An Idaho jury on Wednesday began the work of deciding whether an attorney hired a hit man to kill his wife and mother-in-law or that he was framed by the federal government for the crimes of another man.
Edgar J. Steele, an attorney best known for his work representing unpopular clients like the Aryan Nations, was arrested last June and charged with four federal felonies: Victim tampering, using interstate facilities in the commission of a murder for hire, using explosive material to commit a felony and possessing a destructive device in relation to a violent crime.
He opted not to testify on his own behalf. In closing arguments, his attorney painted the picture of a family man who had been wrongly caught up in a plot authored by the alleged hit man in the case.
Federal prosecutors say Steele hired Larry Fairfax to kill his wife, Cyndi Steele, and her mother-in-law because he wanted insurance money and to be free to pursue another woman.
Neither Cyndi Steele nor her mother were harmed, though a pipe bomb was found strapped underneath Cyndi Steele's car when she took the vehicle for an oil change. Investigators allege her husband and Fairfax discussed several possible murder scenarios, including blowing up Cyndi Steele's car or running her off the road.
Fairfax told federal investigators about the alleged plot and testified against Edgar Steele. During the trial that began more than a week ago, jurors also heard from witnesses including Cyndi Steele _ who says her husband is innocent _ and listened to several recordings that prosecutors say contain the voices of Fairfax and Edgar Steele discussing the murder plot.
Prosecutors revisited the recordings during their closing arguments.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Haws told jurors that all the evidence was in the tapes. He played clips of Steele allegedly telling Fairfax he didn't want his wife to suffer, but wanted the hit man to get the job done and if it looks like a car accident, he would get a bigger payout.
The voice prosecutors attributed to Steele also discussed the timing of his alibi and warned Fairfax.
"With her, I ah, I spent 25 years married to her, and it wasn't all fun and games. But even so, I don't want to go out of my way to see her suffer. I want this over with," Steele allegedly said on the tapes. "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 the recordings were works of fantasy. He urged jurors to listen for possible anomalies, including background noises of train whistles and birds singing.
He also reminded jurors of Cyndi Steele's testimony and that of the Steeles' 20-year-old daughter, Kelsey. Both women testified that they didn't believe the voice on the recordings was authentic because the speaking pattern didn't match Edgar Steele's.
Steele had recently given his mother-in-law nearly $3,000, McAllister noted. And on the same day when his wife was supposed to be targeted for murder, Steele spoke to his wife about her mother, her health and money problems.
McAllister said the phone conversation showed that his client loved his wife.
"Phone records don't lie. ... It's the fact _ he did talk to her. 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.
Fairfax is writing a book about the case and wanted to portray himself as a hero, McAllister said. The recordings show that Fairfax was trying to set up Steele, the attorney contended.
Haws described Steele as unhappily married, as someone who wanted out but knew that a divorce would ruin him financially. He disputed claims that the tapes were bogus.
"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 said.
If convicted of all charges, Steele faces more than 30 years in prison.
In a separate case, Fairfax reached a deal with federal prosecutors to plead guilty to one count of possession of an unregistered firearm and one count of making a firearm in violation of the National Firearms Act.
Steele's family members, friends and other supporters attended the trial. During one courtroom break, several people gathered into a circle in the hallway to pray for Steele's freedom.
In the months preceding the trial, Steele's supporters said he was being framed by the government because of his work representing Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler and other controversial figures.
Steele, a Coast Guard veteran and UCLA law graduate, defended Butler in a 2000 lawsuit in which two people claimed they were attacked by the group's security. Steele lost the case, and Aryan Nations went into bankruptcy after being ordered to pay $6.3 million to the victims.
In the years since that case, he's made speeches at white supremacist events, launched the website ConspiracyPenPal.com and written a book, "Defensive Racism: An Unapologetic Examination of Racial Differences."