BOISE - North Idaho attorney Edgar J. Steele was found guilty on all four counts related to his murder-for-hire plot against his wife of 26 years Cyndi Steele, a jury in U.S. District Court in Boise found Thursday.
Judge B. Lynn Winmill set sentencing for Aug. 22 in Coeur d'Alene. Steele, 65, of Sagle, is well known for his defense of controversial clients, including Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler. Steele's family has said he's not a racist or white supremacist, but believes in fighting for free speech.
The jury - 11 women and one man - in Steele's case deliberated for a day, reaching its verdict around lunchtime Thursday. The trial lasted seven days, and was moved to Boise in part because of pre-trial publicity in North Idaho.
Steele was found guilty of use of interstate commerce facilities (roads and highways) in the commission of murder-for-hire; possession of a destructive device in relation to a crime of violence; use of explosive material to commit a federal felony; and tampering with a victim.
Steele lowered his head toward his chest after the first count, murder-for-hire, was read "guilty" by a court official.
The destructive device count carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison. That time must be served consecutively to the murder-for-hire sentence, which could be up to 10 years.
The jury decided Steele hired his handyman, 50-year-old Larry Fairfax, also of Sagle, to kill his wife by either bombing her vehicle, driving her off the road, or "guns blazing." Fairfax attached a pipe bomb to her vehicle, which was discovered a couple weeks later during an oil change in Coeur d'Alene. Prosecutors argued Steele offered Fairfax $25,000 for the murder of Cyndi Steele and her mother in Oregon, where the hit was ideally to take place.
Fairfax is to be sentenced for his role in the plot on May 11 in Coeur d'Alene.
Fairfax went to the FBI about the plot and agreed to carry a hidden recording device to capture conversations about the plot between the two men at the Steele residence. Conversations were recorded on June 9 and 10, and Steele was arrested June 11, a day he believed the plot would be carried out.
U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson said after the verdict outside the federal building, "It's really the tapes themselves that tell the story."
She said, "This trial involved some detailed and difficult evidence that the jury closely evaluated before reaching its decision."
She said the defense tried to portray the case as a government conspiracy based on manufactured evidence.
"The jury's verdict confirms what we knew - there was no conspiracy, only Edgar Steele's own words and actions that he tried to hire Larry Fairfax to murder his wife," Olson said.
As to arguments by the defense and Steele's supporters that he was targeted for his work representing controversial clients such as the Aryan Nations, Olson said neither herself nor the lead FBI agent handling the case, Mike Sotka, had ever heard of Steele before Fairfax came forward.
Olson said, "Our sympathy goes out to Mrs. Steele and her (three) children. This case is truly a tragedy for that family."
His family agreed.
Cyndi Steele said, "This is the most devastating thing I have ever had happen in my life."
Defense attorney Robert McAllister said he would be appealing the conviction because the judge wouldn't let defense expert George Papcun testify about the authenticity of the recordings. Papcun wasn't subpoenaed by the defense and was in Bora Bora earlier in the week when he would have needed to testify. The defense complained it wasn't given enough time to fly him back. The judge argued they needed to plan better.
Kelsey Steele, 20, of Oregon City, Ore., Steele's younger daughter, said there is no part of either her or her mother that believes he is guilty.
She said, "We haven't lost the battle, we're still going to fight. We're not giving up until my dad's home."
She said it's ridiculous to think her father would have hired a "North Idaho lumber hick" to handle a murder. She said Fairfax was known to have trouble just handling simple projects on the Steele property.
"Why Larry, of all people?" Kesley said. And her father "wouldn't let somebody have that power over him for the rest of his life."
She feels confident about an appeal, because the defense expert couldn't be called to testify about the recordings.
She describes her father as a caring man, who helped lots of people with free legal advice over the years.
"A lot of people don't realize how kindhearted my dad is," she said.
"His work was his life," she said.
She testified during the trial, calling into question the authenticity of the FBI recordings. She believes the two recordings were edited together from multiple conversations, and the expert would have pointed out where the comments were joined together to give authorities what they needed to arrest him.
Prosecutors argued during the trial that Steele devised the plot so he could be free to pursue other women, possibly a 25-year-old Ukrainian woman whom he met on an online dating website.
Defense attorneys argued the 14,000 messages Steele exchanged with "Russian brides" was research for an upcoming legal case or book.