Computer Ace for FBI Stays on Toes, Keeps Agents in Awe

Times Staff Writer

Ted Nichols is a computer specialist for the FBI who uses his feet and toes as substitute hands and fingers.

Nichols, who was born without arms, not only operates his FBI computer with his toes but occasionally pitches with his feet for an FBI softball team--deftly balancing the ball on his left foot, then flicking it toward home plate with a quick kick of his leg.

He developed much of his dexterity naturally as a child with his mother's encouragement, Nichols said. In later years, he was helped by special training programs for the disabled.

"I just always did things with my feet that other children do with their hands," he added. "It just came naturally. When you are born without arms, you don't miss them.

"I don't know why I was born with my disability. It was a birth defect, that's all. I was just born that way."

'An Incredible Guy'

At the FBI office in Los Angeles, where he has worked since 1981, Nichols, 34, is regarded almost with awe by agents as well as civilian co-workers.

"He's an incredible guy," said FBI spokesman Jim Neilson. "When you first see him, you sort of have to wonder. But after people watch him, they become amazed.

"He can do everything for himself, and he doesn't really want any help. After a while, you don't even notice that he's disabled."

Operating the FBI's computer link to Washington, Nichols, who has a top-secret security clearance, has been involved with virtually every major white-collar crime case in Los Angeles during the 1980s.

On a typical day, Nichols might be assigned to compile lengthy financial reports on bank deposits in a drug money-laundering case or to collect the criminal records of suspects in a complex fraud investigation.

Uses Toes to Type

He sits at his computer with both feet propped up over his computer keyboard, using his toes to type. He wears a wristwatch on his left ankle and swigs coffee by holding his FBI mug with his big toe.

Now running computer background checks and relaying information to Washington in the FBI's massive Pentagon fraud investigation, Nichols speaks with obvious pride about his job.

"I was mostly a detective fan when I was a little kid, Sherlock Holmes and stuff like that," Nichols said. "The rewarding thing about this job is that it's kind of helping people in a way by putting these dangerous criminals behind bars.

"I don't actually catch them, of course. I let the other guys do that."

Nichols was born in Madera. His parents divorced when he was 2, and he was raised by his mother, first in San Luis Obispo and then Boise, Ida.

After attending the Chris Jefferson School for the Disabled in San Luis Obispo, Nichols was enrolled in a regular high school in Boise, then attended the Link School of Business, where he learned basic computer skills.

One of his early major triumphs, Nichols recalled, was getting his driver's license in Idaho at the age of 18. Today, without any special mechanical devices, he regularly drives his 1981 Dodge Charger to the FBI offices in Westwood, using his left foot to steer and his right foot to operate the gas and brake pedals.

Known for his cheerful attitude about his work and personal life by colleagues at the FBI, Nichols usually minimizes the effort it took to reach his present position. He conceded, however, that there were periods of despondency along the way.

"There were times I felt I couldn't make it, but people were always there to pick me up again," Nichols said. "A lot of people encouraged me along the way when it was bleak sometimes. There was a counselor in Idaho and then my mother. She's always been behind me."

As a teen-ager, Nichols was fitted with artificial arms but discarded them as too cumbersome and heavy. He found it was easier to use his feet and toes for everything from eating to driving a car.

Nichols, who has a brother born without any birth defects, also became a hunting and fishing enthusiast while living in Idaho. He learned to shoot a rifle by holding it with one foot and pulling the trigger with another and hunted regularly with his brother while in Idaho.

"I'm a lifetime member of the National Rifle Assn.," Nichols said. "I got a couple of deer while hunting with my brother, and I missed a bear one time. We also used to go fishing for catfish and trout. I'd hold the line with my toes."

His first job as a computer operator--a skill he developed largely by himself after being trained as a key-punch operator--was with the Department of the Interior in Idaho, Nichols said. In that capacity, he was named one of the 10 outstanding federal handicapped employees in 1979.

Nichols was bored with his job in Idaho, however. When an FBI position opened in 1981, he was quick to apply.

"I wanted a change of scenery," Nichols said. "It's a lot warmer here. Idaho is a good place if you like snow."

With the FBI in Los Angeles, Nichols has received additional awards for outstanding performance and said he has gradually adjusted to life in Southern California, complaining only that he has not been able to go deer hunting or trout fishing as he did in Idaho.

Shaves and Dresses Himself

Nichols is usually up by 7 a.m. He shaves and washes himself with his feet and toes and dresses himself. Learning to put a shirt on with his toes--a task requiring the skills of a contortionist--was one of his most difficult achievements in life, he said.

Away from the FBI, Nichols said he enjoys reading and watching television. He lives near the Westwood area and frequently takes walks in Westwood Village or goes on "joy rides" to Disneyland for the day.

His self-consciousness about his disability passed a long time ago, Nichols said. Today he points out that he has "proven himself" at every opportunity.

"I'm proud of what I've accomplished," Nichols said. "It never occurred to me to give up. I just wasn't brought up that way.

"That would be my message to others. Be persistent in what you are doing. Never give up."

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