Last month, Berstecher wrote letters to state and federal officials requesting assistance. U.S. Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman and Christopher J. Dodd, both Connecticut Democrats, U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, R-2nd District, and the state Office of the Victim Advocate all said they have been in contact with the police department.

On Wednesday, an investigator for the Office of the Victim Advocate said Police Chief Kelly Fogg has agreed to meet with the family Jan. 25.
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