NASA's love triangle: How a jealous astronaut drove across America to kidnap her romantic rival

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The Independent US

When police officers in Orlando answered a call in the early hours of Monday about an assault in a parking lot at the airport they didn't expect anything out of this world. That was until they found the suspect, a middle-aged woman, slipped the handcuffs on her and asked who she was. An astronaut, she replied.

Probably the officers pegged her as another crazy and who could blame them? They caught her trying to stuff a wig in a rubbish can and, odder still, found an adult nappy in her car. But if the Orlando police think they boldly go where no man has gone before, on this night they met the real deal. Her name was Lisa Marie Nowak, who only last July flew a mission to the International Space Station on the shuttle Discovery.

By yesterday morning when Ms Nowak made a first appearance in court, what had started as a workaday arrest was ballooning into one of the most surprising - and sinister - cases Florida can remember. Prosecutors described a love triangle involving first Ms Nowak and another Nasa astronaut who she was pining over. The victim of the assault, they said, was the third woman and a rival for the man's affections.

At the hearing, Ms Nowak, 43, found herself charged with attempted vehicle burglary, destruction of evidence and battery. But prosecutors later announced they would be upgrading the charges to attempted first-degree murder with a possible sentence of life and that an initial ruling by the judge releasing her on $15,000 (£7,600) bail had been put on hold and she remained in custody.

The police charge sheet put most of the pieces of the picture together. The second woman and alleged victim of the assault was identified as Colleen Shipman, an officer with the US Air Force attached to a squadron that supports shuttle launches at Cape Canaveral. The man in the middle and the object of both the women's affections, is Navy Commander and astronaut William Oefelein, who led the most recent Discovery mission to the Space Station in December. He and Ms Nowak trained together but never flew a mission together. Both were first-time fliers on their shuttle voyages last year.

It all began on Sunday when Ms Nowak discovered that Ms Shipman would be flying that night from Houston to Orlando and decided that the time had come to confront her about her intentions regarding Mr Oefelein and, at least according to prosecutors, also to kidnap and even murder her. And she would do this at the moment Ms Shipman arrived at the airport at around midnight that evening.

However, Ms Nowak, who is married and lives in Houston with her husband and three children, opted to make the 950-mile, 12-hour journey from Texas to Orlando by car. It was after her arrest that she explained the adult nappy on the car seat to police. So anxious was she to get to Orlando before Ms Shipman's flight arrived that she wore it to avoid having to stop the car along the way to go to the bathroom. To her, this may have seemed an entirely practical idea - astronauts all wear nappies on space missions, during the initial launch and again while the shuttle re-enters the Earth's atmosphere.

Ms Shipman's plane landed roughly on schedule at one in the morning, but she had to wait two hours for her bags to emerge on the carousel in the arrivals hall. Neither woman had met before, but Ms Nowak had nonetheless donned an elaborate disguise. She waited until Ms Shipman took a bus bound from the terminal to the airport car park and climbed aboard with her.

It was Ms Shipman who described the ensuing events to police. She became aware that someone was tailing her, hearing footsteps behind as she made her way to her car. Frightened, she walked faster, jumped in her car and locked the doors. Ms Novak, however, came to the window, apparently asking for a ride and at one point breaking into tears. Ms Shipman wound down the driver-side window two inches so she could hear what the woman was saying, whereupon she was hit with a shot of pepper spray in the face. With stinging in her eyes, she sped away to the parking toll booths where the attendant called the police.

By now it was past 3am on Monday and the officers found Ms Nowak, now dressed in a different coat, standing at the parking lot bus stop. As they approached her, they said in their report, they watched the accused stuffing several items into a rubbish container. They included the wig and a carbon-dioxide powered air pistol, known in the US as a BB gun. Inside a bag she was carrying, officers claim they also found the tan-coloured trenchcoat she had been wearing before, a brand new steel mallet, a new folding knife with a four-inch blade, three to four feet of rubber tubing, a number of large plastic dustbin liners and about $600 in cash. Police then proceeded to a car that Ms Novak had allegedly rented and parked outside a motel near the airport. More likely exhibits for the prosecution were allegedly found inside, including a pair of black latex gloves, a pepper spray package, an unused BB gun cartridge, a note with Ms Shipman's address and handwritten directions to her home and copies of email exchanges between Ms Shipman and Mr Oefelein. The police report says a letter was also found "that indicated how much Mrs Nowak loved Mr Oefelein".

By yesterday morning, the police mugshot of a dishevelled and anxious-looking Ms Nowak had been released and half the world's media were descending upon a crime case with ingredients too intriguing and unique to resist. There are no records of a US astronaut having been arrested on criminal charges of any kind before.

Among those also at the court hearing yesterday was Steve Lindsey, the commander on the July Discovery mission, who told the judge that Nasa would ensure that she would comply with his order, if she was released pending trial, to make no contact, direct or indirect, with Ms Shipman. Also present was the pilot on that same mission, Chris Ferguson. As someone who had known Ms Nowak and had worked with her in the confines of an orbiting space shuttle, what did he make of it all, reporters wanted to know? "Perplexed is the word I am sticking with," he replied softly.

In the affidavit given upon her arrest, Ms Nowak was coy about her relationship with the commander, saying it was "more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship". Mr Oefelein, an astronaut since 1998, has two children but is not married.

Restrained with shackles around her waist and dressed in a jail jumpsuit, Ms Nowak spent most of the court hearing looking at the ground, briefly raising her head when the prosecutor for the first time raised the possibility of seeking a life sentence for her and again when the judge asked if she had understood all the charges against her at that time. "Yes," she said flatly. News of the murder charges came later.

Her trial, certain to get intense media attention, is likely to turn on what the defendant's precise intentions towards her victim had been. In court, her defence lawyer contended that by filing charges of attempted kidnapping, police had used their "imaginations" to "extend the facts out into areas where the facts were not supported".

In her statement, the police said, Ms Nowak said she was "not trying to cause any bodily harm to Ms Shipman and that she only wanted to scare Ms Shipman into talking with her".

But what, the prosecutions is certain to ask, was the purpose of all that paraphernalia - the rubber hosing, the mallet and the plastic bags? "If you were just going to talk to someone, I don't know that you would need a wig, a trench coat, an air cartridge BB gun and pepper spray," said Sgt Barbara Jones, a spokeswoman with the Orlando police department. "It's just really a very sad case."