By Bob Meadows
March 19, 2007 12:00 PM

LISA NOWAK FACES LIFE IN PRISON

The report is 200 pages long, but the money moment occurs right there at the top of page 38. Bill Oefelein, the male at the apex of the now-notorious Astronaut Love Triangle, is asked by his new girlfriend, Colleen Shipman, if everything went smoothly when he told his recent ex, fellow astronaut Lisa Nowak, that they were breaking up. “I point-blank asked him,” says Shipman, “… ‘is there gonna be some crazy lady showing up at my door trying to kill me?’ and he said, ‘No, no, no, she’s not like that … she’s happy for me.'”

It was, as the world now knows, a spectacularly incorrect assessment. Some time later, on Feb. 4, Nowak put on a special NASA diaper (so she wouldn’t have to stop), drove 900 miles, donned a wig and sunglasses and allegedly blasted Shipman with pepper spray and tried to kidnap her from the parking lot of Orlando International Airport. Police say she carried with her an equipment bag containing tape, a BB pistol, a 4-in. knife, large trash bags and a hammer.

Oefelein’s misreading of Nowak was just one of the highlights of the much-anticipated Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s report, released March 5, which answered many of the most intriguing questions surrounding the bizarre affair. First and foremost: Had Nowak and Oefelein been romantically involved, or had she been driven by nothing more than fantasy? Definitely the former: Oefelein, 41, admitted to police that he and Nowak, 43, maintained a “sexual relationship” for two to three years. They were both married when they met in 1996, but their friendship grew as they occasionally trained together for the shuttle program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. After their relationship began, they kept it secret because, although Oefelein had been divorced, Nowak still lived with her husband. “I would say we were somewhat exclusive,” he said when asked if they dated others. Still, the trappings of a long-term romance were apparent: She had keys to his apartment, kept her bike in his bedroom and had access to his private e-mail. “I would consider Lisa one of my best friends at NASA,” Oefelein told police. He described Nowak as a quiet, shy person whom he had never seen angry. “She didn’t have a temper,” he said.

Why the relationship crumbled isn’t clear. But Oefelein met Shipman, 30, a U.S. Air Force captain and engineer who lived in Cape Canaveral, Fla., “at a work-related party” in November and began a long-distance relationship while he was still seeing Nowak. He sometimes seemed to have trouble keeping his paramours straight. While in bed the weekend before the attack, “He called me ‘Lisa,'” Shipman told police. Nonetheless, in early January Oefelein told Nowak he was in love with Shipman and wanted to see her exclusively. “She seemed a little disappointed, um, but she seemed to be accepting of that,” he told police.

When Oefelein was away from his computer one day, Nowak signed on to his work e-mail. Apparently she discovered steamy exchanges between Oefelein and Shipman, including one a month before Oefelein confessed his new love to her. “Will have to control myself when I see you,” Shipman typed to Oefelein Dec. 21 while he was aboard the Discovery space shuttle. “First urge will be to rip your clothes off, throw you on the ground and love the hell out of you.”

Nowak, who was supposed to be making her second shuttle launch on March 15, printed out more than 20 e-mails. She also learned from Oefelein’s computer what time Shipman would be flying from Houston to Orlando on Feb. 5. She hopped in her car and began the 900-mile drive to Orlando. She followed Shipman through the airport into the parking lot where the alleged attempted kidnapping took place. Oefelein told cops he was completely baffled by the attack. He and Nowak, he said, had just planned to log flight time together. “I would’ve never predicted this,” he said. “She actually wished me a nice weekend, knowing Colleen was gonna spend it with me.”

On March 2 the Florida state attorney dropped the attempted-murder charge against Nowak, although she still faces an attempted-kidnap charge that carries a possible life sentence. On leave from NASA, Nowak has been at her Houston home, out on bail. Her priest Dominic Pistone Jr. visits Nowak once a week; they pray together and he gives her communion. “She’s holding her own,” Pistone says. “Just keep praying for her, like we are.”

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