He waited 19 years for freedom, sentenced for an unthinkable crime he always said he didn’t commit.
Not long after Roger Steiner finally was released from prison, his well-known accuser from long ago – former Stanislaus County Clerk-Recorder Karen Mathews Davis – was arrested, reportedly caught in a lie that, if it had worked, might have sent Steiner back behind bars.
Federal authorities in November said they would take another look at events that led to the 1997 convictions of Steiner and eight other people who got lesser sentences. Steiner has waited the six months since, hoping that whatever agents find will clear his name.
He’s afraid he can’t wait much longer.
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Steiner, living in squalor when The Modesto Bee tracked him down six months ago, was carted in an ambulance two weeks ago to a Fresno hospital. Plenty of patients live years with congestive heart failure, but he’s 78 and frail, his kidneys are on the blink and his father died of the same thing. He talks with slurred speech about life, and life after life.
“I don’t think I’m going to check out right now, but you never know,” he said Tuesday.
It’s life-threatening. If I go, I go. That’s part of life.
After 90 minutes of reminiscing about his crop-dusting days in Washington state, a brief police career in Colorado and an even shorter marriage, Steiner fell silent, gathering his thoughts.
“What if,” he eventually said, “somebody approached Karen Mathews Davis, and said something like, ‘You know, you’re in very serious trouble. Mr. Steiner has a family. You messed up his name, knowing it was a fabrication. Mr. Steiner would make a recommendation on your behalf for a lenient prison sentence if you come forward and tell what really happened 20 years ago.’ ”
Steiner looked out his hospital room window and continued with a thin smile. “ ‘Mr. Steiner would make this recommendation based on your honesty. If you would do that, you would grant the wish of a dying man.’ ”
Fear and lies
Mathews Davis, 67 – Stanislaus’ clerk-recorder from 1990 to 2001 – wore a back brace when she came to the door of her Lodi home on Thursday. She’d had two back surgeries, she said, and feels sick most of the time. Doctors are checking for leukemia, she said, and she needs another operation that could put her in a wheelchair.
Her shoulder-length hair is much longer than two years ago, when she ran for Congress, having returned to a hairstyle she wore not long after saying she had suffered a horrific beating and sexual assault in the garage of her Modesto home in January 1994. Except the dark brown has been replaced with gray.
50 years in federal prison for nine defendants, in combined sentences
She never meant to deceive people, Mathews Davis said, or to ruin what’s left of Steiner’s life, during the recent congressional race. But she said she feared for her safety, knowing he had been released from prison. Lodi police had turned down her request to carry a gun for self-protection, and the sheriff in San Joaquin County was busy with his re-election bid, she said. That led, she added, to regrettable missteps.
Campaign literature: ‘(I) won’t back down’
In an arrest warrant affidavit released in the fall, federal agents said Mathews Davis reported finding a death threat in her mailbox in December 2013. The wording seemed eerily similar to those she had received in the mid-1990s, before the garage ambush, as she resisted tax-protesting extremists who are said to have fired a bullet through an office window and planted a fake bomb under her car. She repeatedly had refused to record illegal documents or to remove a $416,000 IRS property tax lien.
In 1993, a bullet came in an envelope with a disturbing note: “The next bullet will be directed at your head!!!”
The 2013 letter read: “A close up shot to your head or to your husband will be final.” The envelope bore no postmark, suggesting someone could have approached the mailbox at her home. Agents positioned new security cameras near the mailbox, in case they tried again.
In March 2014 – just after telling The Bee she would not cower to bullies – she reported another threat demanding that she withdraw from the race, the affidavit said. “You won’t see it coming! Your family will have to plan a funeral,” the new letter read. And someone had scribbled “white bitch” under an envelope flap – words she said Steiner had uttered in the 1994 assault, when she was beaten, cut and sodomized with a pistol.
Mathews Davis steered agents toward Steiner, living in a Fresno halfway house at the time, and also suggested that her grandson, a neighbor’s nephew and a member of her church might be behind the threats. An investigator could not tie envelope or DNA evidence to any suspects. He began asking whether she had been treated for dementia; she acknowledged taking medication for depression.
She finished last in the four-way race. A few months after, she published a paperback: “The Terrorist in My Garage.” “With each swift, powerful kick, I wondered if he would kill me,” the book said.
Eventually, Mathews Davis submitted to a polygraph test. Upon failing, she came clean to agents, they said, admitting she wrote the recent threats and sent them to herself.
After failing the polygraph examination, Davis admitted that she wrote both Threat Letters #1 and #2 and sent them to herself.
John Hartman, special agent in charge, U.S. Department of Treasury, in arrest warrant affidavit
Details spilled forth: She typed and printed the first at home, covering her tracks so her husband wouldn’t find out, and put the envelope with five stamps affixed in her mailbox. She typed and printed the second at a copy service store and sent it from a mailbox by Target; agents believe she wanted to avoid the surveillance cameras they’d placed at her home.
Lying to agents is a federal offense. So is using mail for fraud. She was arrested in late October and bailed out the next day.
Steiner: ‘It wasn’t me.’
Steiner consistently has denied guilt in the attack, proclaiming to jurors in 1997, “As God is my savior, you have condemned and convicted an innocent man.” He called The Bee twice in 2014 – about the time Mathews Davis was lying to authorities, they say – to complain of having been railroaded in the press.
Agents interrogated Steiner for seven hours, he said, about the threats. Like Mathews Davis, he was hooked up to a polygraph machine – twice – but unlike her, he passed.
Steiner, his attorney and several others representing his co-defendants in 1997 said they strongly felt justice was not served in the 41-day trial, the longest to that date in Fresno’s federal court. Mathews Davis had fingered him in a photo lineup, leading to his arrest 15 months after the attack.
Six months ago, Steiner was living in a broken-down trailer without running water parked in a pasture west of Fresno. “I’ll tell you upfront: It wasn’t me,” he said then, repeating what he’d been saying for more than two decades.
Davis also wrote ‘white bitch’ on the inside of the envelope because it was the name she was called by Steiner during the January 1994 assault in her garage.
John Hartman, special agent in charge, U.S. Department of Treasury, in arrest warrant affidavit
In the long-ago trial, his word carried little weight next to that of a popular, elected officeholder regarded as something of a hero. Mathews Davis, the prosecution’s star witness, insisted Steiner was the culprit; he was sentenced to nearly 22 years and ended up serving 18, plus a year in custody awaiting trial.
After her arrest – with her once iron-clad credibility in tatters – many wondered: If Mathews Davis lied two years ago, could she have made it all up two decades ago?
Federal authorities, who only rarely comment on investigations, six months ago confirmed that they are “reviewing her role in the (old) case,” and warned that the probe “will take some time to complete.” Asked for an update, U.S. attorney spokeswoman Lauren Horwood on Wednesday said, “This remains an active investigation.”
Court dates for the case have been continued five times, with the next scheduled July 1.
Mathews Davis’ brow furrowed upon hearing Steiner’s offer that he’d recommend leniency in her case if she would be straight with a judge about what occurred two decades ago.
She means no ill will toward him and his family, she said, and didn’t know he was ailing. She hopes her case is resolved soon, she said.
Hopefully, this (court case) will be done before too long.
Karen Mathews Davis
Yes, she made mistakes a couple of years ago, she said, but not back then. And most criminals deny guilt, even after convictions, Mathews Davis said.
It was him, she said.
Time to let it go
Several months ago, a pack of mangy dogs passed through the pasture that Steiner calls home. A pit bull broke away, licked his hand and had not left his side since, Steiner said, until he was hospitalized. He looks forward to reuniting with Jake, who is being cared for by friends, when he regains strength and his organs stop retaining fluids, Steiner said.
He’s not bitter, he said, but it would be nice if people knew the truth, which would help everyone feel better about some very ugly things.
How any woman in her right mind could do what she did, I’m still having a hard time putting that together. I’m dying to find out what makes that woman tick.
“I’m not vindictive,” Steiner said, “but I don’t mind a little justice.”
That’s why he came up with the offer.
“The concept has merit,” Steiner said, “so we can get to the end of what happened 20 years ago. She has so much baggage, it can’t help but bother her, chewing on her. It’s called a conscience.”
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390