Murder of Ex-NFL Star Steve McNair — Blamed on His Girlfriend — Gets Second Look in New Podcast
Who really killed NFL star Steve McNair?
Nashville police say the retired quarterback, a Most Valuable Player with the Tennessee Titans, died in 2009 in a murder-suicide at the hands of girlfriend Sahel “Jenni” Kazemi, who shot McNair and then herself in despair over financial struggles and her suspicion that he was seeing another woman who was not his wife.
But that conclusion made little sense to friends and family members of the victims. It also troubled a former Nashville police officer who took those doubts and launched his own investigation.
Alternate theories and lingering suspicions about McNair’s murder now drive a nine-part true crime podcast, Steve McNair: Fall of a Titan, which examines whether investigators got it right when they proclaimed the case solved.
“He was murdered in such a brutal and tragic way,” says Tim Rohan, the podcast narrator and a staff writer for Sports Illustrated who spent 15 months revisiting the case to create the series, which is a partnership between the magazine and Cadence 13.
The first episode debuted Oct. 17 and the series continues with new episodes each Wednesday. (Sports Illustrated, like PEOPLE, is published by Meredith Corporation.)
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McNair, 36, a leading Heisman Trophy candidate when he played at Alcorn State, led the Titans to the 2000 Super Bowl and retired in 2008 after finishing his career with the Baltimore Ravens.
“He was a legend in Nashville,” says Rohan. “He was the face of the Titans franchise for about a decade.”
In 2003 McNair shared the NFL’s MVP title with Peyton Manning, and he was a three-time selection to the NFL Pro Bowl.
“Some people would consider him a borderline Hall of Famer,” Rohan says.
But McNair’s chances for post-career accolades collapsed in the early hours of July 4, 2009, when police say he was shot in his Nashville condo around 2 a.m. by Kazemi, a 20-year-old waitress at a Dave & Buster’s restaurant whom the married McNair had begun seeing several months earlier.
“We can’t put ourselves in the minds of people who do these terrible, irrational acts, but there is evidence she was spinning out of control,” former Nashville police chief Ronal Serpas said at a news conference soon afterward.
According to authorities, the murder-suicide capped 48 hours that began with Kazemi’s arrest for DUI around 2:30 a.m. two days before the shooting. McNair was with her at the time, in a Cadillac Escalade that he’d helped her to purchase, and he bailed her out of jail.
The next morning, July 3, Kazemi texted McNair, asking for $2,000 to help pay her bills. Police said she had learned that her roommate was moving out, which would have doubled her rent to around $1,000 when she already was liable for payments on both the Escalade and a Kia vehicle.
McNair texted her back: “I got the guy transferring the money.”
VIDEO: See Police Footage From Jenni Kazemi’s Arrest for DUI Two Days Before Her Death
Although Kazemi had told family and friends that McNair planned to divorce his wife for her, police said she also recently had learned of another woman that she believed to be romantically involved with McNair.
On that same July 3, Kazemi remarked to a co-worker, “My life is just s—, and I should end it!”
Earlier in the day, and in the parking lot of her workplace, police say Kazemi bought the 9mm pistol recovered at the murder scene from a man to whom she had tried and failed to sell her Kia, according to the seller’s account.
Kazemi and the man then spoke several times in the hours that followed, with the man later telling police that he was trying to get her to hang out with him.
That man was still texting Kazemi in the hour before the shooting, and then again several hours after, according to Rohan’s podcast.
McNair was seated on a sofa and likely asleep when Kazemi shot him in the left side of his head from a distance of a few feet, according to investigators. She then shot him two more times in the chest, and once more on the right side of his head from close up.
Police said Kazemi subsequently sat next to McNair and shot herself on the right side of her head, collapsing into his lap and eventually falling to the floor atop the dropped gun.
According to authorities, gunshot residue tests suggested Kazemi used both hands to fire the gun in McNair’s condo, to which police were summoned by a 911 call placed by McNair’s friend and bodyguard, Robert Gaddy, at 1:35 p.m.,
Gaddy was the second person to encounter the bodies; another of McNair’s friends, Wayne Neely, had arrived almost an hour before that 911 call and made the grisly discovery, after which he initially phoned Gaddy rather than police, according to the podcast.
When police laid out that theory — blaming “a 20-year-old waitress who had apparently never shot a gun before” — Kazemi ‘s friends “just found it hard to believe,” Rohan tells PEOPLE.
“I talked to family and friends of Jenni who knew her, who talked to her in the final weeks of her life, and they told me she wasn’t upset by these things. They told me that she wasn’t upset about Steve sleeping around, she wasn’t upset about the DUI, she wasn’t strapped for cash,” he explains. “They kind of debunk this idea that she was suicidal and spiraling out of control.”
“These are people who were close to Jenni, who talked to her regularly, who talked to her on the final day of her life, who just don’t believe that she did it.”
Neither did Vincent Hill, the former Nashville cop who listened to those concerns and has written two books about the case. Hill serves as something of a guide for Rohan as the latter investigates the two lives lost and what may have led to their fatal intersection.
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Along the way, his podcast with SI raises doubts about the seller’s version of the gun purchase the day before the shooting.
The series also introduces Kazemi’s former boyfriend, who it appears “was trying to rekindle a relationship with Jenni,” Rohan says.
His podcast looks as well at the relationship between McNair and his wife, Mechelle, with whom he had four children. “It appears as though her marriage with Steve was on the rocks at the time of his death,” according to Rohan. And his work asks why McNair’s two friends waited 44 minutes after the bodies were first found before 911 was called.
Hill, who was not a Nashville police officer at the time of the killings, has himself taken his growing body of new evidence to a grand jury for its consideration, although authorities so far have made no movement toward re-opening the investigation, says Rohan.
Does he think, as police do, that Kazemi killed McNair and then herself?
“You may come away thinking that maybe Jenni Kazemi didn’t kill Steve,” he says. “There are also points where you think maybe she did do it. I leave the listener to draw their own conclusions.”
He adds: “I hope the family and friends of Steve and Jenni find some closure from all of this. I hope this leads to something that gives them peace.”
“You can really tell that this is something that’s weighed on them,” he says. “It’s still with them nine years later.”
Episode four of the podcast, titled “The Ex-Con and the Boyfriend,” premieres Wednesday, with new episodes debuting each week through Dec. 12.