THOMASVILLE — A former High Point Police Department officer will be released from federal custody to at-home detention while awaiting trial for her role in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection because she doesn’t constitute a danger to the public, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
Laura Lee Steele, 52, of Thomasville has been in federal custody since Feb. 17 after being arrested and indicted, along with nine other members of a group called the Oath Keepers who breached the Capitol on the day of the presidential vote certification by Congress. The indictment says that members of the group planned ahead for an assault on the Capitol that day.
The U.S. Department of Justice wanted to keep Steele in federal detention leading up to her trial, saying that if she was released from custody she would constitute a threat to the public.
But Judge Amit Mehta of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that while Steele’s actions leading up to, during and after the insurrection were deeply troubling, her personal history and the lack of evidence that she committed or organized acts of violence on Jan. 6 justified releasing her to go home. Mehta’s ruling came after a more than hour-long hearing.
Mehta said he’s troubled about aspects of Steele’s behavior, such as allegations by federal prosecutors that after returning to Thomasville she may have burned the clothing she wore at the Capitol and that she deleted possibly incriminating text messages and Facebook posts.
But the evidence doesn’t merit finding that Steele would represent a danger to the public if placed under supervised at-home incarceration, the judge said.
Steele will have to abide by a series of orders, such as remaining at home while wearing a 24-hour monitoring device, not contacting any Oath Keepers members, surrendering her passport if she has one and not having possession of or access to firearms.
Steele’s defense attorney, Peter Cooper, said his client can meet all conditions, including the one about firearms access. Steele’s husband is retired High Point Police Department Assistant Chief Ken Steele, and their two adult sons who live at the residence are law enforcement officers.
During the hearing, Cooper argued that Steele doesn’t constitute an immediate threat to the public because she has no previous criminal record, she and Kenneth Steele have been married over 20 years, and she has a 45-year history of ties to the community.
Federal prosecutors presented a trove of evidence about Steele’s involvement in the events of Jan. 6 but no direct evidence that she took part in violence or wore riot gear at the Capitol, Cooper said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler argued that Steele’s actions justified keeping her in federal detention.
The Oath Keepers, a paramilitary group, touted Steele’s law enforcement background and bragged that “bringing her on bolstered their credentials,” Nestler told the court.
Despite being a former law enforcement officer, Steele “didn’t contact law enforcement or the FBI” following the Capitol riot to share information with authorities, Nestler said.
Steele and nine other people associated with the Oath Keepers were named in a single, multi-count indictment last month. Overall, more than 300 people have been charged in the Jan. 6 insurrection, and prosecutors have said about 100 more probably will be charged.