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Monday, 7 March 2011

Ex-Aryan Nations lawyer's trial to begin in Idaho (USA)

An attorney known for representing white supremacists goes on trial in federal court on Monday, charged with hiring a hit man to kill his wife and mother-in-law.

Edgar J. Steele's wife insists her husband is innocent and has been set up by the government because of his anti-Semitic, white supremacist views and for representing clients such as Aryan Nations.

"My husband is innocent, and the only reason the (FBI) put him in jail is to silence him," Cyndi Steele said after his June 11 arrest.

Federal prosecutors say they have plenty of evidence against Steele, 65, including tape recordings of him talking with the hit man about killing his wife. Prosecutors have said Steele was after insurance money and also wanted to pursue a woman in Ukraine.

Court documents contend Steele, for some time, had been building a relationship with a woman in Ukraine and sent her a letter even after his arrest. Cyndi Steele said the Ukrainian woman was involved in a "Russian-bride" scam and that her husband had been hired by the victim to bring down the human trafficking ring.

Steele is a Coast Guard veteran and UCLA law graduate who practised for years in Sandpoint.

He is well-known in anti-Semitic and white supremacist circles as the lawyer who defended Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler in a 2000 lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, on behalf of two people who were attacked by the group's security guards. Steele lost the case, and Aryan Nations was bankrupted after being ordered to pay $6.3 million to the victims.

But he became popular in the white supremacist community and went on to represent other controversial figures, make speeches at white supremacist events and launch the website ConspiracyPenPal.com, where he published his views. He also wrote a book, "Defensive Racism: An Unapologetic Examination of Racial Differences."

"I have defended and provide legal advice to probably more of the politically incorrect than has any other attorney in America today," Steele said in a 2009 essay available on his website. "Always, I have required that they be fundamentally decent people and always they must be innocent, regardless of how things might eventually turn out in court."

Steele has drawn support from numerous far-right groups.

A press release sent this week by supporters of Steele who operate a website called Free Edgar Steele contended the government's case is fabricated, including a fake voice on the recordings.

"The FBI and US Attorney's Office in Idaho are seeking to bring down another innocent person, Edgar Steele, and send him to prison, because he is an advocate for the US Constitution and individual rights," the release said. "Our own freedom is at stake."

Steele was arrested by FBI agents at his home last June and faces four felony counts, including use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire.

Court records said an informant, Larry Fairfax, told the FBI that Steele offered to pay him up to $125,000 to kill his wife and her mother in a car crash meant to look like an accident.

While Fairfax told federal agents about the plot, he failed to inform them he'd already placed a pipe bomb under Cyndi Steele's vehicle, which did not explode while she drove to Oregon and back. The bomb was found by startled workers after she took her vehicle for an oil change. A bomb squad robot removed the explosive without incident.

Cyndi Steele has said in court documents that she believes Fairfax stole more than $45,000 in valuables from her home when he worked as a handyman there, and planted the bomb to cover his crimes.

Fairfax admitted to placing the bomb, but told agents he manipulated the fuse to malfunction, according to court documents. His attorneys contend Fairfax planned to take Steele's money but not go through with the killing.

Fairfax reached a deal 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.

The plea agreement document said Fairfax and Steele had several conversations between November 2009 and June 2010 in which they discussed killing Cyndi Steele and her mother.

The document said Steele also asked Fairfax to put a pipe bomb under Steele's own vehicle. Edgar Steele planned to ignite it after his wife's death "to provide an alibi or evidence that both he and his wife had been targeted for murder."

Steele also told Fairfax "to make sure that they were dead after the accident because Edgar Steele did not want to take care of a paraplegic," according to an FBI affidavit.

After his arrest, the government contends Steele immediately started pleading with his wife to discredit the case.

According to phone conversations recorded from jail, Steele told his wife that prosecutors have taped recordings that were doctored to sound as if he was hiring a hit man to kill her. Steele pleaded with her to deny the voice on the tapes belonged to him.

"This is going to be a 'Mission: Impossible' world-class-level production," Steele told his wife during a conversation recorded June 13. "I love you dearly. I would never be so stupid as to hire somebody else to kill anybody, for Christ sake, least of all you. You've gotta do this."

The Steeles, who married in 1985, have three grown children. They have endured marital troubles in the past.

Cyndi Steele, who operates a horse farm on the couple's property, had filed for divorce in June 2000, alleging her husband "misrepresented his marital status and eligibility" in online dating profiles "with the sole intention of meeting women."

The case was dismissed two months later.

Seattle Pi