'She was convicted,' she says of assailant Lisa Nowak. 'I'm not sure there's anything really for me to forgive'

By Jeff Truesdell
Updated March 23, 2016 09:00 PM
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Credit: Tom Fowlks

Colleen Shipman knew she was being followed.

The woman who attacked her in an Orlando, Florida, airport parking lot in the early hours of Feb. 5, 2007 – and whose swift arrest at the scene launched a media circus around an astronaut love triangle – had caught Shipman’s eye before they both boarded a parking shuttle bus. When they exited at the same stop, Shipman hurried to reach and jump into her car.

That’s when the other woman – former space shuttle mission specialist Lisa Nowak, who prosecutors say plotted the confrontation with her perceived rival for the affections of another astronaut, Bill Oefelein – raced up to Shipman, asked her for help, then doused her with pepper spray, Shipman says.

Fighting the sting in her eyes and gasping for air, Shipman sped her silver Saturn SL2 away from her unknown assailant.

“Honestly, I thought she was going to kill me and steal my car,” Shipman says, speaking in this week’s issue to PEOPLE for the first time about the ordeal and its aftermath.

Moments later, awaiting help at the parking lot toll gate, “I thought, ‘I’m going to be okay,'” she recalls. “But it never was okay after that.”

Shipman, then an Air Force captain stationed at Cape Canaveral, did not know who attacked her as she arrived back in Florida after a weekend trip to Texas to visit Oefelein, her boyfriend of three months.

She first heard the words “military” and “astronaut” while sitting in the airport police station, she tells PEOPLE.

“They had called in a detective and he sat down with me, and I think one of the first things he said was, ‘Are you an astronaut?’ I thought, that’s a strange question to ask.”

“Well, no, I’m not an astronaut,” she told him, “but I wear a shuttle necklace because my boyfriend bought it for me. He’s an astronaut.”

“I could see he had on his desk a military ID, and he had a NASA ID. I remember thinking, did I give him my military ID? Nope; it must be her military ID. Then I kept thinking, oh man, she’s in a heap of trouble if she’s in the military.”

“He said, ‘Does the name Lisa Nowak mean anything to you?'”

Shipman searched her mind. She recalled a comment by Oefelein – nicknamed “Billy O” – to explain the purple bike that he said Nowak, a bike-riding buddy and NASA colleague, kept stored at his apartment. (Oefelein later confirmed to police that he and Nowak, who was married but separated, had a prior relationship that ended when Oefelein began dating Shipman.)

“Lisa, Lisa – it can’t be, but I’m pretty sure that’s the name of one of Billy O’s friends,” Shipman replied. “Then I was thinking, ‘That b—- stole Lisa’s ID cards.’ I might even have said, ‘There’s no way that could be her, she lives in Houston.”

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“The craziest things go through your mind,” she says. “I was thinking, well maybe they have some kind of weird astronaut club initiation thing where they have to go out and scare somebody. I was trying to think of all these reasons, why would somebody do this? This doesn’t make any sense.”

At the detective’s urging, Shipman called Oefelein in Texas, waking him to confirm the name.

Hours later, the detective told Shipman that Nowak may have felt scorned and jealous.

Airport surveillance showed Nowak following Shipman while disguised in a wig and trench coat. Upon her arrest, police recovered a steel mallet, a BB gun, a 4-inch knife, leading to initial charges of attempted murder and kidnapping. She later pleaded guilty to reduced charges of burglary and misdemeanor battery, and was sentenced to two days in jail and a year’s probation.

But Shipman says that for her, the trauma took a much longer toll – emotionally, physically and mentally. And she says others initially made her feel at fault for the space agency’s P.R. nightmare.

“Everybody from my commander on down was treating me like, why can’t you just make this go away?,” she says. “The prosecutor made the decision. It was not up to me. I wasn’t really pushing anything, except doing what I thought a responsible person would do, which was to report a crime and then cooperate with authorities.”

“I was really surprised and disappointed by her sentence,” Shipman says. “I just didn’t feel like it was worth all the pain of going through that process.”

Shipman and Oefelein, who each retired from the military in 2008, were married in 2010 and have a 4-year-old son, and live a quiet home life in southern Alaska, where Oefelein grew up. She is now a novelist, after finding that writing in journals helped her come to terms with the attack. A first novel, Eerie, published in December under the pen name C.M. McCoy, is a paranormal romance that takes off with a monster emerging in the dark, tapping childhood fears that Shipman says “were reinforced by this crime.”

“A lot of people ask, ‘Did you forgive Lisa Nowak for what she did?’,” she says.

Her answer: “She committed a crime, she was convicted, she finished her sentence. I’m not sure there’s anything really for me to forgive.”