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Could California Clerk's Alleged Lies Clear Ex-Con's Name?

Roger Steiner says a woman who allegedly made up threats sent him to jail for 19 years.
Image: Roger Steiner - Karen Mathews
Roger Steiner sits outside his motor home in Fresno, Calif., in October.John Westberg / Modesto Bee via ZUMA Wire

A former California county clerk is in hot water for allegedly fabricating death threats against herself — and that could be good news for a man who was convicted of assaulting her nearly two decades ago.

Roger Steiner spent 19 years in federal prison after a jury found him guilty of viciously attacking Karen Mathews Davis as part of a bizarre tax-protest conspiracy.

Steiner, who had always maintained Davis lied about the attack, had just gotten out of prison when he was suddenly under scrutiny again.

Davis, who was then running for Congress, claimed she received two death threats in the mail — and once again tried to cast blame on Steiner, court documents show.

Image: Roger Steiner - Karen Mathews
Roger Steiner sits outside his motor home in Fresno, Calif., in October.John Westberg / Modesto Bee via ZUMA Wire

But federal investigators say Davis made up the threats. And now Steiner is hoping that convinces prosecutors to reopen his long-ago case and clear his name.

"If she lied now, that substantiates my story that she lied back then," Steiner, 77, told NBC News.

"I see her as evil, with a criminal mind."

The case against Davis is the latest twist in a convoluted tale full of intriguing details: an envelope with the words "white bitch" scrawled under the flap, a memoir titled "The Terrorist in My Garage," a flunked polygraph test.

Federal prosecutors who charged Davis with lying to investigators confirmed last week that they are now "reviewing" Steiner’s 1997 conviction.

An attorney for Davis, 67, declined repeated requests for comment, and a man who answered the phone at Davis’ home in Lodi, California, said she wasn’t talking.

But Steiner — whose story initially appeared in the Modesto Bee — has plenty to say about the legal drama that began in 1995 when agents appeared at his door and placed him under arrest.

"I thought they just made a mistake," he told NBC News. "I just figured they would clear it up — and 20 years later, I got out of prison."

"All these years what kind of kept me together was knowing it's a matter of time before she gets caught in her own lies."

At the time of the alleged attack, Steiner was living in Oregon, scratching out a living making and supplying fire-suppression equipment to foresters.

He says that while some may have seen him as an anti-government, anti-tax rabble-rouser, he wasn't any of those things.

He spent four days in jail in 1989 on a firearms violation after being arrested for making angry calls to state lawmakers about an assault weapons ban. Three years later, he spent 20 days in jail for a disturbance at a restaurant — then demanded $50,000 from the judge who confiscated his revolver.

Despite those run-ins, Steiner insists there was nothing in his past to suggest he was capable of the crime that Davis described.

Back then, Davis was the Stanislaus County Clerk-Recorder and embroiled in a convoluted dispute with members of an extremist group called the Juris Christian Assembly, which did not recognize the authority of the federal government.

She had refused to remove an IRS lien against a JCA member and also balked at recording nuisance liens that the group tried to file against government officials.

According to court papers, after being bombarded with threats, Davis said she was savagely attacked on Jan. 30, 1994. The assailant ambushed her in her garage, beat her, cut her back with a knife, put an empty gun to her head and pulled the trigger, an indictment said.

"Do your job," the attacker told her repeatedly, she said.

Image: Karen Mathews Davis
Karen Mathews Davis talks to KCRA 3 in Feb. 2014.KCRA

Investigators found Steiner's name in records seized from the JCA — although he denies any ties to the group — according to Modesto Bee reports from the time.

They noticed he matched the assailant's description and put his photo in a lineup, the newspaper said. Davis picked out his picture and later identified him in person during the trial.

The jury convicted Steiner of the assault and he was sentenced to 22 years in prison after a hearing in which Davis claimed for the first time that she had also been sexually assaulted. Eight others were convicted of related racketeering charges.

By the time he was released to a halfway house in late 2013, Davis was no longer a county clerk. She retired in 2001 after a grand jury accused her of misusing her credit card, hiring her son and making her secretary work on her book, and using the county FedEx account to ship the manuscript to movie producers — allegations she said were "biased and unsupported."

But after leaving the clerk's office, she wasn't done with politics; in fact, she was planning to run for Congress.

Shortly before the official launch of her ill-fated campaign, she contacted a Treasury Department agent and reported she had received a threatening letter filled with eerily familiar anti-government language.

"A close up shot to your head or to your husband will be final," it said. "You make the decision now not to run for Congress.'

Asked who might be behind the December 2013 threat, it didn't take long for Davis to bring up Roger Steiner among other possible suspects, court documents show.

Three months later, Davis reported another letter had been sent to her, signed "Sovereign Citizens for America" and warning, "Your family will have to plan a funeral." She said the words "white bitch" were written under the envelope flap and told investigators the epithet had been used in the 1994 attack.

That May, Davis again drew attention to Steiner with the publication of her memoir, "The Terrorist in My Garage," which featured a cover photo of her in action at a firing range.

By then, investigators had determined that based on logs from the halfway house, Steiner could not have sent the letters. And in early 2015, they asked Davis to take a polygraph test, which she failed, the court papers say.

Davis admitted she wrote and sent both notes herself, court documents say. She was charged in October and is free on $50,000 bond.

"I thought they just made a mistake. I just figured they would clear it up — and 20 years later, I got out of prison."

The man who prosecuted Steiner, Jonathan Conklin, who is now a federal judge, said he is aware of the charges against Davis but would not say whether he now had doubts about the allegations she made in 1994.

"I've reviewed the complaint and considering it's an ongoing investigation, I'm going to let it run its course without making comment," he said.

The attorney who represented Steiner at trial, Daniel Harralson, said he was "not surprised" by the turn of events.

"It was our belief the charges were made up and Roger Steiner was falsely convicted," he said.

Steiner has since retained a new lawyer, Patrick Fortune, who said they are trying to decide whether to push to get the conviction set aside or pursue civil action.

"It's very tough to overturn a 20-year-old conviction," Fortune said, adding that they would face an uphill battle getting Davis to take another polygraph.

Steiner, meanwhile, remains on probation and cannot leave Fresno. He lives in a ramshackle motor home, survives on Social Security, and dreams of building a contraption to start an underwater gold-mining operation in Montana.

"I'm not vindictive or angry," he insisted.

He said he planned to be in court for Davis' next court date to make sure the judge doesn't go easy on her. At the same time, he said, he feels "a little bit of compassion" for his accuser.

"I can't be angry because people around me are stupid," he said. "I'm not angry at her. I feel sorry for her... You know how much mental baggage that poor woman is carrying on her shoulders?

"I'm just grateful that it did come down to this," he added. "All these years what kind of kept me together was knowing it's a matter of time before she gets caught in her own lies."