Astronaut charged in assault on rival

Academy graduate is accused of trying to kill female officer

February 07, 2007|By Bradley Olson and Dan Lamothe | Bradley Olson and Dan Lamothe,SUN REPORTERS

An astronaut who grew up in Rockville, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and flew on the space shuttle Discovery last summer was charged yesterday with the attempted murder of a woman she believed to be the rival love interest of a shuttle pilot.

According to Orlando police, Navy Capt. Lisa M. Nowak, 43, drove 900 miles from her home near Houston, wearing a diaper so she would not have to stop to use a restroom. She spotted Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, 30, who arrived Monday at Orlando International Airport after a commercial flight from Houston.

Nowak, dressed in a trench coat and wearing a black wig, followed Shipman from a parking shuttle to her car and squirted her with pepper spray, according to court documents.

But the basis for the murder charge was a black duffel bag that Nowak was carrying, packed with a steel mallet, high-powered BB gun and buck knife. Prosecutors allege that the weapons prove an intent to kill.

Her lawyer disagrees.

"These are the given facts," attorney Donald Lykkebak said in a bail hearing yesterday that was broadcast live on television. "A desperate woman wants to have a conversation with another woman. She didn't shoot her, she didn't stab her, she didn't do anything else other than to talk to her."

Lykkebak, based in Orlando, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

In a statement released last night, Nowak's family said the mother of three had separated from her husband in recent weeks.

"We are anxious to allow the facts to develop so that we can better understand what happened, and why. We hope that the public will keep an open mind about what the facts will eventually show and that the legal system will be allowed to run its course," the statement read.

NASA removed Nowak from flight status and all mission-related activities and put her on 30-day leave yesterday. The space agency has never had an active-duty astronaut charged with a felony, said Roger Launius, chairman of the space history division at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

"We are deeply saddened by this tragic event. The charges against Lisa Nowak are serious ones that must be decided by the judicial system. ... We will continue to monitor developments in the case," Michael Coats, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a statement released last night by the agency.

Steve Lindsey, who heads the astronaut office at the Johnson Space Center, flew to Florida to investigate what happened and "determine the next steps," a spokesman said. He was also there to support Nowak, a longtime family friend, when a judge set bond at $15,500 for the initial charges of attempted kidnapping, attempted vehicle burglary with battery, destruction of evidence and battery.

Nowak posted bail and was to be released and allowed to return to Texas, but police and prosecutors filed the attempted murder charge and pushed for her to stay in jail with no bond.

They lost that fight when an added $10,000 bond was set for the attempted murder count and she left the jail about 5:20 p.m. with a jacket covering her head. Nowak will have to wear a tracking device.

If convicted on the most serious charge, she could be sentenced to life in prison.

Born in Washington, Nowak was valedictorian of her high school in Rockville and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1985, a member of the fifth class into which women were admitted. She lived in St. Mary's County while working at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, where she graduated from the Navy's test pilot school. NASA selected Nowak in 1996. She flew aboard Discovery last July.

She told police she went to Florida to talk to Shipman, an engineer assigned to the 45th Launch Support Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base near the Kennedy Space Center, who she believed was "involved" with Cmdr. William A. Oefelein, 41, who lives in Houston and also trained at Patuxent in 1995 and 1997.

Police recovered from Nowak's car a cache of e-mail messages from Shipman to Oefelein and a letter from Nowak stating how much she loved the man, though she told a detective that their relationship was "more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship." She told police she obtained Shipman's flight information without permission from Oefelein's computer.

Oefelein, who piloted Discovery during a mission to the International Space Station several months after Nowak's mission on the craft, did not return phone calls seeking comment, and the nature of his relationship with either woman was unclear last night. Calls placed to Shipman's and Nowak's homes were not returned.

Though Nowak contended that her weapons were meant only to scare Shipman, the charging documents paint a portrait of a well-planned, if bizarre, mission that turned into a harrowing few moments more apropos to a Hollywood thriller.

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