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COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — The attorney who unsuccessfully defended Richard Butler — a civil case that led to the bankruptcy of the Aryan Nations more than a decade ago — goes on trial today in a murder-for-hire plot involving a pipe bomb apparently aimed at the lawyer’s wife.
Edgar Steele (left) and Larry Fairfax
The federal case against 65-year-old attorney Edgar Steele of Sagle, Idaho, is attracting the attention of hate groups throughout the United States who are supporting his legal defense fund and offering up assorted Internet rants and conspiracy theories.
A nonprofit organization, the Edgar Steele Defense Fund, was established in November by Deon Masker, the wife of anti-Semitic self-described “conspiratologist” Richard F. Masker, a former Butler devotee who lives in North Idaho.
On Facebook, a “Free Edgar Steele” page has been established, soliciting money and listing 262 friends, including outspoken racist August B. Kreis III, who claims to lead a splinter group that is the rightful heir to the once-powerful Aryan Nations.
The American Free Press, a newspaper and Web site tied to longtime racist, anti-Semite and Christian Identity adherent Willis Carto, also has posted audio interviews with Steele supporters.
Steele, who calls himself the “attorney for the damned,” has been in jail in since June 11 when he was arrested by the FBI on charges he hired a hit-man to build a pipe bomb in an attempt to kill Steele’s wife, Cyndi Steele, and her mother.
Cyndi Steele has publicly said she doesn’t fear her husband and doesn’t consider herself a victim. She supports the “Free Edgar Steele” Web site, soliciting donations — even accepting PayPal — and selling T-shirts.
The site says that Steele, who fired noted federal public defender Roger Peven and hired two private attorneys to replace him just last month, needs $250,000 to successfully defend himself. As of last week, $112,000 had been raised, it said. Steele’s new attorneys are Robert T. McAllister, of Englewood, Colo., and Gary Amendola, of Coeur d’Alene.
Cyndi Steele has granted selected interviews to Internet broadcasters who seem to share her husband’s antigovernment and anti-Semitic views. She claims her husband is a “completely innocent political prisoner” who was the target of a “fraud and a frame-up” by federal agents. “His arrest has been orchestrated by a corrupt government via their armed police, in an attempt to silence his pointed, politically incorrect thought, research and commentary,” the site claims.
But Justice Department documents and court hearings already held suggest something else: a sinister plot to murder a wife and mother-in-law, financed with silver coins. Federal investigators say the apparent motive in the murder-for-hire plot appeared to be to collect insurance at a time when Steele was communicating with a woman in Ukraine.
After earlier denying requests to move the trial to Wyoming, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill on Friday denied another defense motion to again postpone the trial.
Court documents say prospective jurors will be asked if they or anyone they know supports the views of the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, National Socialist Movement, National Alliance or any “similar group which bases its doctrine on race or ethnicity.”
Jury selection is expected to last all day today, with opening statements scheduled Tuesday. The trial is expected to last two weeks.
One of the early prosecution witnesses is expected to be the alleged hit man, Larry Andrew Fairfax, who had been acquainted with the Steele family.
Fairfax, 49, contacted the FBI last summer after being solicited to commit the crime, court documents say.
What the hit man apparently didn’t tell FBI agents was that he had, in fact, already planted a pipe bomb on the underframe of Cyndi Steele’s 2004 Mitsubishi Endeavor. The failed plan apparently was to have heat from the SUV’s exhaust system detonate the bomb during a trip she made to visit her mother in Oregon while Edgar Steele remained with an alibi at the family’s horse-ranch home near Sandpoint.
But the bomb didn’t go off. Instead, it was discovered when Cyndi Steele returned from Oregon and took her car in for an oil change in Coeur d’Alene on June 15 — the same day her husband was arraigned on federal murder-for-hire charges.
Edgar Steele subsequently was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder for hire; use of explosive material to commit a federal felony; possession of a destructive device in relation to a crime of violence, and tampering with a victim.
The victim-tampering count is based on the allegation that after his arrest Steele attempted through a recorded jailhouse phone call to pressure his wife into lying is to investigators.
Fairfax, meanwhile, pleaded guilty on Oct. 7 to possession of an unregistered firearm and making a firearm in violation of the National Firearms Act. The FBI informant was not facing criminal charges until the pipe bomb was found attached to Cyndi Steele’s car.
As part of Fairfax’s plea agreement with the government, prosecutors are expected to recommend he serve an 18-month prison sentence.
Court documents say Fairfax was wearing a secret recording device allowing FBI agents to record his conversations with Steele. Those recordings and testimony from Fairfax appear to be the core of the government’s case against Steele.
Other court documents show the defense will attempt to argue to the jury that the FBI digital tapes of the Steele-Fairfax conversations were somehow altered – a move Assistant U.S. Attorney Traci Whalen is opposing.
As part of the murder-for-hire plot, court documents allege Fairfax was given $10,000 in silver coins and was to place a second pipe bomb on Edgar Steele’s own vehicle.
Edgar Steele was to detonate that second bomb after his wife’s death, court documents say, “to provide an alibi or evidence that both he and his wife had been targeted for murder.”
Steele was hired by Butler after the Southern Poverty Law Center brought a civil suit on behalf of two people who were assaulted by armed men from the Aryan compound.
An Idaho jury in 2000 didn’t buy the defense explanation presented by Steele and awarded the plaintiffs $6.3 million, leading to the bankruptcy and eventual demolition of the 20-acre Aryan compound near Hayden Lake, Idaho. Butler died four years later.