WASHINGTON, D.C. (WGHP) – Federal prosecutors on Monday rested their case against former High Point police officer Laura Steele and five others charged with insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Defense attorneys started to present their case at 9:30 a.m. today before U.S. District Court Judge Ahmit P. Meta and a jury of 12, with two alternates. Testimony began about three weeks ago.

Steele, a Thomasville resident and a member of the right-wing militia group the Oath Keepers, is one of the Piedmont Triad’s most prominent defendants among the 25 from North Carolina who have been accused or sentenced of participating in a violent effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election based on former President Donald Trump’s lies about fraud.

Steele faces six counts listed in an eighth superseding indictment filed in June against a group of eight who are alleged to have assisted Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, in planning to disrupt that lawful transfer of power in Washington.

Surveillance image allegedly shows Laura Steele in the U.S. Capitol.
A surveillance image allegedly shows Laura Steele in the U.S. Capitol. (DOJ)
Stewart Rhodes
Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the citizen militia group known as the Oath Keepers, was found guilty of seditious conspiracy for his role at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Rhodes and Kelly Meggs in November were found guilty of seditious conspiracy in helping to organize supporters of Trump to overturn the lawful election of President Joe Biden. Three other defendants were found guilty of related felony charges.

Steele is being tried with Sandra Ruth Parker, Bennie Alvin Parker, Connie Meggs, William Isaacs and Michael L. Greene, all of whom allegedly participated in carrying out Rhodes’ plans.

Mehta earlier had rejected Steele’s petition for a bench trial – in which the judge alone would decide a case – because he said it was “neither warranted nor justified.” He had done the same thing in a last-minute request for a bench trial by Kelly Meggs on Oct. 3.

“Trial by jury is the constitutional norm, and the nature, gravity, and public interest in Ms. Steele’s case weigh heavily against a bench trial,” Mehta wrote in his ruling.

Mehta already had said that a trial of seven original defendants would be a logistical challenge because of all the attorneys, equipment and other resources needed for trial. But the trial has continued unabated.

Militia groups involved

Steele is one of more than 1,100 members of Oath Keepers in North Carolina – including at least two state legislators – and there also are the Proud Boys, another group of right-wing extremists. One of that group’s state leaders, Charles Donohoe of Kernersville, pleaded guilty to charges earlier this year and agreed to testify in the sedition trial of Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, which has been underway in Washington.

Another defendant from North Carolina, Jeremy Bertino, 43, of Belmont, implicated Tarrio during recent testimony, saying “the extremist group acted as the ‘tip of the spear’ that day and led a mob by example by being among the first to confront police, topple barricades and break into the building,” The Washington Post reported.

“We influenced people, the normies, enough to stand up for themselves to take back their country and take back their freedom,” Bertino testified.

Scope of court cases

Charles Donohoe
Charles Donohoe

Most recent court records suggest that more than 950 individuals have been arrested in nearly all 50 states. More than 465 have pleaded guilty, and nearly 350 of them have been sentenced.

There were hundreds of injuries to law enforcement officers, death threats on the life of Vice President Mike Pence and others, and, ultimately, seven lives were lost during or after the insurrection.

Two more of the 25 from North Carolina recently pleaded guilty to charges. Another, Johnny Harris of Shelby, is scheduled for a bench trial to start soon.

This is all because thousands of Trump’s supporters broke through windows and doors, stormed past barricades and drove members of Congress into hiding in a violent bid to keep Trump in power.

The House Select Committee referred four criminal charges against Trump, and the Department of Justice is investigating. A special counsel also has been appointed to oversee several investigations involving Trump.

The Steele case

Steele is named in seven of nine counts in a 35-page indictment against the group. Those charges describe how Rhodes and certain regional leaders recruited members, including Steele, to travel to Washington. They are alleged to have worn paramilitary clothing and Oath Keepers identification as they overpowered guards and invaded the Capitol through the doors to the rotunda, court documents say.

Steele is the only defendant in an eighth charge, which describes how she and Young on Jan. 7 allegedly used a backyard burn pit to destroy evidence of the attack, including their clothing.

Steele’s brother, Graydon Young of Englewood, Florida, is among several named in the document, but he was indicted separately He pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction of Congress and was the first Oath Keeper to do so.

His plea and agreement to testify against Rhodes spared him a potential 30 years in prison. During the trial of Rhodes in October, he broke into sobs on the stand and apologized.