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Iraq charges ring bell in Hernando

By DAN DEWITT
Published May 2, 2007


BROOKSVILLE - When retired Hernando County Sheriff Tom Mylander read that a commander at a Baghdad detention center had been charged with "aiding the enemy" and other military crimes, the name and the behavior struck him as familiar.

"This has got to be our Bill Steele, " Mylander said of former Hernando County deputy William H. Steele. "That sounds like it's just down his alley."

Steele, 51, a lieutenant colonel in charge of a military police detachment at Camp Cropper, faces nine violations of military law, including illegally storing classified information, failing to obey orders and fraternizing with the daughter of a detainee.

Steele began working as a Hernando deputy in 1991, after serving in the Army in the Persian Gulf War. He resigned from the Sheriff's Office in 1992 after being investigated over allegedly hitting and kicking his stepson.

A year later he was charged with aggravated child abuse and resisting arrest without violence. The charges were later dropped, partly to protect the 11-year-old boy from having to testify, according to court records.

Some Hernando residents remembered Steele as an honest and community-minded volunteer, who served on a committee to improve fire service in Spring Hill and worked with the Red Cross to help victims of the 1993 no-name storm.

But Mylander and others said he was rigid, self-righteous and showed signs of a troubled personality even before his arrest in November of 1993.

"He was a very tightly wound, gung-ho kind of guy, " said U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, a former Hernando County commissioner who lived near Steele in Spring Hill in the early 1990s.

In reports from his 1993 arrest, Steele was accused of padlocking the family's refrigerator and kitchen cabinets to keep the boy from getting food. He forced the child to sleep on a military cot and hit him on the head if he failed to complete his chores or homework, the reports said.

When the child was interviewed, his hands shook, he cried, and "he expressed dire fear that the defendant would find out what he was saying and that he would be beaten and severely punished, " a deputy wrote.

Mo Lubee, who worked with Steele on the fire committee, said he never believed these charges.

"I was very impressed with Bill, " said Lubee, who sells pump and irrigation equipment in Spring Hill. "He was very honest. He was the kind of guy, if it was on his mind it was on his lips. He would speak his mind, and he always tried to do the right thing."

Steele claimed his honesty was the source of his problems, saying after his resignation that deputies investigated him as retaliation for trying to arrest a Pasco County deputy for driving under the influence of alcohol. Two of Steele's supervisors pressured him to release the deputy and were later reprimanded.

"Certain members of the department acted in an ignominious and unprofessional manner by being biased against me, " Steele responded in a statement to local newspapers.

That kind of talk was typical of Steele, Mylander said.

Because of his military experience and education - including a master's degree in legal studies from the University of Baltimore - "he felt he knew how to do things better than his supervisors, " Mylander said.

Though Steele's evaluations were generally favorable, Mylander remembers sorting out repeated conflicts involving Steele.

"He was kind of a supervisor's worst nightmare, " Mylander said. "He was very intelligent but sort of a loner, really strange."

Neither Mylander nor an Army spokesman, Lt. Col. Robert Tallman, knew when Steele returned to active duty. Tallman also could not say whether his legal problems in Hernando should have disqualified him from service, though he did point out that Steele was never convicted.

The charge of aiding the enemy carries a potential death penalty, though military experts have been quoted as saying this is unlikely to be carried out. The accusations are serious because the expansion of Camp Cropper was intended to signify reform after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and because of Steele's position.

"He's the person in charge of enforcing the rules at the prison, " Walter Huffman, a former Army judge advocate general told the New York Times. "It makes it an even more egregious offense because of the context."

Information from the New York Times was used in this report. Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or 352754-6116.