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Ex-cop charged in Capitol riot will remain in federal custody, judge rules
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Ex-cop charged in Capitol riot will remain in federal custody, judge rules

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A former High Point police officer facing charges for her alleged role in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol breach will remain in jail, a federal judge ruled Friday.

Laura Lee Steele, 52, of Thomasville, is facing a slew of charges, including conspiracy and destruction of property, in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection where thousands of people marched to the U.S. Capitol in the false belief that the presidential election was stolen from former President Donald Trump through fraud.

Former security officials are testifying publicly for the first time about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol are poised to cast blame on the Pentagon, the intelligence community and each other.

Federal authorities say that Steele and eight other defendants, including Steele’s brother, Graydon Young, 54, of Englewood, Fla., conspired to gather in Washington, D.C. in an effort to stop the U.S. Congress from certifying the results of the presidential election. On Jan. 6, protesters broke into the U.S. Capitol, assaulted more than 100 law enforcement officers and caused millions of dollars in property damage, federal prosecutors have alleged. Five people died.

All of the defendants are associated with the Oath Keepers, a far-right, antigovernment group that believes a cabal of elites are trying to strip Americans of their rights. The loosely-organized group heavily recruits from military and law-enforcement.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Joe Webster issued his decision after holding a hearing on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Durham. He acknowledged that there was little evidence that Steele assaulted anyone or caused any property damage. But, he said, the allegations gave him pause.

“While the Court notes that Defendant poses a minimal risk of flight, the nature of the alleged crime poses a serious and significant threat to the community and the nation at large,” he said in his written order on Friday. “Defendant is alleged to have conspired with a group of individuals to disrupt the operations of the United States Government.”

Webster said the U.S. Capitol breach resulted in the evacuation of members of the House and Senate from their chambers and Congress was not able to reconvene until 8 p.m. on Jan. 6 to certify the election.

“While evidence at the hearing suggests that Defendant engaged in less physical violence than others participating in the events that day, Defendant’s breach of the Capitol building on January 6, 2021 is a far cry from the actions of one who is exercising her First Amendment right to peacefully assemble,” he said.

Steele is married to Kenneth Steele, who recently retired as assistant police chief of the High Point Police Department. Laura Steele was a police officer with the High Point Police Department from 1992 to 2004, when she was fired for conduct toward superior personnel, absence from duty and violation of communications policy. While at the police department, she worked as a school-resource officer and was investigated and later cleared in two separate incidents where she pepper-sprayed students — an 11-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy.

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Steele was most recently an armed security guard for Novant Health. She had been registered with the Private Protective Services Board since 2018, but that registration was suspended due to the federal charges. According to court documents, Steele is on leave from her security job.

A spokesperson with Novant Health declined to comment on Steele’s employment status: “Novant Health does not comment on personnel matters. We cannot speak to any legal investigation and refer you to the appropriate investigating party for further comment.”

Greensboro-based FBI Task Force Officer Max Wooten testified at Tuesday’s hearing that Steele traveled with her brother to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 5. On Jan. 3, Steele had emailed an application to become a member of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers. She asked that her application be expedited and said she had 13 years as a law enforcement officer, including as a SWAT member and a K-9 officer. She also included information about her job as a security guard.

Young flew to Greensboro before Jan. 6, and Steele and Young drove to Washington, D.C., in their mother’s gray minivan. She, her brother and others appeared outside the U.S. Capitol in tactical gear, authorities allege, and joined together in a military-style “stack” formation, with people placing their hand on the back or vest of the person in front of them. They then went into the U.S. Capitol.

At 3:45 p.m. on Jan. 6, Kenneth Steele sent a message to a group text chain: “Are you safe? You didn’t storm the Capitol, did you?” An hour later, Laura Steele replied to her husband: “We are on the Metro now.”

When Young and Laura Steele returned to North Carolina, they both told Steele’s family the next day what happened in Washington, D.C. Family members told federal investigators, Wooten said, that Steele deleted several of her Facebook posts expressing her political views.

Wooten acknowledged on cross-examination that he didn’t have any evidence that Steele’s application to become an Oath Keeper was ever accepted and that Steele “had assaulted or threatened to assault anyone on January 6, 2021.” He also said he wasn’t aware of any evidence that she caused physical damage or that Young and Steele were armed.

Her attorney, John Bryson, blamed Steele’s involvement on Donald Trump’s encouraging supporters to protest the presidential election results. He also argued that she was only there when another group broke inside. If released, he said Steele would reside with her husband, her two sons and their children’s significant others. One of her sons is currently a police officer at the High Point Police Department.

But Webster said in his order that he was not convinced it would be workable for Steele to stay with her family because her family members, including her husband, could potentially be witnesses at a trial.

“Defendant’s release plan, to include the proposed third-party custodian, does not alleviate the risk of danger to the community posed by the seriousness of her alleged crimes,” he said.

Her case is being transferred to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., and she will be assigned another attorney. It was not immediately clear when she will appear in court again.

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@mhewlettWSJ

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