COEUR d'ALENE - A grand jury indictment on Tuesday was returned in U.S. District Court against an attorney known for representing hate groups like the Aryan Nations, setting the stage for a high-profile murder-for-hire trial.
The attorney, 64-year-old Edgar J. Steele, is accused of hiring a hit man to kill Steele's wife, 53-year-old Cyndi Steele, and her mother.
Edgar Steele was arrested at his Sagle home Friday, and made his first appearance in federal court Tuesday in front of Judge Candy W. Dale. Dale said the grand jury decided on one count of "use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission for murder-for-hire."
If found guilty, it carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years, Dale said.
Steele acted as his own attorney Tuesday, telling the court he remains a licensed attorney.
"My plea is absolutely, completely not guilty," Steele told the court.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Traci Jo Whelan asked the court for no-contact orders to keep Steele from speaking with his wife and her mother. Cyndi Steele was in the courtroom throughout the hearing.
Dale granted the no-contact orders, despite Edgar Steele's objections. He called it "an invasion of the marital state."
The federal government is trying to "drive a wedge between my wife and myself."
Steele, gesturing to his wife and son, who also was in court, said, "Ask if they have any fear of me."
After the hearing, Cyndi Steele struck the lobby wall with her hand and was heard crying.
"I need to be allowed to talk to my husband," she yelled. She also said she needed her vehicle. She and the couple's son were driven from the courthouse in a pickup truck without speaking with reporters waiting outside.
According to court records, now sealed by the court, Steele offered to pay a hitman up to $125,000 to kill his wife and mother-in-law in a car crash that would be meant to look like an accident. The documents say a concealed recording device captured Steele ordering the hit.
Also Tuesday, Steele told the court he had no money after federal agents "seized our life savings last week" when he was arrested.
He asked for and received a federal public defender. Dale found that, at least for now, Steele did not appear to have the money needed to pay for legal counsel, based on information he provided Tuesday.
Steele said he only wanted to represent himself Tuesday.
Steele is currently in federal custody, and is being held at the Kootenai County jail. He was in street clothes in court.
Steele asked to be released pending a detention hearing scheduled for next Tuesday, June 22.
Whelan argued against it, saying Steele is a flight risk and a threat to the public and case witnesses.
Dale ordered him to remain detained until the hearing next week.
Steele had argued that he has no money to travel, has "substantial community ties," and has health problems, including a recent open-heart surgery.
"I'm certainly no threat to jurors or witnesses," he said. He offered to wear an ankle monitor if released.
Whelan said there's "overwhelming evidence of danger to the community."
She said, "This is a crime of violence."
She also said the case continues to develop.
A sport utility vehicle belonging to Steele, and being driven by an unidentified woman, was found with what appeared to be a pipe bomb underneath it. The device was discovered Tuesday at the Fast Lane Quick Lube at Bosanko Avenue and U.S. 95 in Coeur d'Alene. A bomb squad unit from Spokane detonated the device.
Steele's first appearance was scheduled for Monday, but didn't happen after the U.S. courthouse was closed down because of a suspicious mail scare. A piece of mail was found with a white powder, which turned out not to be hazardous.
Judge Dale scheduled a trial date in Steele's case for Aug. 16, in front of Judge Lynn B. Winmill.