By Jesse Leavenworth, Hartford Courant
MANCHESTER — The suspect in the sexual assault, fatal beating and torching of a local woman was ordered held Tuesday on $2 million bail.
The felony murder case of Steven Durdek Jr. was transferred from Manchester to Hartford Superior Court, Durdek is to appear there on March 4.
Durdek, 21, is accused of sexually assaulting Sarah Kelloway, 56, and beating to death on Jan. 18. He also is accused of first-degree arson, police say, because he squirted lighter fluid on Kelloway and lit her body on fire.
Manchester State’s Attorney Adam Scott argued for bail of $3 million. Scott said police have a strong case against Durdek, including DNA found in Kelloway’s body and in her Park Street apartment. Also, Scott said, Durdek tried to cover up his actions and endangered other residents of the apartment building when he started the fire.
Bail Commissioner Darren Hall said Durdek has two violation-of-probation cases pending, connected to a burglary in Stamford and a larceny in Manchester. Hall recommended that Durdek’s bail remain at least at the amount set by Manchester police — $1 million.
Judge Carl Taylor split the difference, ordering Durdek held on $2 million bail. Public Defender David Smith represented him.
Police say they believe Durdek was out early on Jan. 18 trying to break into cars. For some reason, he was drawn to the apartment building at 56 Park St., about three-tenths of a mile from his home at 180 Chestnut St., police Lt. Jeff Lampson said Monday.
Durdek climbed a fire escape outside the five-unit “mini-mansion” and slipped through an unlocked third-floor window, Lampson said. Kelloway was likely in her bed when Durdek entered her apartment some time between 3 and 3:30 a.m., he said.
The horrific events that came next, police say, resulted in Durdek’s arrest Friday on charges of felony murder, murder, first-degree arson, first-degree burglary, first-degree sexual assault and tampering with physical evidence.
Durdek sexually assaulted Kelloway and beat her to death with implements he found in the apartment, Lampson said. The suspected murder weapons, which Lampson did not describe, are at the state forensic science laboratory, he said. The state medical examiner’s office has found that Kelloway died of blunt force trauma to her head.
After beating her, Durdek squirted lighter fluid he found in the apartment on Kelloway’s body and lit her on fire, Lampson said. The first police officers on the scene tried to enter Kelloway’s apartment, but the blaze was too fierce. When firefighters arrived shortly after 5 a.m., they saw smoke and flames coming from the third floor.
“The fire was quickly knocked down in the bedroom and the house was secured very quickly. It’s just that it had a pretty good head start on us in the bedroom,” Fire Chief Robert Bycholski said.
Kelloway’s body was in “obvious fatal disposition” when found, Bycholski said.
The case teamed local police with town and state fire marshals, state police from the Western District Major Crime Squad and specialists at the forensic lab. Due to the complexities of the crime scene, state police investigators were called in, both for their expertise and the technological capabilities they brought to the case, Lampson said.
The breakthrough came when investigators traced DNA found in Kelloway’s body and at another spot in the apartment to Durdek, Lampson said. Much of the credit for solving the case, Lampson said, goes to Manchester Det. Dave Miele, whose tenacity and innovative work led police to the suspect. Miele wrote in an email, “I clearly did not do this alone. It was a multi-agency effort with many dedicated people beside Manchester detectives.”
Durdek’s criminal record includes a burglary case in Stamford in 2012. He was arrested on April 15 and pleaded guilty in March 2013 to conspiracy to commit third-degree burglary. Durdek received a one-year, suspended jail sentence and two years of probation.
At the time of his arrest, police said, Durdek was a client of Manchester Alternative in the Community, a program run by Community Partners in Action — http://www.cpa-ct.org/alternative.
The court had referred Durdek to the program on Jan. 30 on issues unrelated to Kelloway’s death, agency executive Director Maureen Price-Boreland said Tuesday. Durdek attended an initial session with a program staffer and returned on Feb. 4 for an assessment of whether he was complying with conditions related to substance abuse, Price-Boreland said.
“During the time he was with us, he was compliant with conditions placed on him,” Price-Boreland said.
“The Alternative in the Community programs,” she wrote in an email, “provide structured supervision and services to pre-trial and sentenced individuals based on assessed risks, individual needs and court requirements to enhance their personal growth and development.”
All referrals are from the local courts or probation offices, which mandates participants to attend and complete the program, Price-Boreland wrote.
“During their time at an AIC,” she wrote, “participants learn how to make positive changes through participation in case management and appropriate interventions such as employment support, treating addictive disorders, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
“Through strategic, strength-based case management, which fosters empathy, hope and mutual respect, case managers help participants strengthen their motivation to make better choices and avoid re-arrest in the future,” she wrote.