Edgar Steele, a North Idaho attorney who is an anti-Semitic icon and lecturer, was convicted today after a week-long trial before a federal jury in Boise, Idaho, of trying to hire someone to murder his wife and her mother.
The 65-year-old UCLA Law School graduate, who unsuccessfully defended Richard Butler and the Aryan Nations in 2000, faces up to 30 years in prison.
Steele, the self-described “attorney for the damned,” sat emotionless in the courtroom as the verdict was read, according to Meghann Cuniff, a reporter for The Spokesman-Review who covered the trial.
“His wife cried and she was comforted by their daughter,’’ Cuniff said of the courtroom reaction after the jury verdict was read. Both had testified in his behalf.
Judge B. Lynn Winmill set sentencing for Aug. 22 in Coeur d’Alene.
Steele was a little-known attorney until he took a 2000 lawsuit, brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, against the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, then based in northern Idaho, and several of its members. The case was based on an attack by Aryan Nations guards on a woman and her son who were passing the group's headquarters compound, and ultimately resulted in a $6.3 million verdict against the groups and its leader, Richard Butler. In the years after losing the case, Steele grew increasingly radical, coming to sound much like his former clients.
The jury – 11 women and one man -- began eight hours of deliberations this afternoon following a trial that began April 26 in U.S. District Court.
The case was filed in Coeur d’Alene but moved earlier this year to Boise by Judge B. Lynn Winmill.Steele didn’t testify in his own defense, but his 20-year-old daughter and his wife did, both telling the jury that they didn’t believe there was a murder-for-hire plot.
Steele has been in jail continuously since his arrest last June 11 on four federal felony charges. He was charged with use of interstate facilities in the commission of a murder for hire; use of explosive material to commit a felony; possession of a destructive device during a violent crime and victim tampering.
Federal authorities accused Steele of attempting to hire a hitman -- former family handyman Larry Fairfax -- to plant pipe bombs in a plot to kill Steele’s wife, Cyndi, and her mother, who lives in Oregon.
Steele wanted his wife killed so he could collect insurance and pursue a developing online relationship with a 25-year-old Ukrainian woman, Tatyana Loginova, the jury was told.
The defense countered with Cyndi Steele telling the jury that her husband was merely investigating a Russian mail-order bride scam with the intention of writing a book.
Steele had sent 14,000 messages to a Ukrainian online dating site but continued writing love letters to Loginova even after he was arrested and in jail.
Authorities became aware of the alleged plot when Fairfax contacted the FBI. But Fairfax didn’t immediately tell agents that he had already planted one potentially lethal pipe bomb on Cyndi Steele’s vehicle. He was arrested later as a result.
Fairfax, who remains in custody, has struck a plea deal with prosecutors and will be sentenced later after pleading guilty to one count of possession of an unregistered firearm and one count of making an illegal explosive device.
The bomb he built was safely disarmed and removed after Cyndi Steele took her vehicle in for an oil change after a trip to her mother’s home in Oregon.
Throughout the case and on the witness stand, Cyndi Steele said she doesn’t fear her husband and doesn’t believe he was plotting to kill her.
She helped start a “Free Edgar Steele” Web site that reportedly raised more than $112,000 for his defense. She also granted selected interviews to Internet broadcasters who seem to share her husband’s antigovernment and anti-Semitic views.
She claimed her husband is a “completely innocent political prisoner” and was targeted for 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,” her website claims.
Federal prosecutors Marc Haws and Traci Whelan built their case against Steele with testimony from Fairfax and tape recordings he secretly made during conversations with Steele about the murder plot.
In one of the tape recordings played for the jury, Steele was heard talking about his 25-year marriage.
“It wasn’t all fun and games,” Steele says, “but even so, I don't want to go out of my way to see her suffer. I want this over with.”
Later, he told Fairfax: “No, there aren't no second thoughts. ... Make it look like an accident involving the car and some other vehicle. OK?”
Steele's attorney, Robert McAllister, said in his closing arguments that Steele’s comments on the recordings were fantasies. Although he didn't subpoena a defense audio expert, McAllister suggested to the jury that the tapes were altered and he urged jurors to listen for irregularities and unexplained background noises.
He also reminded jurors of the testimony of Cyndi Steele and the couple’s 20-year-old daughter, Kelsey. Both testified that they didn't believe the voice on the recordings was authentic because it didn’t match Edgar Steele’s normal speech.
Steele had given his mother-in-law nearly $3,000, McAllister said, and had talked with his wife about her mother’s health and money problems. McAllister said the phone conversation showed that his client loved his wife. “The evidence in this case is that he loved Cyndi Steele... Never did Edgar Steele feel anything except love for his family. Never did he intend to harm anyone,’’ he said.
The defense attorney said Fairfax is writing a book about the case and wanted to portray himself as a hero. The recordings show that Fairfax was trying to set up Steele, the attorney argued.
But prosecutor Haws described Steele as unhappily married and someone who knew a divorce would financially ruin him. Haws said the tape recordings, which he said had not been altered, support Fairfax’s testimony that a murder plot was afoot.
“There's no evidence in this case that those recordings were in any way manipulated or changed in any way, that somehow some 'Mission Impossible' plot has been worked by the federal government to change things around and add words,’’ Haws told the jury.
After jury’s verdict, Cyndi Steele was emotional as she spoke briefly before TV cameras outside the courthouse. “I’m not sure it’s totally set in, but it’s devastating to me,” she said when reporters asked her reaction. She said her husband's reaction was one of “disbelief, shock and devastation.”
Cyndi Steele continued her harsh criticism of the FBI, Justice Department prosecutors and the trial judge for the way the case was handled. She accused an FBI agent of “lying” on the witness stand. “They took our life and turned it into an ugly story, and it’s far from the truth,’’ she said.
With her husband now convicted, Cyndi Steele said she will continue pushing his ideology. “My husband has always been the one to speak out, but I am going to be the one to speak out [now] because I am fighting for every American’s right to freedom of speech,’’ she said. “I will follow my husband’s footsteps because he is an honorable, loving man,’’ she said, promising to “work feverously” in appealing the conviction.