Jurors hear FBI recordings in Steele case

Alleged hitman testifies defendant wanted about 12 people dead

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BOISE - Federal prosecutors on Wednesday played for the first time in public the two June 2010 audio recordings of retired 65-year-old attorney Edgar J. Steele plotting with his handyman, Larry Fairfax, the alleged murder-for-hire of Steele's wife.

The recordings are likely to be prosecutors' best evidence against Steele during the trial in U.S. District Court in Boise. Both were obtained when 50-year-old Fairfax agreed to carry a hidden recording device in his pocket as he cooperated as an FBI informant against Steele.

Steele's wife, Cyndi Steele, was in the gallery as the recordings were played aloud and transcripts were projected for jurors to follow along. The Steeles celebrated their 26-year wedding anniversary Wednesday, the first day of testimony in his trial. A panel of 11 women and one man were seated Tuesday for the jury. Two alternates also are women.

Fairfax, of Sagle, testified in a white-and-orange striped jail suit, saying he went to the authorities about the alleged murder plot because he never really wanted to kill Cyndi Steele in the first place.

"I thought there might be a way I could get the money without doing it," Fairfax said.

After he accepted payment, Fairfax said Steele grew impatient for the deed to be done.

Fairfax said Steele had told him, "If I didn't take care of the job, he would get somebody else to take care of the job - and me."

Fairfax said he told Steele he needed money to settle unpaid bills and avoid foreclosure, before Steele allegedly made the offer to off his wife and mother-in-law. Fairfax said he falsely led Steele to believe he had experience in just the type of illegal work he says Steele wanted done.

Prosecutors provided receipts from coin shops in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, showing Fairfax cashed in nearly $10,000 in silver "rounds."

Fairfax said the silver was his payment from Steele.

Fairfax called the pipe bomb he made and placed under Cyndi Steele's vehicle a "North Idaho firecracker," a roughly foot-long metal pipe, two to three inches in diameter, packed with gunpowder. Fairfax said he didn't fill the pipe with a non-explosive material because he was afraid Steele would have checked his work.

He said he rigged it to be a dud, but admitted it could have gone off.

Fairfax said Steele promised to pay him $10,000 for each person he killed, and offered to pay Fairfax an extra $5,000 to kill his wife in Oregon. He said Steele wanted some neighbors and judges killed, too. He said there were about 12 people he wanted dead.

When Fairfax went to the FBI with the plot, he never mentioned the massive pipe bomb he had already placed under Cyndi Steele's vehicle because he hadn't secured "immunity" yet, something his lawyer told him he would get. Fairfax is awaiting sentencing for the pipe bomb.

On the recordings, the two men discuss payment, alibis for Steele, the consequences of Fairfax getting caught in the act, and methods for carrying out their alleged scheme. Steele, acknowledging the years he had spent with his wife, said he didn't want her to know what was happening in her final moments. He also asked that she not suffer.

Steele told Fairfax on June 9, as Fairfax tended to horses on Steele's property, he would "make out very handsomely on this one" when she died - if an insurance policy paid out.

In an apparent reference to Cyndi Steele's black SUV, Steele told Fairfax, "If that black thing leaves, I guarantee you she's driving it."

Methods varied from placing a bomb under her vehicle, to causing her to wreck, to what they called "guns blazing."

Steele asked, "Larry, I can count on you?"

And, "It has to happen right now," Steele told Fairfax. "I'm coming up against some things."

During this conversation, Fairfax can be heard borrowing $400 from Steele to cover travel expenses to the Portland area where Cyndi Steele's mother lives.

In a recording the next day, when Fairfax was dropping a borrowed vehicle off at Steele's home, Steele told him if Fairfax got caught trying to kill her in Oregon, the trail would lead right back to him.

"We'll be sharing a cell together," Steele is heard saying on that recording.

Steele also advised Fairfax to make sure Cyndi Steele dies, because he doesn't want to have to take care of a crippled person.

"This could actually become a much worse situation than it is," Steele said.

He told Fairfax that he couldn't abandon his wife if she was a "paraplegic" because their children would then hate him forever.

In opening statements, Steele's defense lawyer Robert T. McAllister said the case is "as much about Larry Fairfax as it is about Edgar Steele."

He said it's not clear why Steele would want to kill his wife, who had been taking care of him as he dealt with heart problems and recovered from surgeries. Plus, he said Steele has never been in trouble with the law.

And, "Why would he ask someone like Larry Fairfax to do it?" McAllister said.

The lawyer said Fairfax stole silver from the Steeles. He called Fairfax a liar for not telling the FBI about the pipe bomb he placed under Cyndi Steele's car, letting her drive around with it and risk injury or death, or risk it falling off and injuring the public.

"All the evidence points back to Larry Fairfax," McAllister said.

In his opening statements, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Haws laid out the charges, the names of primary players in the case, dates of significance to the government's case, relevant places that include the Steeles' Sagle home and Cyndi Steele's mother's home in Oregon City, Ore., and alleged motives.

"He suspected she had a boyfriend," Haws said. She had been spending so much time in Oregon in the spring of 2010, teaching dancing and caring for her mother. "He resented Cyndi."

He said Steele began to carry on a "dalliance" by Internet with a Russian woman, who Haws promised would be testifying in the trial, by video, because of the distance.

"It's a story of a man who wanted to hire somebody to murder his wife," Haws. "He is adept at pressuring people to do things he wanted them to do."

FBI agent Mike Sotka was the first witness called to testify.

He said law enforcement officers delivered a fake notification to Steele at his home just before arresting him, reporting his wife had been killed. Sotka said he had decided to do this to see how Steele would react.

Then, Sotka said they broke the news that they knew of the alleged murder-for-hire plot and investigators had spoken with Fairfax. At this point, Sotka and other law enforcement officials at Steele's house immediately could smell fecal matter in the air and Sotka said he believed Steele had "defecated" in his pants.

The trial continues today. Steele could spend the rest of his life in prison if found guilty of the murder-for-hire count and related charges.

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