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The remarkable life and imprisonment of Stephen Nodine.
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Out of the Army, back in south Florida, Nodine found work in government relations and PR. Soon, though, Haig was running for president. Haig’s best friend from his West Point days, Jack Cassidy, lived in the Palm Beach area. Nodine finally met the general in person at a fundraiser Cassidy hosted. Cassidy sent Nodine and his son John Cassidy to New Hampshire to work as Haig’s advance men. Nodine pulled several political coups, mightily impressing the general. The whole Haig family stayed close to Nodine for the next quarter century.
Back in PR after the campaign fizzled, Nodine worked as publicist for Pete Rose’s new radio show. He was head of the local Jaycees. He was the point man for a charity for children with AIDS. Everything he did, everywhere he went, he had a knack for meeting and befriending famous people.
Tragedy struck in 1991: another car accident, another death. This time Nodine himself was the driver. An elderly lady stepped into the road from behind a street post in the pouring rain, directly in Nodine’s path. Witnesses confirmed he was faultless. He wasn’t speeding, wasn’t drinking, wasn’t reckless. But that and the deaths of some of his favorite AIDS children were too much. He needed a new start, a change of scenery. Taking a government-relations job with duties stretching from Atlanta to New Orleans, he moved from Florida to settle in Mobile, a convenient midpoint for his various duties. He also did political consulting and became a regular on local talk radio.
At first he seemed merely a conservative gadfly. But he was irrepressible. He won handily an open City Council seat. He helped Bob Riley get elected governor. He drove the mayor of Mobile crazy by demanding savings and transparency. He would do a sort of conservative Ted Kennedy routine, saying things that bordered on demagoguery in public so as to move the ball his way, but then finding reasonable middle ground behind the scenes. He knew the art of the deal.
He called reporters, lots of different reporters, at all hours, for no good reason, launching into conversations with a high-pitched cackle.
“Wake your sorry bones up!” He’d shriek into the phone on an early Saturday morning. “I’m drinking a piña colada on the beach looking at the Atlantic, on vacation, enjoying life, so why are you still sleeping?”
With other reporters, he’d go out carousing. He drank plenty, but always woke early and went for long runs. Got elected to the County Commission — more pay, more power than the City Council — and worked his tail off. When city or county workers weren’t responsive, he would be. He made sure new sidewalks were built, playgrounds spruced up and expanded, roads repaired — and wasteful contracts eliminated.
He showed up in person to shovel a stinky, fourday- dead possum carcass into the back of his pickup to haul away. Drove through a major downpour to clear fallen branches from culverts flooding an elderly man’s property. Hurt his back in the process. Wore out his hip with all his running. Started taking pain pills, lots of them.
He had a knack for headlines. An indefatigable spirit for building regional coalitions for big projects. An insistence on looking like the hero in disaster responses — backed, at least in some accounts, by work that actually merited the attention.
Nodine was everywhere. New Orleans, Gulf Shores, Pensacola. Washington, D.C., pulling any string available to secure an Air Force tanker project. Driving some officials batty and earning praise from others for loud intervention in the BP oil spill response. He burned the candle at both ends and the middle. He was prescribed as many as six Lortab pain pills a day, and apparently took every one. Word was he was increasingly stressed out, maybe strung out. And increasingly reckless with his personal life, too. He squired Angel Downs around for six full years, much of the time in public, without explaining the relationship or mentioning his wife. And, to help with his hip and back pain, he added to the Lortabs and beers occasional hits of marijuana.
Around Christmastime 2008, word was out that U. S. Rep. Jo Bonner might run for governor in 2010. Rumors were, Nodine coveted Bonner’s House seat. A clued-in politico, encountered at random on a downtown street corner, said Nodine might well win. “You know, I actually think he’d make a damn good congressman…” he laughed, “assuming he doesn’t end up divorced or in jail, or both.”
THE WHEELS SPUN OFF around Christmas of 2009. Bonner chose to stay put in Congress. Boeing finagled the air tanker away from the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. Plant in Mobile. And county workers said they found marijuana in Nodine’s county vehicle. To this day he says he was framed, but impeachment proceedings began apace. Haig died in February. And Nodine and Downs had a huge public spat on the beach in late April. Expletives flew. Voices were raised. Nodine and a random witness then started jawing at each other, with threats of bodily harm. It was an ugly scene.
But the next week, Nodine and Downs patched things up. He wrote her a seven-page letter. She drafted a long, loving letter of her own. But in it, she demanded that he divorce his wife. She wanted to help raise Christopher (who thought of her apparently as “Daddy’s beach friend”), whom she adored. On Thursday, three days before Mother’s Day, the two were seen walking hand in hand in downtown Mobile, and hanging out at his friend’s restaurant, happily. On Friday, Nodine and Christopher stayed at Angel’s Gulf Shores condo. On Sunday morning, she and Nodine joined a group of friends for what had become an annual Mother’s Day outing in Pensacola Beach. Photographs show them holding hands, laughing. Friends testified they seemed happy. They left together. Cell and phone records show they returned to her condo, that he left shortly thereafter — and that 10 minutes later, he turned around and called her as he returned. He says it was for his wallet. Nobody knows for sure.
One reason for the confusion is that the entire effort to prove Nodine guilty was a sickening travesty. This article keeps interrupting the narrative of that evening, because so did the prosecutors. Obviously, Nodine had made enemies in the wrong places. After Downs was found dead as Nodine’s truck was seen leaving the scene, the local news for weeks was Nothing but Nodine. Nodine Suspected. Nodine Lawyer-Friends Remove Handguns from His Home. Nodine Checks Self into Psych Ward for Grief Assistance. Suspected Blood Found on Nodine’s Truck. Impeachment Charges Finally Filed in Nodine Weed-in-Truck Case. Nodine Suspected of Illegal Overuse of Lortab Painkillers. Nodine Arrested for Murder.
Bizarrely, Nodine was charged not by state officials but by the feds under an obscure application of a statute intended to stop gun violence by major drug dealers. Federal law, rather broadly, makes it a crime even to possess a gun, otherwise entirely legal, if one is addicted to or illegally using a controlled substance. First the word was the law — 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3) — applied to Nodine because he seemed to have illegally gamed the system to accumulate vast stores of Lortab; and because he had a handgun under his bed, well, that put him in violation.
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