A former state probation officer was sentenced to prison this week because a Mecklenburg County woman decided to fight back after he forced her to have sex.
Willie James Steele Jr., 43, received the maximum penalty for the federal charge – two years in prison. The sentence comes almost five years since his victim first went to authorities.
In December, a federal jury in Charlotte convicted Steele of violating the civil rights of the woman, whose probation he oversaw, by having “non-consensual” sex with her twice in 2008.
Steele still faces rape and other charges in Mecklenburg County for the same incidents. Those charges could put him back in court as soon as next month.
According to documents from state and federal investigators, Steele first met with the victim at his office in June 2008. He told her she needed to take him to her apartment so he could confirm that she lived where she was supposed to. Once there, Steele implied that he would have her jailed unless she agreed to have sex.
The second meeting was at Steele’s office, according to a copy of Steele’s termination letter from the State Department of Corrections. Again the two had sex. Afterward, Steele gave the woman two pieces of paper from his desk so she could clean herself, the letter says.
When she was done, both pieces held Steele’s DNA. She threw only one away.
Before her next scheduled meeting with the probation officer, the victim contacted Charlotte attorney James Ferguson. He took her accusations to the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office.
On Nov. 12, 2008, the woman turned over the piece of paper from her encounter with Steele to an agent of the State Bureau of Investigation, records indicate. It turned out to be a probation document for another person assigned to Steele, and contained a stain with Steele’s DNA.
Later that day, the SBI was secretly watching when Steele again met with the woman in his office. According to his firing letter, he asked her to close the door. Then he asked her to expose herself.
Last December, a federal jury convicted Steele of two civil rights violations for depriving the victim of her constitutional rights to bodily integrity – by having non-consensual sexual relations with her during probation meetings. The prosecution used Steele’s DNA to help make its case.
While Steele had been indicted in May 2012 on felony charges, he was convicted on misdemeanors only. The jury decided that Steele’s crime did not result in bodily injury or involve “aggravated sexual abuse.”
His victim, 25 at the time, became one of Steele’s cases after she moved to Charlotte and her probation, tied to a car-theft conviction, was transferred from Georgia to North Carolina.
As her probation officer, Steele had the power to send her to prison if he reported that she had violated the conditions of her freedom.
Nonetheless, she notified Ferguson of what was taking place, prosecutors said.
“This young woman was very courageous and put herself at some risk taking the steps she took to bring to light what she had gone through,” said Ferguson, who testified at Steele’s trial. “And she did it mainly because she didn’t want this to happen to anyone else.”
The woman could not be reached for comment Friday. The Observer doesn’t identify victims of sexual crimes.
“Probation officers are given a great deal of power in order to carry out their critical responsibilities,” said Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C.
“But this officer abused that power and violated the civil rights of a woman under his supervision.”
Steele, of Concord, served as a probation officer in Mecklenburg from March 2003 to April 2009, when he was fired for “unacceptable personal conduct.” Before that, he worked as a youth counselor in the juvenile justice system.
He has been in custody since December, when Chief U.S. District Judge Bob Conrad jailed him for not showing up for his trial.
“Any time a law enforcement officer breaks the law, it undermines the public’s trust in the legal system,” U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said in a prepared statement.
“We will do everything we can to ensure that trust is not compromised.”
Steve Lyttle contributed.
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