HOLIDAY — The mother of a 12-year-old girl was arrested Thursday after authorities said she faked a kidnapping attempt on her daughter in an effort to frame a former business partner.
After the mother was taken into custody, detectives said she tried to convince her daughter to say it was all the daughter's idea.
Tammy Steffen, 36, called the Pasco County Sheriff's Office on July 14 and said someone had grabbed her daughter's arm and tried to pull her into the woods behind their home, according to the Sheriff's Office. She said her family had been getting threatening phone calls and messages from unknown numbers.
She showed deputies a spot where she said the kidnapping attempt happened and pointed out a laptop case in the brush, deputies said. Inside the laptop cover, deputies found a notepad filled with information about Steffen and her home.
The 12-year-old gave deputies a description of the alleged kidnapper, deputies said, and Steffen suggested a former business partner as a possible suspect. When deputies showed the girl a photo pack, she identified the photo of the ex-business partner as her kidnapper.
The girl had also urinated on herself, which Pasco County Sheriff's Capt. Chris Beaman later said Steffen had forced the girl to do, in order to make her story seem more realistic to deputies.
Because of the severity of the alleged crime, the Sheriff's Office immediately allocated resources toward the case, including air units, canine units and major crimes units, Beaman sad Friday.
"The Sheriff's Office threw its might at this problem," he said.
The girl first told authorities she'd never seen the assailant before, but then said she recognized him from a photo on her mother's phone, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Surveillance footage put the ex-business partner in Tampa at the time of the alleged crime, deputies said.
Detectives reviewed data from Steffen's cell phone, where they found messages accusing the ex-business partner of sabotaging an online contest she had entered, deputies said.
Beaman said Steffen believed the man had somehow swayed votes against her in a health or fitness contest, though authorities saw no evidence to support that assertion.
"It's all in her head," he said.
They also checked the loss prevention system at a New Port Richey Walmart, where the laptop case found in the brush had been bought, deputies said. They discovered Steffen had, less than a minute after making a credit card purchase there, paid cash for a laptop cover, a blue notepad and a pack of pens that matched the writing in the notepad.
A witness who knows Steffen identified her as the person buying the items in security footage, deputies said.
After the Sheriff's Office released some information about the kidnapping, deputies said a neighbor called saying that Steffen wouldn't allow visitors and had been "very on edge."
Steffen eventually admitted to making up the kidnapping attempt, coaching her daughter on what to tell authorities and buying the items found in the brush, deputies said. She was then taken into custody.
Once in jail, detectives said, Steffen tried to manipulate her daughter into taking the blame. Steffen called her daughter from jail about 10:30 a.m. Friday and told her to tell her father that the fake kidnapping plot was the daughter's idea, and that the daughter had supplied Steffen with the money to buy the items from Walmart. In a second phone call about an hour later, Steffen again tried to encourage her daughter to take responsibility for the plot, saying, "You won't get in trouble, but I will."
Steffen initially faced charges of child neglect, filing a false police report and tampering with or fabricating evidence. After investigators listened to the recorded phone call of Steffen talking with her daughter, a charge of witness tampering was added.
Beaman noted that aspects of the case are still under investigation.
"There's more going on, probably, than we realize," he said.
Steffen expressed remorse for only one thing, Detective Josh Hanson noted: wasting deputies' time.