DURHAM — An attorney for a former High Point police officer blamed her involvement in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol breach on tweets from President Donald Trump encouraging supporters to protest the presidential election results.
Laura Lee Steele, 52, of Thomasville remains in jail after a federal judge said Tuesday he needed more time to decide whether she should be released into the custody of her husband, a recently retired assistant chief with the High Point Police Department. The judge said he could rule by Friday.
During Tuesday morning's detention hearing, attorney John Bryson argued that Steele was influenced by the power of the then-president. Tweets in the days leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol from Trump urged his followers to join in a "BIG Protest Rally" that day to "stop the steal."
It's up to a federal judge whether Steele should remain in jail or be released to the custody of her husband at their Thomasville home where she lives with extended family, including one of her sons who her attorney said is employed at the High Point Police Department.
The hearing unearthed new details about Steele's background and her alleged role in the Capitol riot, which led to her indictment on several charges, including unlawful entry into the U.S. Capitol and conspiring to obstruct the U.S. Congress' certification of the presidential election results.
It also revealed text messages that showed Steele's husband was unaware of the extent of his wife's involvement.
Greensboro-based FBI Task Force Officer Max Wooten, who arrested Steele, detailed during his testimony the FBI's investigation into Steele and the agency's findings.
Steele was one of nine defendants arrested who are associated with the Oath Keepers, a far-right, antigovernment group that believes that a cabal of elites are trying to strip Americans of their rights. The group has an open membership but heavily recruits from military and law enforcement. Among those nine defendants is Steele's brother, Graydon Young, 54, of Englewood, Fla.
Wooten told the court Steele submitted an application to join the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers. In her application, she indicated she had former law enforcement experience, referencing her job at the High Point Police Department, but also her most recent job as a security officer at Novant Health.
Wooten testified that Steele traveled to D.C. by minivan with her brother, who flew to North Carolina from Florida. They were joined on the trip by other people with the same intention to protest.
Later during the hearing, Bryson suggested Steele and others were egged on to riot by tweets from Trump, who falsely claimed, repeatedly, that the election results were fraudulent, despite states certifying results, dozens of lawsuits gaining no traction in the courts and Trump's own attorney general at the time saying there is no indication of widespread voting fraud.
Wooten pointed to photos and text messages that placed Steele at the Capitol during the riot. Steele and the Oath Keeper members walked in a stacked, militia-style formation to weave their way through the crowd and enter the Capitol building, Wooten said. Several were wearing tactical gear, including helmets.
No evidence suggests Steele herself injured anyone or caused any property damage.
Shortly after the Capitol attack made the news, Steele's husband texted her: "Are you safe? You didn't storm the Capitol building, did you?"
Steele responded: "We are on the metro now."
Wooten said witnesses pointed the FBI to deleted Facebook posts, which indicated political support of Trump. The agent said another witness who spoke to Steele and Young at the Metro said the pair claimed they were there to "provide security to the Capitol."
During Bryson's cross examination of Wooten, Bryson said that though evidence does place Steele at the Capitol, video reveals that the doors had already been opened before Steele and the Oath Keepers entered.
"There is no evidence that Laura assaulted anyone out there that day," Bryson said.
Bryson also noted that there was no evidence that the Oath Keepers brought firearms. He reiterated several times that Steele had simply applied to be part of the Oath Keepers and was not an official member. She did not wear a helmet or any of the Oath Keeper insignia that others wore that day, Bryson said.
During the hearing, Bryson asked Steele's husband to testify. He described his perspective of the events that led to his wife's arrest.
Kenneth Steele told the court that he became aware of his wife's interest in the Oath Keepers about two days before she left for D.C. He said he wasn't told of any plans to storm the Capitol, only that she and her brother were headed to D.C. for a political rally.
Asked if he talked to Young about it, Kenneth Steele said no. "He's not my favorite person," he added.
Kenneth Steele said he learned of the riot on his car radio while driving. When he got home, he sent the text previously shared with the court to his wife.
"I wanted to know that she was safe," Kenneth Steele said. "That's the only reason I texted her."
He said when his wife and Young returned home, he wasn't aware of the severity of what had happened until a family dinner the next day. It was around that time that a photo of Young began circulating widely in the media.
Kenneth Steele said his wife then described their experience during the riot. She told him that they were outside of the Capitol, the doors were pushed open, they entered the rotunda and soon after turned around and left. He said he wasn't aware that his wife was deleting Facebook posts until a member of their household informed him.
Bryson said that evidence doesn't indicate Steele's actions led to the Capitol breach, property damage or loss of life. Instead, he maintained, she was only there when another group broke inside, and her entering the Capitol building is likely a much lesser charge than those in her indictment.
"Should she be held responsible for their conduct?" Bryson asked.
When discussing Steele's potential custodial release to her husband, it was noted that Steele would be returning to her Thomasville home where her mother, husband, two children and the children's significant others all live. Bryson said that Steele would be in the presence of not one, but two people with law enforcement experience.
"I can't think of a better residence to send someone home to," Bryson said.
Federal prosecutor Graham Green argued that Steele should not be released to her husband, due in large part to her husband's investment in the case. Technically, Kenneth Steele is a witness, and Green said it would be highly unusual to release a defendant to the custody of a witness, even if it is that defendant's spouse.
Contact Jamie Biggs at 336-373-4476 and follow @JamieBiggsNR on Twitter.