HIGH POINT, N.C. (WGHP) – Laura Steele, the former High Point police officer convicted of helping the Oath Keepers plot and execute a plan to overturn the 2020 presidential election, says it was her brother and Donald Trump who made her do it, that she “feels regret,” that she had no “nefarious” intent and that she doesn’t deserve to go to prison.
Steele’s attorney describes in a new court filing how Trump’s lies about a stolen election and Graydon Young’s suggestion that she join the Oath Keepers, a rightwing extremist group, had lured her to fall in line at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an effort to interfere with the lawful transfer of power to duly elected President Joe Biden.
Steele, a resident of Thomasville, was convicted on March 20 of six counts for helping Oath Keepers founder and leader Stewart Rhodes in a bid to keep Trump in power.
Steele and codefendants Sandra Parker, Connie Meggs and William Isaacs were found guilty of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, entering restricted grounds, destruction of government property and other charges cited in an eighth superseding indictment.
Defendant Bennie Parker (Sandra’s husband) was acquitted of obstruction as well as one conspiracy charge, and Michael Greene was acquitted of two conspiracy charges. All six defendants were convicted of a misdemeanor trespassing offense.
They are to be sentenced on Sept. 11, and prosecutors are suggesting that Steele spend the next 97 to 121 months, or roughly 8 to 10 years, in federal prison. There is a presentencing hearing scheduled for Tuesday.
But in a presentencing brief filed last week, Steele’s attorney, Peter Cooper of Washington, D.C., writes how she was recruited by Young to join Oath Keepers when he told her that her experience in law enforcement would be important because, the document said, “the Oath Keepers had been approached with a request to provide security services for various dignitaries and VIPs at the events planned for the 6 January rally.”
After that, she just went along with the ill-fated crowd as it entered the Capitol in a violent insurrection, the document says, a follow-the-leader role she now wishes she had not played.
Because of that Cooper asks that the court reduce Steele’s sentence to a 6-month period of home detention on each count, followed by a period of supervision that includes community service, with the oversight to become unsurprised after community service is completed. She previously had filed a motion for a new trial.
Affected by ‘Stop the Steal’
That’s because, as the document describes, even before Jan. 6, Steele was moved by the same forces that affected most of the thousands who showed up that day: The lies told by Trump about how the election was stolen.
Trump has been indicted by a special prosecutor for his efforts to overturn the election and, with 18 codefendants, by a grand jury in Georgia on racketeering charges for specific alleged efforts to reverse the election in that state. Trump lost in November 2020 by about 7 million votes.
Steele had voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020 and bought into his theory that the only way he would lose was “because we were cheated.”
The brief cites how the right-wing media fanned that “Stop the Steal” rhetoric spread by Trump despite loss after loss in court cases and no evidence of fraud – so much so that Fox News paid $787 million to settle a defamation suit brought by Dominion Voting Systems and is facing additional suits.
Steele “had observed the last eight weeks frenzy and outrage from the [media] outlets. She had discussed the events with her close friends, relatives, and contemporaries,” the brief said.
She had considered attending before she even heard from her brother or agreed to join the Oath Keepers.
‘A growing feeling of disquiet’
She and Young traveled together to the Washington area, where they joined other remember of the Oath Keepers. The document says that after the rally outside the White House, during which Trump spoke, the group learned that it was going “to escort some VIPs to the area around the U.S. Capitol building.”
The group convened at the Capitol and formed into a line to enter the building, and Steele, the document said, followed her brother into the line and put her hand on the shoulder of a person in front of her. Once inside, she again followed her brother.
“But her understanding of the basis for being on the Hill and entering the building was not to engage in any nefarious conduct,” the brief said, “but rather to help those in need of assistance. … Laura remembers the growing feeling of disquiet on her part. This wasn’t helped by her brother’s rather more bombastic descriptions of his part in ‘The Storming.’ For her, that was not what she had signed up for nor experienced. She had zero desire to be associated with any ‘storming,’ and as she described her experience to others. … The gravity of what had transpired set in, and the feeling that things would never be the same again was inescapable.”
What prosecutors said
For their part, prosecutors had said in their sentencing memo that Steele and the others had “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct.”
Court documents say Steele and her cohorts traveled to Washington and, wearing paramilitary clothing that included helmets and vests and bearing Oath Keepers’ identification, overpowered guards and invaded the Capitol through the doors to the rotunda. Steele also was said to have taken a weapon with her to Washington, although it was not clear she intended to provide the weapon to other Oath Keepers.
She did allegedly help to “forcibly oppose the result” of the election by joining the mob inside the Capitol, where it tried to enter the Senate chamber.
Prosecutors at trial said that at around 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 6 Rhodes “sent a message on an encrypted group chat announcing that Vice President Michael R. Pence would not intercede to stop Congress’ certification of the Electoral College vote, and so ‘patriots’ were taking matters into their own hands.”
That’s when Steele, her codefendants and other Oath Keepers lined up, marched toward the Capitol, penetrated barricades and “joined with 10 co-conspirators in placing hands on shoulders and marching up the steps and into the Capitol in a military ‘stack’ formation.”
The group tried to push past police into the Senate chamber, and then some of them tried to find House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the court documents said.
Turning state’s defense
Young, 55, of Englewood, Florida, became the first person to plead guilty, in June 2021, to conspiracy charges and agreed to testify against Rhodes. In court, Young “choked back sobs” last fall as he turned state’s evidence against his fellow Oath Keepers.
In his plea agreement, Young was seeking leniency on possible prison sentences of more than 20 years and fines of more than $250,000. Judge Amit Mehta, who is overseeing his sister’s case, said the guidelines called for Young to serve between 63 and 78 months. He has not been sentenced.
Rhodes was sentenced by Mehta to 18 years behind bars and 3 years of supervised release on charges of seditious conspiracy, obstruction of a criminal proceeding and other felonies. His sentence was the largest given out in cases involving the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Among four associates to be tried – Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell – Meggs of Dunnellon, Florida, husband of Steele’s codefendant, was sentenced to 12 years in prison and 36 months of supervised release.
‘She expresses remorse’
Steele’s presentencing document says that she “looks back at the events of 6th January 2021 with regret” and “expresses remorse for her actions that day. In going to the Capitol, she had no intent to engage in any of the behavior that rose to the level we all experienced.”
The document said she found the environment to be “animated” and that she was “swept along” emotionally and physically by mob mentality. She “understands the gravity of being inside the building” and that “her actions crossed a line.”
She also “feels sadness at the manner that the day is now perceived.” A trip conceived of “honorable intent” turned into violence that “cast a pall over anyone who attended that day.” She said it was “contradictory” to the reason she was there.
“Quite simply her experiences on that day have left an indelible sour taste in her mouth and she wants to put it in the past and close the door as quickly as possible,” the brief said.
“She is very frightened of what could happen to her at sentencing but she wishes to make the Court aware that she knows she’s here based on her own actions and takes responsibility.”
In Steele’s plea for leniency, the document suggests that she is no career criminal, that the actions that day “have left a deep scar on the national psyche” and do not reflect her respect for law and order and that “she made every effort to back away.”
Seven died because of the riot
The Department of Justice says that 29 Oath Keepers members and affiliates were charged for actions on Jan. 6. The document says that 23 “have been convicted for their roles in this conspiracy: these five defendants, their codefendants Greene and Crowl, the nine defendants in Rhodes, and the seven cooperating defendants.”
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, who earlier this month also was found guilty of seditious conspiracy.
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.
Most recent court records suggest that more than 1,030 individuals have been arrested in nearly all 50 states. More than 570 have pleaded guilty, and about 500 have been sentenced, including about more than 220 to jail time. Among those from North Carolina who have been charged or convicted, six are residents of the Piedmont Triad.