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Steptoe, noted attorney and musician, dies

August 31, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- James D. Steptoe, a prominent Martinsburg attorney and accomplished professional musician, died Sunday at his home.

He was 58.

Steptoe's passing, a little more than two years after the death of his father, Robert M. Steptoe, was shocking to friends and those who worked with him.

"He was the courthouse here," Berkeley County Fiduciary Supervisor Maria Childers said Monday. "When you think of the courthouse, you think of Jim."

Steptoe, who was admitted to the West Virginia State Bar in 1977, established his own firm, concentrating in real estate, banking, and estate planning and administration in 1997.

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He was appointed in 1999 to serve as a Berkeley County fiduciary commissioner and was an integral part of helping Childers' office settle controversies in the probate of wills or other estate matters, Childers said.

"He served us well -- above and beyond the call of duty," Childers said. "He enjoyed those challenges, he really did."

Steptoe joined Avey, Steptoe, Perry, Van Metre & Rockwell, the firm his father co-founded, after graduating from West Virginia University College of Law. At school, Steptoe was inducted into the Order of the Coif, the highest academic recognition awarded.

"He was like a brother to me," said former Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Thompson, who was a year behind Steptoe in law school.

While remembering Steptoe as a "student of the law" and a "lawyer's lawyer," Thompson said he also was a gifted bridge player and had just finished competing in a large tournament in Washington, D.C.

"You name a card game, he could probably play it," Thompson said.

Steptoe also could play the banjo, bluegrass style, and joined with college friend and guitarist Rusty Williams of Inwood, W.Va., and Eldred Hill and Leigh Taylor-Kron to form Patent Pending in 1979. The band has performed more than 2,000 shows in 22 states, and recorded six albums.

"We're all in shock," Williams said, his voice breaking. "No one saw it coming."

Williams said Steptoe was the best friend he ever had and probably was responsible for getting Williams together with his wife, Wendy.

"He's been a good friend, in every way possible. He's part of the family," Williams said.

Among attorneys, Steptoe was unique and "danced to the tune of a different drummer," said Norwood Bentley III, legal counsel for the Berkeley County Commission.

Steptoe wore a coat and tie for court, but dressed casually otherwise, Bentley said. Bentley said Steptoe was respected by the bar, was known for being a hard worker and his clients loved him.

"He was not your typical 9-to-5 attorney," Bentley said.

A memorial service will be Thursday at 11 a.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church in Martinsburg.

Authorities do not believe foul play was a factor in Steptoe's death, but an autopsy was expected to be conducted, Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela J. Games-Neely said Monday afternoon.

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