The tension could be cut with a knife as Gregg Steele was led into the courtroom for sentencing two months after a jury found him guilty of second degree murder for the killing of local business owner Patrick Larkin in 2019.
Friends and family of Larkin, including his partner of 15 years, Andrea Meyer, sat in the audience behind deputy District Attorney Consuelo Garcia, waiting to make their voices heard before the judge, as Steele sat quietly with his attorney, Thomas Clark, on the other side of the courtroom.
Prior to the trial, a motion was filed by Steele’s attorney for a new trial altogether, claiming that the combined factors of COVID (all parties were masked and socially distanced) and the jury’s swift decision (they came back with a guilty verdict in less than an hour) were grounds for a new trial. Though Eighth Judicial District Judge Jeffrey Shannon agreed that the trial was conducted under “unique circumstances,” he said the decision could be appealed and the motion brought up then. The sentencing went ahead.
The prosecution began by urging Judge Shannon to impose the maximum possible sentence for the three crimes committed (second degree muder, and two charges of tampering with evidence – both third* degree felonies), with Garcia calling for the maximum of 25 years at the Department of Corrections.
Though character evidence did not become part of the trial (there were plenty of character witnesses on hand for both the prosecution and defense), the characters of Mr. Larkin and Mr. Steele were defended or rebuked during Steele’s sentencing.
As friends and family of Larkin came before Judge Shannon, they recounted stories of the kind of man Patrick Larkin was. Jason Boyd, one of Larkin’s best friends, described his positive relationship with Larkin through skiing, and described his “enthusiasm, athleticism, and wry sense of humor.”
Boyd described Larkin’s transition to partnership and fatherhood as “later-in-life than most” (Larkin was 63 at the time of his death), but said he saw Larkin “truly fulfilled’ with his new role as a family man with Meyer and daughter Oona – “their journey together just beginning.”
Boyd also disclosed his emotions after being the person to first discover Larkin’s body. “It took to the count of three to realize he was gone… I felt his spirit, buzzing above the scene like a bee’s nest – the world had forever changed,” he said.
Friend took turns mourning the loss of Larkin, remarking on the impact he had made in the community. Jacob Caldwell called him “the modern day philosopher,” saying that Larkin had made him a better person, and his loss left “a huge void”.
After several others who came to the in-person sentencing (others watched from afar via Zoom) spoke to the impact Larkin had made on their lives, Larkin’s partner Andrea Meyer approached the stand.
Meyer began by speaking to who Patrick Larkin was as a person. “He had integrity,” she said. “At the World Cup, he was a leader and a father figure.” Meyer and Larkin together founded and owned the coffee shop located in Taos Plaza. She went on to remember Larkin as “deeply present,” and said that “he had meaningful exchanges with each person that we encountered.”
In the end, Meyer asked for the judge to impose the maximum 25-year sentence. “It’s pure cruelty that Patrick – who embodied int egrity in every aspect of his life – was treated with such an extreme lack of integrity in his transition from life.”
Along with in person testimonies, Garcia read several letters into the record from people who knew both Larkin and Steele, including several that spoke to Steele’s rough nature. One letter claimed he falsely represented a Tribal member to scare off other people from the area, while another letter-writer said they were “aware that [Steele] had a short temper and threatened several friends of mine on many different occasions.”
In another letter, the writer said Steele had confided in them various crimes he had committed, and the writer said they saw Steele as “a tortured soul.” Another writer said that Steele had stalked them prior to Larkin’s murder, and claimed to be on his “blackbook”, saying Steele had “threatened to crush” them.
Garcia brought the attention to character into focus, noting the “drastic change of how positively, and in a good light, they spoke of Patrick versus how they spoke of the defendant.”
Though Clark admitted that Steele had made “horrific mistakes” in the way he treated and disposed of Larkin’s body (the prosecution showed evidence Steele allegedly dragged the body into the sagebrush, but Steele and Clark maintain Larkin’s body fell out of a car), he closed his statements by saying that “everybody wants to gloss over the fact… that Mr. Larkin brought a gun into the situation, and got killed.” Larkin was said to have been approaching Steele’s property armed with a .22 after finding one of his goats killed in the middle of the night.
When Steele was given a chance to speak, it was clear he had a lot on his mind. He advised that his attorney told him to “keep it really short and clear, so I can’t really express myself the way I want to.”
He apologized to Meyer, then going on to say that he didn’t have justification or excuses, “because I'm a man who’s responsible for his actions… I don’t want to sit here and apologize, I just want to express my mind and the facts.”
Steele, 53, went on to defend his actions as a mistake made in the midst of fear. “I don't want to sit here again to try to paint a picture that I'm an innocent human being that doesn't make mistakes,” he said as he described Larkin approaching his property in the middle of the night. “I felt like a deer in the headlights; you’re just responding.”
Steele went on to say, “it wasn’t my choice. I’m not the demon that you're looking for to blame. I made some bad decisions - horrible decisions - and I wish I could have done it over,” adding that he “didn’t have a choice, and after that main event, it just became a tragedy and a runaway train.”
After friends and family of Larkin made emotional appeals for the maximum possible sentence, and after Clark and Steel made last pleas of self-defense, Judge Shannon appeared to be sympathetic to the state, sentencing Steele to 21 consecutive years at the Department of Corrections, with his three charges running concurrently to one another.
“Mr. Steele, I didn’t know Patrick Larkin,” said Shannon. “I didn’t know the man existed until this case ended up in my courtroom. And I’m not going to sentence you based upon the man who Patrick Larkin was. I’m sentencing you based upon you. Whether the victim is a pillar of the community or whether the victim was someone you may not want to be associated with – they all deserve justice.”
Shannon added that the letters written about Steele “indicate a certain disappointment about who you are or were, even absent the death of Mr. Larkin.”
Shannon also agreed with the state that a habitual offender charge applied to Steele for his previous felony conviction in California for stealing cable.
Steele was given the maximum sentence, with 17 years for the second degree muder charge, which includes two additional years for a firearm enhancement and a prior felony enhancement. He also received three years (plus one for the prior felony) for the first tampering with evidence charge, and three years (plus one for the prior felony) for the second tampering with evidence charge. All of the terms shall be served concurrently and a minimum of 85 percent of the time must be served.
Shannon closed by saying that the reason he imposed this maximum sentence was due to his disappointment in the way Larkin’s body was treated. “Nobody’s body should be treated that way. Knowing that his daughter and his wife and his friends and his family had to know what happened to his body… and that friends of Mr. Larkin had to find the body.”
Friends and family of Larkin hugged outside the courtroom after the verdict.
It remains to be seen what will happen with Steele’s motion for a new trial, which is set to be heard on June 24 at 10 a.m.