- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

ORLANDO, Fla. — A NASA astronaut accused of trying to kidnap a romantic rival for a space-shuttle pilot’s affections was charged with attempted first-degree murder yesterday and jailed on $25,000 bail.

“The intent was there to do serious bodily injury or death,” said Orlando police Sgt. Barb Jones, referring to a new steel mallet, knife, rubber tubing and large garbage bags that police found in Navy Capt. Lisa Marie Nowak’s possession.

According to police, her obsession with Navy Cmdr. William Oefelein, an unmarried fellow astronaut, led her to drive 900 miles from Houston to Orlando, bringing with her a trench coat and wig, armed with a BB gun and pepper spray, and wearing a diaper, something astronauts do during re-entry, to avoid bathroom breaks on the arduous drive.

Once in Florida, police said, Capt. Nowak, a 43-year-old married mother of three who grew up in Montgomery County and attended high school in Rockville, confronted the woman she believed was her rival for his affections at the Orlando airport Monday. Police say she sprayed something, possibly pepper spray, at Colleen Shipman, 30, who works at Patrick Air Force Base near the Kennedy Space Center.

Capt. Nowak, who already had been charged with attempted kidnapping, attempted vehicle burglary with battery, destruction of evidence and battery, was released from jail on $25,500 bail and ordered to wear a monitoring device. If convicted of attempted murder, Capt. Nowak could be sentenced to between 30 years and life in prison, authorities said.

Her attorney, Donald Lykkebak, took issue with the most serious charges.

“In the imaginations of the police officers, they extend these facts out into areas where the facts can’t be supported,” Mr. Lykkebak said.

Chief astronaut Steve Lindsey, who flew with Capt. Nowak to the International Space Station in July aboard Space Shuttle Discovery, and fellow astronaut Chris Ferguson attended the earlier hearing.

“Our primary concern is her health and well-being and that she get through this,” Mr. Lindsey said.

Mr. Ferguson said he was “perplexed” by Capt. Nowak’s purported actions.

NASA put Capt. Nowak on a 30-day leave and removed her from mission duties. Agency spokesman John Ira Petty at Johnson Space Center in Houston said he was concerned about the people involved and their families. But, he added, “We try not to concern ourselves with our employees’ personal lives.”

Cmdr. Oefelein, 41, piloted Discovery in December. He and Capt. Nowak trained together, but never flew a mission together. He is unmarried but has two children.

According to a statement issued last night by her family, Capt. Nowak “has been married for 19 years, although she and her husband had separated a few weeks ago.”

Capt. Nowak told police that her relationship with Cmdr. Oefelein was “more than a working relationship, but less than a romantic relationship,” according to an arrest affidavit.

But police found a letter in the suspect’s car that “indicated how much Mrs. Nowak loved Mr. Oefelein,” the arrest affidavit said. And Capt. Nowak had copies of e-mails between Miss Shipman and Cmdr. Oefelein.

According to authorities, when Capt. Nowak found out Miss Shipman was flying to Orlando from Houston, she decided to confront her early Monday, according to the arrest affidavit.

Dressed in a wig and a trench coat, she waited for Miss Shipman’s plane to land and then boarded the same airport shuttle bus Miss Shipman took to get to her car, police said. Miss Shipman told police she noticed someone following her, hurried inside the car and locked the doors, according to the arrest affidavit.

Capt. Nowak rapped on the window, tried to open the car door and asked for a ride. Miss Shipman refused but rolled down the car window a few inches when Capt. Nowak started crying, the statement said. Capt. Nowak then sprayed a chemical into Miss Shipman’s car, the affidavit said. Miss Shipman drove to the parking-lot booth, and police were called.

Cmdr. Oefelein and Miss Shipman did not return calls seeking comment.

Capt. Nowak had passed a battery of psychological tests administered by NASA to ensure she could manage stress in the extreme environment of outer space.

Colleagues told the editor of nasawatch.com they were surprised to learn of her arrest.

“They are jaw-dropping in astonishment. They don’t know what to say, how this could have happened,” said Keith Cowing, the Web site editor and a former NASA employee. “By all estimates, she was an exceptionally skilled person.”

“Is it connected to her having been in outer space? I doubt it,” Mr. Cowing said. “Things can develop from life’s stresses that are often totally unrelated to flying a rocket ship, and that clearly manifested itself at the airport.”

Capt. Nowak grew up in Montgomery County and graduated from C.W. Woodward High School in Rockville, where her parents, Alfredo and Jane Caputo, still reside. Family members reached by The Washington Times at the Rockville home referred calls to a spokeswoman.

“We are naturally saddened and extremely concerned about the serious allegations being made against Lisa,” the family said in a statement issued by a spokeswoman.

“Lisa is an extremely caring and dedicated mother to her three children,” the statement said. “Considering both her personal and professional life, these alleged events are completely out of character and have come as a tremendous shock to our family.

“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 family said.

One acquaintance from Capt. Nowak’s childhood came to her defense yesterday.

“Nothing would change my view of her as an extremely bright, generous and unfailingly cheerful person, and I’m confident that my classmates would share these opinions,” said John Turnbull, a former Woodward student.

Capt. Nowak, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1985, said in a September interview with Ladies’ Home Journal that her husband, Richard, “works in Mission Control, so he’s part of the whole space business, too. And supportive also.”

Mr. Nowak could not be reached for comment yesterday.

NASA spokeswoman Nicole Cloutier-Lemasters said shuttle crews that fly for two-week stints do not go through psychiatric screenings. She said crews assigned to the space station are screened before, during and after missions. NASA does not plan an investigation, she said.

• Staff writers Aaron Groen, Audrey Hudson and Daniel Taylor contributed to this report.

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