May 4, 2011 in Idaho
Jury goes home in Steele murder-for-hire case
BOISE - A jury of 11 women and one man has begun deliberations in the case of a North Idaho lawyer accused of hiring a man to kill his wife and mother-in-law.
Jurors are about to leave U.S. District Court in Boise, where Edgar J. Steele’s trial began a week ago.
While Steele’s lawyer, Robert McAllister questioned the reliability of FBI recordings and said the plot was really the work of the prosecution’s key witness, Larry Fairfax, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Haws told jurors in his closing argument today that the case is “simple.”
Though Steele’s fingerprints are not on the pipe bomb that was strapped under his wife’s car, Haws told jurors in his closing argument that his “legal fingerprints” are all over it.
Haws played portions of the recordings in which Steele discusses the plot to kill Cyndi Steele with Fairfax, a handyman whom he’d promised money to murder his wife and mother-in-law.
He said jurors are to be more skeptical of Fairfax’s testimony because of his involvement in the case, but that everything Fairfax has said is supported by other evidence.
In one of the recorded meetings with Steele, Fairfax is given $400 to pay for his travels to Portland. The FBI seized that money after the meeting and knows he didn’t have anything on him before he met with Steele.
“This is corroboration,” Haws said. “This says Mr. Fairfax was telling you the truth.”
But McAllister said all evidence in the case points not to his client but to Fairfax, who claims to have been hired by Steele to kill his wife and mother-in-law.
The pipe bomb strapped to Cyndi Steele’s SUV was Fairfax’s “act of defiance,” McAllister said, referring to a book Fairfax has said he wants to write.
He reminded jurors that Cyndi Steele said there were problems with the recordings in which her husband discussed the plot to kill her with Fairfax, such as unexplained breaks and syntax issues.
“There is one conclusion about those recordings: they are nothing but tar,” McAllister said. “…It’s fantasy talk; it’s fiction; it’s Larry Fairfax talking and trying to set up Edgar Steele.”
“Unfortunately in real life, this is more than just trying to write a book, it’s putting people’s lives in danger,” McAllister said.
He emphasized that Fairfax admits to attaching a pipe bomb to Cyndi Steele’s SUV but didn’t tell the FBI about it when he told them he could set up Edgar Steele.
“No one knows that until June 15, when it’s found,” he said.
But Haws said there’s no proof that the recordings are anything but authentic.
Steele would like jurors to think that a “Mission Impossible plot” has been created by the government, but “the recordings themselves tell you they are accurate” from the flow and syntax to the present of outside noises that carry through statements.
He said the thought that Fairfax could have “the sophistication and the tools” to put together a recording in the 30 minutes he was to visit with Steele is wrong.
“That can’t happen,” he said.
Haws also played a portion of the phone call Steele made to his wife after his arrest. He reminded jurors of Steele’s reaction when police falsely told him his wife was dead. Police described Steele’s reaction as flat and forced until they told him he was under arrest for murder for hire and a fecal odor filled the air.
“I would submit that his body reacted and told more truth than his mouth did,” Haws said.
But McAllister said Steele had no reason to want his wife dead. Claims by the prosecution and letters and emails that they say show Steele was in love with a woman he met on the Internet are wrong - the communication was part of Steele’s examination of the Russian bride scam, McAllister said.
“The whole Russian bride scam was a case, something to work on. It was something his family laughed about, because it was so fake,” McAllister said. “It’s fantasy… it’s not a motive to commit murder. it’s not a reason to commit murder.”
He said the Steeles talked regularly on the phone, including a 43-minute conversation the day before prosecutors say Cyndi was to be killed. He also reminded jurors that Edgar Steele recently paid $2,779 to save his mother-in-law’s home.
“If there’s really a plot or a plan, do you go take that kind of money and give it to someone else, who you’re supposedly going to kill?” McAllister said.
“The evidence in this case is that he loves Cyndi Steele, that he spent 25 years - now 26 - married to her with three children,” McAllister said.
He said the couple did have problems 10 years ago, but “the evidence in the next 10 years is that they raised their family” lived in North Idaho and were happy.
“Never did Edgar Steele show anything besides love for his family,” McAllister said. He pointed to the longtime friends who told jurors how shocked they were by the allegations.
He said the phone call Steele made to his wife from the jail doesn’t qualify as victim tampering. Cyndi Steele has said she wasn’t influenced by the call, and Edgar Steele didn’t know of the specifics of the recordings when he called Cyndi Steele.
“Yes she doesn’t believe that her husband is trying harm her, but she doesn’t know about what Mr. Fairfax or what (his cousin) Mr. (James) Maher might want to do to her,” McAllister said. “All she knows is a bomb was found under her car.”
“I’m sure the government will say ‘she’s in denial, she’s wrong,’ but the fact is this is the victim…coming before a jury and saying ‘I don’t believe it.’”
Steele faces at least 30 years in prison if convicted of his most serious charge - possession of a destructive device in relation to a crime of violence.
Steele also is charged with use of interstate commerce to commission murder for hire, use of explosive material to commit a federal felony and tampering with a victim.