The 18-year-old killed and dismembered on a Lancaster County property moved in with the two people charged in the case two months ago, according to those who knew him.
Peggy Rape had been Austin Steele’s caretaker for the past five years, after his grandfather, who also was his adopted father, died.
“I became like a second limb to Austin,” Rape said. “If he needed something, he ran to me.”
Steele was on the autism spectrum, Rape said, but was independent. It wasn’t unusual for him to disappear for weeks at a time, sometimes on trips to the beach, she said.
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Austin hadn’t been seen for three or four weeks before his body, dismembered and burned, was found Thursday after a tip from an acquaintance who knew him. Friday would have been Steele’s 19th birthday. Two people have been charged in his death.
Christopher Allen Holford, 30, of Lancaster is charged with Steele’s killing. Holford had been charged Thursday with failing to register as a sex offender, police said.
Holford’s wife, Brandy Nicole Faye Duncan, 19, is charged with helping him cover up the crime.
The brutality of the cover-up shocked even veteran lawmen. Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile, with 28 years experience, said in a news conference Friday the case is “one of the worst” he has ever experienced.
“This is stuff you see on TV,” Faile said at the news conference. “I would never imagine that we would find or have someone living in Lancaster County capable of doing these kinds of things. I just wouldn’t believe it.”
Lancaster County Deputy Coroner Jennifer Collins said in a statement that all death investigations are difficult, but this case is “very haunting and disturbing.”
Steele died from a single gunshot wound, Collins said. The Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement Steele was left to die overnight and his body was later dismembered and burned.
But those who knew Steele best want to focus on his life, not the circumstances of his death.
“He knew he was loved,” Rape said. “No matter what.”
She said Steele was a caring man, who would sometimes call her in the middle of the night just to ask for a hug.
“He and I leaned on one another,” she said. “I don’t believe I won’t ever see that big smiling face.”
Rape’s daughter-in-law, Jillian Yarbrough, said Steele was like a brother to her husband.
“Austin was a good kid,” Yarbrough said. “He was kind. He was caring. He would give anything to anybody who needed anything from him.”
Steele loved to work with his hands and wanted to earn an engineering degree, she said.
He had recently re-enrolled in GED classes, she said.
The family had met Holford and Duncan before the killing.
“They didn’t seem capable of doing what they did,” Yarbrough said.
Those who knew and loved Steele are struggling to cope, Rape and Yarbrough said.
“I don’t think anybody can cope with what we know about what happened,” Yarbrough said. “It’s just a matter about knowing.”
Yarbrough’s family held a vigil for Steele on Saturday at his last home, 1838 High Point Circle, Lancaster. They wanted to shed light on who Steele was, Yarbrough said.
“Austin was special in so many ways,” she said. “He had so many good qualities. And he didn’t deserve what happened to him. Nobody would deserve that.”
Hannah Smoot: 803-329-4068