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A top cop conducts the biggest search of his life: his origins

Steffens visits the pauper grave of Patricia Nichols at Tucker Cemetery near Dade City. She died in 2007, just after a private investigator found her after one of her many moves.
Published Oct. 15, 2012

James Steffens sat alone in his police cruiser. He had patrolled this rough area of Clearwater many times, but never had he felt his heart beat like this as he summoned the courage to knock on her door.

Barely a day went by that police didn't move her and the other drunks along from park benches and bus stops. She cursed and fought them and landed in jail. She represented everything Steffens, a rising star in the Clearwater Police Department, detested.

Yet now, as he sat with the motor running and stared beyond the blackened windshield, he wondered, "Will she reject me?''

He knew it didn't make sense, but some feelings live so deep they never come out. Slowly he opened the car door and made his way up the stairs.

He knocked. No answer. He knocked again.

"Patty's not here,'' a neighbor said. "She moved.''

In a way, Steffens felt relief. He had tried.

He tucked his secret away.

• • •

Almost 30 years earlier, on Jan. 11, 1968, different police officers came to Patty Nichols' door in south St. Petersburg. She was bleeding from several abrasions. She told them she had gone drinking with three men and that two of them raped her in the back seat of a blue Ford Mustang.

Police found some of her belongings in the abandoned parking lot where she said the attack took place. But they never made an arrest. Nichols made a poor witness.

At age 14 she had been committed to the Florida School for Girls because she was considered incorrigible. Now 22, she already had a lengthy arrest record for being drunk and disorderly. She provided vague details about the suspects, identified in the police report as "colored men."

Nine months later, she delivered a mixed-race baby boy. He weighed 5 pounds, 13 ounces and was 19 inches long. Nichols checked herself out of the hospital but left the baby there for nine days before returning. She said she couldn't handle the responsibility. She gave the baby up for adoption.

• • •

The foster family in St. Petersburg called him Neddy. They had him for 3 1/2 years before a social worker delivered him to a Dunedin couple, Ann and Hank Steffens, who had three of their own children and two adopted South Korean girls. This boy arrived with a huge appetite and a big smile. His new mother called him a "real charmer.''

They called him by his given name, James.

By 1981, the Steffenses had adopted 12 children, Asian and black. Hank, a math teacher at Dunedin High School, traveled to the Philippines to pick up three children whose father, a police officer, had been killed on duty. "Team Steffens'' was featured in a Times story headlined "A United Nations in one family.''

James stood out as one of only a few children of color in his schools, including Clearwater Central Catholic High, where he became a state tennis champion. With his Afro, "everybody thought I was the next Arthur Ashe,'' he said.

They asked him a question that would follow him throughout his life: "What are you?''

"American,'' he'd respond.

"Some people thought I might be Hispanic. They'd ask me to translate stuff.''

He learned to play violin. He served as an altar boy at Light of Christ Catholic Church in Clearwater, which is how he came to notice Mary Ventura. "I sat up near the priest so I could survey the congregation. I couldn't take my eyes off her.''

Soon their romance would bloom, along with an unintended pregnancy as Mary started her junior year at Pinellas Park High School. She endured embarrassment and ridicule as she walked the hallways with a bulging belly.

James dropped out of St. Petersburg Junior College. His parents reacted angrily. The young couple moved in with her family. What had been such a carefree life grew complicated, but never did Mary consider abortion. They had a baby girl. At 19, James entered training to become a cop.

Meanwhile, Hank Steffens fell ill with cancer and then a massive stroke. James, saddened that his relationship with his parents had been damaged, longed to make peace. On the evening of May 17, 1988, he drove to the house.

"The family gave me some space,'' he recalled, "and I went into his bedroom. He recognized I was there. I told him I loved him.''

Moments later, Hank Steffens, 61, died. James summoned his mother.

On that day, he said, "the healing began.''

• • •

With a new baby, Mary wondered about genetics. She pushed James, now a rookie officer at the Clearwater Police Department, to learn more about his biological parents. A caseworker who had helped with the adoption gave him a report.

James had never cared to know about his origins. But now he sat with Mary and opened an envelope with four typed pages, single-space. They read slowly as the report introduced Patricia Gail, born in Boston.

"She had a pretty face and a fair complexion,'' the report said.

Patty had been neglected as a child. Her hard-drinking father left his timid wife seven times in Patty's first four years. Then he left for good. Patty fought with her mother, got arrested for possession of alcohol and other misdemeanors, dropped out of school in the ninth grade. At 20, she gave birth to a mixed-race baby she named Theresa Ann before giving her up for adoption.

James stopped reading. "I have a sister?''

As he got to the bottom of the first page, he came to a paragraph titled "Birth Father.'' His eyes widened as he read about the rape. He read the narrative several times. "It seemed surreal.'' He felt like he was reading somebody else's story. He focused on the violence and how Patty must have felt during the attack. He thought like a cop, wondering about the investigation and whether one of the rapists — his biological "father'' — might reveal himself.

Mary, the good Catholic and one of 14 children in her family, thought about God. "You shouldn't be here, but you are,'' she said. "God has a plan.''

She looked at Stephanie, their baby girl. "This beauty,'' she said, "came from something horrible.''

James considered the irony, that a man dedicated to a career in law enforcement should be conceived through a violent crime.

He devoured the rest of the report, learned more about Patty's psychotic behavior and alcoholism. He contacted the St. Petersburg Police Department and got copies of the reported rape.

He stared into Patty's vacant eyes in jail mug shots. He remembered that during his training, he had accompanied officers who rousted drunks and vagrants from local bars and park benches. He wondered if she had been one of them.

Mary wanted James to find her. Maybe he could help turn her around. Maybe he could just thank her for not having had an abortion.

• • •

Mary and James married three years after Stephanie's birth and over the years welcomed three more daughters. He excelled at the Clearwater Police Department, first as a patrol officer and then detective, rising to the rank of lieutenant. He became commander of the police dog and SWAT teams. Four times the Fraternal Order of Police honored him as supervisor of the year.

He never stopped thinking about Patty but didn't feel comfortable sharing what he called his "conception story.'' He didn't even tell his adoptive mother. "It sounds weird, I know,'' he explained, "but I had always felt like this was something uniquely mine. I didn't feel comfortable sharing, even with Mom. I was a Steffens, and I didn't want to do or say anything that might upset her. I didn't want her to think I was looking for something else.''

In 2002, he moved his family to western Pasco County, where they could afford a larger house than in Clearwater. Steffens hired a private investigator to keep him up to date on Patty. He found her in an apartment in New Port Richey, no more than 10 minutes away.

"This time we were going to meet her,'' Mary said. "I told James, you've got to find this woman. You turned out to be such a great human being, maybe you could inspire her to change.''

As they planned their visit, the private investigator called. Bad news, he said. Patricia Nichols, 62, had died a month earlier, on Sept. 27, 2007, two days after James' 39th birthday. She spent her final days in hospice care. The Tampa Tribune carried a two-line obituary.

"No known survivors,'' it said.

• • •

For all his success at the Clearwater Police Department, Steffens could not see himself rising to the top. He lacked a college degree and bristled as other officers vaulted ahead of him. So in 2009, he retired. He became an adjunct professor at St. Petersburg College and was selected along with other law enforcement veterans to teach community policing in San Salvador. On the flight down, he asked Tony Rolon, a retired St. Petersburg police officer, if he had ever come across a woman named Patricia Nichols.

"Patty?'' Rolon exclaimed. "Patty!? She's crazy, but we loved her.''

Every time she had a run-in with cops, Rolon said, she would claim two men in a blue Mustang had raped her.

The story gave Steffens chills. He responded by reflex: "That's my mom.''

"Tony just fell back in his seat.''

Steffens felt relief. It was out. Maybe now he would tell somebody else. Maybe he was finally ready.

• • •

Steffens missed being a cop. In May 2011, he accepted a position as a lieutenant at the New Port Richey Police Department. More than 35 officers whom Steffens had supervised in Clearwater drove 30 miles north to cheer at his swearing-in ceremony. Five months later, Chief Jeff Harrington accepted a command position in the much larger Pasco County Sheriff's Office and Steffens stepped in as caretaker. In December, City Council members raved about Steffens as they made him chief.

Six months later, Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco merged his SWAT team with New Port Richey's — and put Steffens in charge. "He's a leader,'' Nocco said.

The two years away from law enforcement had been miserable, but now Steffens was reinvigorated — "reborn, you might say.''

He finally shared his story with his mother, Ann Steffens, who at 84 still practices law in Palm Harbor. "We had no idea,'' she said. "James has always been very open and personable, but he does hold on to his privacy. We knew his birth mother had problems. It's good to know the rest of the story.''

Just two weeks ago, James and Mary sat down with their daughters. "It felt good to share with them,'' he said. "Their eyebrows went up a few times.''

He has given up trying to understand why Patty Nichols carried him to term. "I know many abortions occur in those circumstances,'' he said. "I'm sympathetic to those decisions. I don't pass judgment. I'm grateful, obviously, that Patty Nichols decided to have me.''

He hopes his story will spark discussions, maybe encourage more adoptions.

And "somewhere out there,'' he says, "I have a half sister. Maybe she'll read this.''

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Bill Stevens can be reached at or (727) 869-6250.


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