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The remarkable life and imprisonment of Stephen Nodine.
STEPHEN NODINE WAS FURIOUS. Who did the bi**h think she was, telling him their relationship was over?!? Nobody dumped Nodine. Nobody. Hell, people used to tell him he looked a little like Steve McQueen. He was so tight with his former boss, the onetime general and Secretary of State Al Haig, that he sat with Haig’s family at the great man’s massive D.C. funeral service. Nodine had become big stuff. He grew up as a friend of the golfing Nicklaus family. He put Pete Rose on the radio. He was the political consultant who got Alabama Gov. Bob Riley elected. He knew Karl Rove. He himself was a locally powerful county commissioner in Mobile, an official Homeland Security trainee, a former Army specialist who had classified clearance at a European nuclear site. Women didn’t decide when to dump Nodine; Nodine decided when he was done with them. And now, as he sped back to his mistress’s house just 10 minutes after leaving it, trying several times to get her on his cell phone, he meant to teach her a lesson.
What lesson, he didn’t know, but he’d show her who was boss. What he didn’t know was that their brief phone conversation, as he sped back, alarmed her. He didn’t know she called her sister in Georgia to ask where to aim — head, chest, or leg? — when shooting an intruder. He didn’t know her gun was out. He didn’t know that four minutes later she texted her sister that “Stepehen nodine [sic] is here.”
Then it all went wrong. He walked through the door to find her gun aimed at him. But her hands were shaking. All these years later, he was still Army-quick. He somehow snatched the gun and bent back her arm. They sort of wrestled themselves into the short driveway abutting her front door.
Point a gun at Stephen Nodine?!? Who did she think she was? He didn’t really know what he was doing. But yeah, he’d teach her a lesson. He had the gun now, and he put it to her temple, pushing in hard. He’d show her who was boss, scare her silly. He didn’t really intend to shoot. But he pushed too hard. The pressure of gun to head made his finger squeeze reflexively on the trigger.
Nodine, 46, looked down at Angel Downs, 45, lying in the driveway, blood streaming from her head. Sh**. Maybe it was the joint he had smoked on the beach that kept him distant enough from his emotions that he could think but not yet feel. He knew he had to get out of there. He dropped the gun, jumped in his pickup truck, and stood on the accelerator, out of the condo area, past the neighbors walking their dogs who had heard the shot, onto Fort Morgan Road, away from the crime scene…
NO, WAIT. That’s a dramatized version of what prosecutors say occurred on May 9, 2010. But maybe, indeed probably, it went more like this: Ten minutes before, Stephen Nodine had dropped off his mistress, Angel Downs, after a long and enjoyable Mother’s Day with friends at Pensacola Beach, 45 minutes from her condo in Alabama’s Gulf Shores. He had spent three of the past five nights at her house, and his 13-year-old son, Christopher, had stayed there one of those nights. Nodine and Downs had an illicit but semi-open relationship down in Baldwin County, at the south end and across the bay from his district in central and western Mobile County. Nodine thought all was well — except that he had forgotten his wallet at Downs’ place. He tried her several times on the way back, and when he did get through, the conversation was brief.
“Hey, babe, I forgot my wallet. I’m just gonna run in and get it; just wanted to let you know.”
He didn’t realize how quickly the chemicals in her brain could make her snap. Ambien. Xanax. Aderrall. As many as six beers, plus a Bloody Mary. All at once. He didn’t know that her anger had suddenly returned, anger because he had once again left her condo to return to his wife.
She had her gun out as she waited. She called her sister with the strange question about an intruder, then followed with the text message. She didn’t really know what she would do with the gun, but she knew she wanted to grab Nodine’s attention. She thought Stephen Would poke his head into the bedroom and say hello. But he didn’t. He just grabbed the wallet from the hallway table, yelled “Bye, Babe,” and took right back off. She ran after him, hoping to catch his eye before he drove away, but it was too late. Air conditioning and radio blaring in his closed cab, drowning out sounds outside, he sped off around the cul-de-sac without seeing her — and what she had attempted at least once before with pills, she did for certain this time with her gun. Right there in the driveway, Angel Downs, a stunningly beautiful blonde with a likeness to actress Kristen Bell, kind and loving but depressed and troubled, committed suicide…
One, but only one, of these two scenarios describes approximately what happened the day Stephen Nodine’s life blew up. It’s a wonder the “true crime” shows on television didn’t make the case a national cause célèbre. Even before Angel Downs died, Nodine’s life could have been a madefor- TV special, or maybe a potboiler of a Lifetime Channel movie. So let us return later to Downs’ driveway death, return later to the strange threeway prosecution (and abuse) of Nodine, return later to his prison friendship with the media mogul Lord Conrad Black. Even before his mistress’s death, Nodine’s life had been remarkable.
Two years to the day after Downs died, Nodine sat in a dining room in Mobile, recounting his childhood, showing photographs and news clippings. Stephen was born to a commercial fishing family in New Jersey. His mother left a bad marriage and settled her five children at first in a one-bedroom house in Juno Beach, Florida, near her own mother. She worked as a waitress, but at times they couldn’t make ends meet without the welfare cheese, peanut butter, and food stamps. Yet she raised the children right, with copious love.
Juno Beach shared a zip code with North Palm Beach, and young Stephen Nodine shared the same Intracoastal Waterway as the Nicklaus clan, fished in the same waters, hunted doves, and played Little League. At age 12 he walked into Nicklaus’ business office, trying to sell fancy drink tumblers as a fundraiser through his church. He had never before met the great golfer. Nicklaus didn’t want the cups, but gave Nodine $5 anyway. As Nodine grew into high school, he ran in the same crowd as several of the Nicklaus children — a classic “right side of the tracks meets wrong side of the tracks,” quintessentially American set of friendships.
Labor Day weekend in 1976, 13-year-old Nodine and his older sister Patty, a rising local softball star were raising money along the roadside for muscular dystrophy in conjunction with the national Jerry Lewis telethon, and Barbara Nicklaus stopped by to offer encouragement. Patty was Stephen’s advisor, protector, best friend, “everything to me,” he said. But, at age 15, as she rode her bike home from her anti-MD efforts, a drunk driver plowed into her. Patty died. The newspaper featured loving tributes to her. The town named the local softball field in her honor. And younger brother Stephen was bereft.
After that, Stephen raised a little, but not a lot, of hell in high school. He worked summers selling lobster traps in the Bahamas with a friend from Florida whose family ran the business. He got caught in a storm, adrift on a lobster barge taking on water, and thought he would die.
At 18, he enlisted in the Army, where he impressed his superiors. He found himself assigned, with high security clearance and even some encryption duties, to a nuclear weapons site in Germany. Meanwhile, he was writing letters, out of the blue, to Al Haig, whom he had admired ever since Haig helped keep the White House afloat during Watergate. Haig answered, and they began a correspondence. Nodine was a young patriot, and a conservative. They hit it off well.
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