CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — When prosecutors are tracking down a witness, looking for that one statement that confirms a victim’s story or helps proves a defendant’s guilt, they turn to their “best man,” who never gives up.
Al Steil is humble and probably wouldn’t say he’s the “best,” but 21 criminal, civil and juvenile prosecutors would beg to differ.
Steil, 59, of Cedar Rapids, who retired after 36 years in law enforcement, made it only five months before taking another job as the investigator for the Linn County Attorney’s Office.
His friend, Jim Noonan, had been the office’s investigator for eight years and reached out to see if Steil was interested in taking over after he retired.
“He just passed away a few months ago,” Steil said. “Jim was one of the nicest human beings. Whatever Jim said was golden with me.”
Steil was hired and started with the office nearly five years ago.
“I love talking to people,” he told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “I love my job. There’s no stress for me. It’s the most fun I ever had.”
He insists that he’s just part of the support staff. He said the prosecutors and other staff are the ones “working hard every day” on the cases to help the community and victims.
The prosecutors see Steil as an important part of the team and recently nominated him for the Exemplary Service Award for Customer Satisfaction, a quarterly award given to Linn County employees. He received the award this month.
“When I need an answer that requires boots on the ground, I know Al is the man to get the job done,” First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks said. “When I have a tough task on a case, I put my best man on it.”
Maybanks calls Steil a “jack of all trades” because he follows up on law enforcement investigations, tracks down key evidence and people who don’t want to be found, and serves numerous subpoenas every day for felonies, misdemeanors and civil cases.
Maybanks had a recent drunken driving case in which a defendant with two previous convictions was accused of crashing his car into a retaining wall. He claimed his passenger was the driver.
Steil went to the scene to follow up with witnesses and reviewed body camera footage and 911 calls, which showed the defendant was the driver. The defendant ended up going to prison because of Steil’s effort, Maybanks said.
Assistant Linn County Attorney Monica Slaughter said Steil always comes up with new and innovative ways to track down people.
“If Al can’t find them, no one can,” she said.
Slaughter had a tough domestic abuse case with a victim who was 29 weeks pregnant and badly assaulted. The woman recanted her statement that the defendant, who had been convicted twice, had beat her. Slaughter had to go to trial in less than a week. She asked Steil to find additional witnesses who could testify about the victim’s demeanor, appearance and injuries. He did.
He also obtained surveillance video that showed the victim upset and crying when she called police from a convenience store.
Then he found the victim, who wouldn’t respond to Slaughter. He had a “gut feeling” that she was living with the defendant, so he staked out the house for eight hours. He eventually found the victim on social media and persuaded her to come outside to accept the subpoena.
The defendant was convicted, but Slaughter said the case would have “never seen the inside of a courtroom” without Steil collecting the additional evidence.
Anastasia Basquin, chief victim liaison and community outreach specialist with the office, said the secret to Steil’s success is that he can talk with and relate to anybody. He treats everybody with “kindness and respect.”
Asked how he seems to find those nuggets of information that make the case, Steil said he relies on a lot of resources and a few “little tactics” he learned from his time with law enforcement. But added that he also “strikes out” sometimes.
Steil grew up near Charles City in a farming family. Nobody in his family was in law enforcement. Yet Steil said he knew in sixth or seventh grade that he wanted to be a police officer. He applied to be a part-time dispatcher at age 15 and got the job.
“It was the coolest job ever,” he said with a grin. “I wasn’t nervous or stressed. It was a small town.”
After finishing a Friday night wrestling match, he would go to the police department, where he would sleep in the jail for a few hours until his midnight shift.
Steil had planned to go into the Marines but instead, at 18, joined the Iowa Department of Public Safety’s Capitol Police in Des Moines. They provided security for the Capitol building and the governor and his family.
He also started taking classes at Des Moines Area Community College, where he met his wife Michelle. He became a state trooper, then worked in narcotics and eventually the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation. He retired in 2015 as a special agent in charge.
Steil said he’s good at this job because it’s all about people. It just requires being patient and never giving up — which “isn’t in my DNA.” He uses social media and scours all the reports to locate people and evidence such as surveillance video.
He said dealing with people is “all in the approach.”
With witnesses, he explains to them that a case is like a puzzle, and each piece of evidence puts it together.
“I tell them up front that I need to serve a subpoena,” Steil said. “Some people may not even realize they could be a witness in a case. In one case, there was guy who called 911 but said police never talked to him and he didn’t think about being a witness.”