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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Andrew Steele Murder Case: A Unusual Defense

     Andrew Steele, in June 2014, a month after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease), had no choice but to resign his position as a deputy sheriff with the Kane County Sheriff's Office in Wisconsin. The 39-year-old resided in Fitchburg, Wisconsin with his wife Ashlee and their two children, ages 10 and 13.

     The ex-law enforcement officer's wife, following the ALS diagnosis, organized dozens of "ice bucket challenges" that raised $23,000 for his medical expenses.

     Ashlee Steele's recently married sister, 38-year-old Kacee Tollefsbol, visited her sister and brother-in-law in August 2014. At one in the afternoon on August 22, 2014, Kacee Tollefsbol called 911 from the Steele's basement recreation room. She said she had been shot by Andy Steele.

     Police officers arrived at the Steele house shortly after the 911 call, but did not enter the dwelling until the arrival of a SWAT team. At 2:20 PM, from the basement of the house, officers heard a woman screaming, "I am dying, I am dying."

     Kacee Tollefsbol had been shot in the torso and died an hour later at a nearby hospital. Before she died she identified the shooter to police officers as her brother-in-law, Andrew Steele.

     The interior of the Steele house was filled with a haze of smoke that had activated a carbon monoxide detector. In the laundry room, officers encountered Andrew Steele lying on the floor next to a 9mm pistol. The officers recognized this man as a former law enforcement colleague.

     The laundry room was extremely hot from burning charcoal briquettes in an outdoor grill. The dryer was running and had been vented back into the room instead of outside.

    When the police tried to pull Andrew Steele out of the room he surprised them by vigorously resisting. The officers had to subdue him before paramedics could transport him from the attempted suicide scene to a nearby hospital.

     In the upstairs master bedroom, police officers found Ashlee Steele tucked into her bed with a sleeping mask on her face and a pillow on her chest. She had been shot once in the head and appeared to have been strangled with a black zip tie. She had also been bound by her wrists with zip ties. The victim's sundress had been pulled up to her thighs.

     The tableau in the master bedroom caused detectives to believe that the killer, for some reason, had posed the body.

     On Andrew Steele's iPhone, investigators discovered a long, rambling message written the day before the murders. The message had been edited at six o'clock on the morning of the killings. In the note, Andrew Steele spoke of having had numerous sexual threesomes with his wife and dead sister-in-law. He also said the three of them had agreed to a suicide pact. "We had a great run and I wanted to go out with a bang so to speak," he wrote. "Please use all donation money for the kids' needs. Mom and dad, stay in the house, retire and focus on the kids' needs…See you all on the other side."

     The Dane County prosecutor's office charged Andrew Steele with two counts of first-degree murder. The defendant, through his attorney, pleaded not guilty to the murder charges. The arraignment magistrate set his bail at $1 million. A few weeks later, at the urging of the prosecutor, the judge raised the bond to $2 million.

     The Andrew Steele murder trial got underway on Monday April 6, 2015 in the Dane County Courthouse. In his opening statement to the jury, Assistant District Attorney Anthony Jurek accused the defendant of premeditated double murder. According to the prosecutor, Mr. Steele had lied to investigators, and had staged his wife's murder scene to fit his story of having kinky sex with her and her sister. (I have no idea why the defendant felt the need to push this story.)

     Defense attorney Paul Barnett had changed his client's initial not guilty pleas to not guilty by reason of mental disease. Because ALS is not a psychiatric disease and the defendant had been early in the diagnosis, this was a highly unusual and legally inappropriate defense.

     Attorney Barnett told the jury that the defendant had kinky sex with his wife, an encounter that had gone terribly wrong, Although the defendant killed his wife, he had no memory of committing the act.

     The lead detective on the case took the stand for the prosecution and testified that physical signs of struggle throughout the house were not consistent with the defendant's story of a three-way suicide pact. Crime scene photographs revealed that the suspect had given detectives different false accounts of the killings. Moreover, the bedroom scene looked staged. According to the detective, on the day before the murders, the defendant had purchased two 8 pound bags of charcoal and a can of lighter fluid.

     The deputy medical examiner testified that Ashlee Steele's body contained several defensive wounds and did not contain evidence of recent sexual activity.

     A state psychiatrist testified that in his expert opinion Andrew Steele and his wife had not engaged in unconventional sex. A DNA expert said that blood on the defendant's 9mm pistol came from the defendant and Kacee Tollefsbol.

     After the prosecution rested its case, attorney Barnett put the defendant's parents on the stand who said their son had never been a violent person. A defense neurologist testified that there is a connection between ALS and a tendency toward violence. On cross-examination, the prosecutor asked the doctor, "Do many ALS patients commit homicide?"

     "No."

     "Are there many cases of violent acts?"

     "No, again," said the witness.

     Dr. Douglas Tucker, a forensic psychiatrist, testified how ALS deteriorates the brain.

     On April 20, 2015, following ten hours of deliberation, the jury returned its verdict. Ten of the twelve jurors found the defendant guilty by reason of mental disease. The judge committed Andrew Steele to the State Department of Health Services for the rest of his life.

     There is a lot about this case I do not understand. I don't understand the insanity plea as well as the verdict. Mr. Steele was not psychotic when he murdered his wife and sister-in-law. He knew exactly what he was doing. His behavior was deviant, yes, but he had the necessary criminal intent. I also don't know why the defendant went to the trouble of staging his wife's murder. And what was behind all the business about a suicide pact? There is something missing here. What an odd and tragic case.

     

2 comments:

  1. A couple of corrections...it's Dane county, not Kane as you initially referred to it. Steele's defense attorney was Jessa Nicholson. Paul Barnett works for the District Attorney's office so he'd be on the other team. Also of interest, Andy Steele died earlier this week so the world will never truly know what happened.

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