Murder-for-hire trial starts Monday

Edgar Steele charged with hiring hitman to kill his wife, her mother

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COEUR d'ALENE - For a long time Edgar J. Steele was proudly known as a politically incorrect author and an "attorney for the damned."

Starting Monday, he'll be known as the controversial author and attorney on trial.

What is expected to be a two-week trial of the Sagle resident and high-profile court defender is scheduled to start in U.S. District Court. He's primarily charged with allegedly hiring a local handyman to kill his wife and make it look like an accident.

Prosecutors say the handyman, Larry Fairfax, also of Sagle, became an undercover FBI informant and secretly recorded conversations in which Steele and Fairfax allegedly worked out the murder-for-hire plot.

Steele, 65, is also charged with use of explosive materials to commit a federal felony, possession of a destructive device in relation to a crime of violence, and tampering with a victim. Steele has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the alleged target of the hit, his longtime wife Cyndi Steele, believes he's totally innocent.

U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill this week denied a third motion to continue the trial. The court had already moved the trial from August to November, and then to March. Steele was arrested at his home in June.

Winmill found that Steele's defense team's lack of diligence is the primary reason for any lack of readiness at this point.

"There is no reason for the court to believe that, if the continuance were granted, (Steele's) situation would be materially different 45 days from now," the judge wrote in court documents. Steele's defense team wanted the trial to start in late April.

Winmill found that the defense attorneys have not provided the court with any real detail or explanation as to what additional experts they wish to retain and what the testimony of those experts would cover.

Steele had been represented by federal public defenders, but has recently retained attorneys Robert McAllister, of Englewood, Colo., and Gary Amendola, of Coeur d'Alene. But that switch wasn't because of any breakdown in Steele's relationship with his public defenders, the judge wrote.

McAllister and Amendola argue they have not had enough time on the case.

Winmill found that the new defense attorneys have the benefit of the work done by the federal defenders. McAllister himself had said during a previous hearing that the public defenders had done excellent work preparing the case for trial. McAllister also told the court he has been working closely and steadily with the federal defenders since November, Winmill noted in his ruling.

An additional continuance also would affect the court's scheduling, Winmill wrote. The district court in Idaho only has two judges to preside over criminal trials.

McAllister couldn't immediately be reached for comment Friday about the upcoming trial and the defense's readiness.

The government expects to conclude its presentation of evidence by Friday, and Steele's defense team would finish its case by the end of the following week.

The court will begin with a pool of 70 jurors, court documents show. There also will be a pool of 30 standby jurors who will report on Tuesday, if necessary.

Through questioning, the pool will be winnowed to 32 people. That will include 28 prospective jurors and four prospective alternates.

The defense then can use 10 challenges and the prosecutors six, leaving a 12-person jury.

According to court documents, to eliminate biased jurors, people in the pool will face questions such as: "Have you or anyone with whom you have a relationship or friendship ever held the belief or espoused the position held by or been a member of the K.K.K., Aryan Nations, National Socialist Movement, National Alliance or similar group which bases its doctrine on race or ethnicity?"

Another asks whether prospective jurors have "ever held the belief or espoused the position held by a member of a group which believes the federal government has no legal or actual jurisdiction or authority over state or local citizens?"

Steele was an attorney for the Aryan Nations.

Other questions will probe whether potential jurors have been influenced by pre-trial publicity.

Winmill has said that if the venue becomes an issue because of publicity about the case, the location of the trial could be moved from Coeur d'Alene to Boise or Pocatello.

Other questions might ask: "Do you understand that in a criminal case the alleged victim is not the one who determines whether a case should be charged?"

Another, according to court documents filed by prosecutors, might ask whether jury pool members believe that domestic abuse can include emotional and psychological abuse, and not just be limited to physical abuse?

Steele, according to the indictment, hired Fairfax to kill both Cyndi Steele and her mother.

Fairfax planted a massive pipe bomb under Cyndi Steele's vehicle, which never did go off. He also allegedly planted a pipe bomb under Edgar Steele's vehicle that would make it look like he was targeted too, providing an alibi.

The defense team, however, questions the likelihood of the pipe-bomb plot actually working, since there was no remote trigger to explode the bomb while Cyndi and her mother were riding in the vehicle.

Prosecutors have said they have audio recordings of Steele and Fairfax discussing the plot. Cyndi Steele has heard the conversations and said she doesn't believe them to be reliable.

The tampering with an alleged victim charge stems from conversations Steele had with his wife from jail in which he allegedly tried to persuade her against confirming for authorities that it is his voice on the secret recordings.

The evidence portion of the trial is expected to begin Tuesday, when Fairfax is scheduled to be called as a witness.

Fairfax, currently held at the Shoshone County jail in Wallace, is awaiting sentencing March 16. Fairfax pleaded guilty to two firearms charges for making and possessing a pipe bomb.

According to Steele's website,, he graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor's degree, then served four years in the U.S. Coast Guard, first aboard ships, then as a station commanding officer.

He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a master's degree in business administration. He then worked in a succession of financial executive positions for corporations.

He then graduated from the UCLA School of Law, and worked briefly for a small law firm in the San Francisco Bay before moving on.

"Today, his law practice is noteworthy for cases that test the limits of constitutional law on behalf of politically incorrect clients," the website says.

Steele wrote a book called "Defensive Racism: An Unapologetic Examination of Racial Differences."

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