Jury deliberates in Idaho murder for hire case

AP News
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Posted: May 05, 2011 6:43 AM

An Idaho jury is trying to decide if an attorney who has gained attention representing unpopular clients is guilty of hiring a hit man to kill his wife and his mother-in-law or if he's the victim of a frame-up.

The panel began its deliberations Wednesday in the case against Edgar J. Steele, meeting late into the night before breaking until Thursday morning.

Steele, best known for defending 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.

Federal prosecutors say Steele hired Larry Fairfax to kill his wife, Cyndi Steele, and his mother-in-law because he wanted insurance money and to be free to pursue another woman.

Neither woman was 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 Steele discussing the murder plot.

Steele 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.

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.

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.

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 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.