With Discipline Honed by Training, Police Say, Astronaut Set Out to Kill

By Peter Whoriskey and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

ORLANDO, Feb. 6 -- She prepared for the 950-mile drive from Houston with the discipline of someone who had flown 13 days in space. The steel mallet, folding knife and rubber tube were all catalogued on a handwritten list, police say. She had maps, she had bus schedules and she had a disguise. Thinking like an astronaut, she brought diapers to avoid bathroom stops.

Lisa M. Nowak set off for Orlando International Airport seven months after the July 4 launch of the shuttle Discovery, her first trip to space, and probably her last.

The NASA astronaut and Navy captain from Rockville was charged Tuesday with the attempted murder in Orlando of an apparent rival for the affections of another astronaut. Nowak, one of 46 women to fly in a space shuttle, is now the first active astronaut to be arrested on a felony charge. She left an Orlando jail Tuesday afternoon with her jacket pulled over her head.

Police said Nowak, 43, stalked the younger woman, 30-year-old Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, at an airport parking lot early Monday, dressed in a dark wig, glasses and a tan hooded trench coat. Unable to gain Shipman's confidence, police said, she sprayed her with pepper spray through Shipman's partially open car window before the car sped away.

According to a charging document, she intended to confront Shipman about her relationship with Navy Cmdr. William A. Oefelein, an astronaut who, like Nowak, is based at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Nowak, who is married with a teenage son and twin daughters, told police she and Oefelein had "more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship," according to the document. Nowak carried with her e-mails from Shipman to Oefelein.

In a request Shipman filed for an injunction against Nowak, Shipman said she had been stalked for about two months.

Neither Shipman nor Oefelein could be reached by phone Tuesday. Oefelein, born in Fort Belvoir, is 41 and has two children. He piloted Discovery to the international space station in December.

Nowak might have been planning the confrontation as early as Jan. 23, the day she printed the maps she used to navigate from Texas to Florida, according to a police affidavit. She had obtained a copy of Shipman's flight plans to Orlando.

The affidavit provides this account:

Nowak checked into a La Quinta Inn in Orlando under a false name, stashed her car and set off to meet Shipman's midnight flight from Houston to Orlando. The younger officer was returning to Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.

Shipman picked up her luggage, which was late, about 3 a.m. As she waited for the bus to the airport satellite parking lot, Nowak lingered at a nearby taxi stop, wearing the wig and a trench coat. When Shipman boarded the bus, Nowak boarded, too. She got off where Shipman did. Nowak was armed with a steel mallet, a buck knife and a BB gun that resembled a real 9mm semiautomatic handgun. The BB gun was loaded with pellets and was set to fire, according to the affidavit.

Walking to her car, Shipman sensed a threat. She heard "running footsteps" behind her. She jumped into her car, locking the door.

But before she could pull away, Nowak slapped at the window. Then she pulled at the locked door.

"Can you help me please?" Nowak told her, according to the affidavit. "My boyfriend was supposed to pick me up, and he is not here. I've been traveling and it's late. Can you give me a ride to the parking office?"

Shipman said she'd send someone to help. Nowak asked to use Shipman's cellphone. Shipman told her the battery was dead. Nowak said she could not hear Shipman through the window, then began to cry.

Shipman opened her window two inches. Nowak sprayed something, later determined to be pepper spray, into the opened window, aiming at Shipman's face. Shipman drove away, her eyes burning, and sought help, according to police.

Police and prosecutors say the evidence suggests that Nowak might have wanted to get into Shipman's car and kill her, possibly at Shipman's house.

Citing other details -- the handwritten list, an assumed name -- prosecutor Amanda Cowan likened Nowak's planning for the trip to the kind of preparations astronauts make as they ready for space.

"She had a mission that she was very determined to carry out," she said.

Last summer, Nowak was literally on top of the world, one of the very few chosen to fly on the space shuttle to the international space station. She flew on Discovery in July as a mission specialist and operated one of the space station's robotic arms, a job that requires intensive training.

"It was such a high to see her get on the shuttle," said Dennis Alloy of Vienna, a childhood friend who watched it lift off. "It's such a shame."

Nowak performed "extremely well" on that first mission, said David Mould, a NASA spokesman. She was scheduled to be a capsule communications officer for the next shuttle flight in March, to serve as the conduit between Houston's Mission Control and the astronauts.

As of Tuesday, Nowak was off NASA's prestigious "flight status" list and was on a 30-day leave.

"We are deeply saddened by this tragic event," said Michael L. Coats, director of Johnson Space Center. "The charges against Lisa Nowak are serious ones that must be decided by the judicial system."

Neither Nowak nor her attorney, Donald Lykkebak of Orlando, offered any alternate version of events.

But in hearings Tuesday, Lykkebak took issue with police conclusions that Nowak intended to kill or kidnap Shipman. He said she was simply trying to talk to Shipman.

"What we have here is a desperate woman who wants to have a conversation with another woman," he said in the afternoon hearing. "She doesn't shoot her. She doesn't stab her. . . . I would submit to you that she wanted to talk."

Nowak's boss, Chief Astronaut Steven W. Lindsey from Johnson Space Center, came to Orlando and appeared at both court hearings.

"We're here representing NASA, and our main concern is Lisa's health and well-being and to make sure she's safe and we get her through this and we get her back to a safe place with her family," he said at the morning hearing.

But by the end of the afternoon hearing, the judge had raised Nowak's bond to $25,500, in addition to the condition that she be monitored via a Global Positioning System anklet, for which she will pay $15 a day. By evening, she had posted bond and was preparing to be fitted with the anklet. She was expected to return to Houston.

Lisa Marie Caputo Nowak grew up in the Luxmanor neighborhood of Rockville, in a two-story red brick house on Tilden Lane.

Her family in Rockville released a statement late Tuesday. It noted that Nowak and her husband separated a few weeks ago. "We love her very much, and right now, our primary focus is on her health and well-being," the statement said. "Considering both her personal and professional life, these alleged events are completely out of character."

Nowak was co-valedictorian of Charles W. Woodward High School in Rockville and received a master's degree in aeronautical engineering before becoming a full-fledged astronaut in 1998. She attended U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary's County and flew as a test pilot in the mid-1990s. Oefelein attended the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School and was also at the test pilot school at Patuxent.

In the fall, Nowak captivated audiences at Luxmanor Elementary School and Tilden Middle in Rockville and at the U.S. Naval Academy, all schools she once attended, and her sisters' alma mater, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, with tales of space. It was a living lesson that hard work pays off.

"All these little girls were lining up to sign autographs," said Matthew Schatzle, a 1985 class officer, recounting the Naval Academy visit. "She represents us. She represents the Navy. She represents NASA. She represents her family. I'm sure she's devastated."

De Vise reported from Washington. Staff writers Chris Jenkins, Marc Kaufman, Moira E. McLaughlin, Katherine Shaver and Steve Vogel and staff researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report from Washington.

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