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Pain pulls families together

The trial is redefining family ties for the kin of Steele and Harrison.

By JULIA KUMARI DRAPKIN
Published April 24, 2007


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DADE CITY - As the first day of her son Alfredie Steele Jr.'s murder trial began, Regina Clemmons waited outside Courtroom D.

As a witness, she cannot be present inside the courtroom. As a mother she cannot be absent from the courthouse.

Suddenly the doors of Courtroom D burst open.

Sandy Harrison, daughter of the officer Steele is accused of killing in 2003, is weeping, bent over, like she took a punch.

In court, the blood-stained uniform of her slain father, Pasco sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison, had just been shown for the first time. His daughter couldn't breathe.

Instinctively, Clemmons stretched out her arms. Harrison fell into them, shaking. Clemmons helped her outside, where the daughter could weep without echoes.

"I can't take this," Harrison sobbed. "I can't take this."

"Yes, you can. You can." said Clemmons, patting her back. "You can be strong."

Once the connections between their families were strong - until June 1, 2003. Harrison was dead and Steele was in jail. An awkward distance was inevitable.

But the gap between the two families began to narrow in court last week. And when Harrison needed someone on Monday, she fell into the arms of a natural mother - Clemmons, a Lacoochee matriarch.

Or, as her family puts it: "Big Mamma."

Many remember Clemmons for the Thanksgiving dinners she organized in the Cypress Villas public housing projects of Lacoochee. She pooled food stamps to ensure every child got a meal.

Now a special needs counselor at Wesley Chapel High School, Clemmons jokes she gave birth to six children - but ended up with nine. She took in kids who needed a mother. When her sister went into a coma after giving birth, Clemmons took home her newborn nephew, Nathaniel Vanzant.

"For the first six-weeks of his life," she said, "he was mine."

Now the boy Clemmons raised is a key state witness against her own son.

Vanzant watched the two woman embrace below him. He was on the atrium's second floor, smoking a cigarette, waiting to testify against his cousin Steele.

For the last several months, the thought of her nephew brought Clemmons anger and tears. She believes he knows more than he is telling about her son's case.

Still, her instinct doesn't wane.

"I can't help but want to hug him too," Clemmons said.

Fifteen minutes later, she walked outside and hugged him. The exchange is tense and short. But he welcomed her arms.

In this way Clemmons is like her own mother, Steele's grandmother, the original "Big Mamma."

"She never judged you, she just listened," said Catrina Ceazar, Clemmons' daughter. "That's where my mother got it from."

At day's end an emotional Sandy Harrison again left Courtroom D. This time her family followed her to the atrium outside.

Inside, Clemmons sat on a bench. One of her daughters came out of the courtroom crying.

Separated by the courthouse pane of glass, the families held on.

[Last modified April 24, 2007, 00:15:10]


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