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Murder Allegation Most Foul

The remarkable life and imprisonment of Stephen Nodine.

By From the July - Aug 2012 issue

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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.

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.

When it turned out that the Lortab prescriptions were legitimate, the feds -- obviously wanting to keep the pressure on Nodine in order to "break his will" in the murder case being pursued by their friends in local law enforcement -- found another avenue. While spending three days in the psych ward, he had tested positive for marijuana and admitted to smoking a joint on the beach the day Downs died. So they hit him under the same law, for marijuana-plus-gun rather than Lortab-plus-gun.

So local, state, and federal prosecutors had Nodine in a three-way pincer: impeachment, potplus- gun, and capital murder. Establish an official record in one case of Nodine misbehaving under the influence, and they could introduce that evidence of Nodine-as-convict in the other cases to make him appear all the more sinister for the jurors in the strangely delayed murder trial.

Here's where things got Kafkaesque. Nodine's legal team saw the trap and, quite understandably, moved to delay the federal marijuana-gun case until after the murder trial. It was a most reasonable request. Not only was the federal charge an unfair application of a law clearly not meant to cover somebody who neither dealt drugs nor used a weapon in connection with the drug trade, but a trial on that issue clearly would poison the well for the murder jury. There was no reason, none at all, not to postpone. But District Court Judge Ginny Granade wouldn't budge. Murder trial be damned, she forced the federal gun case forward.

Nodine had no real choice: Rather than expend time, effort, and money to fight that charge while a murder rap hung over his head, he pleaded guilty. Amazingly, even though it was a first-ever conviction for him, without any evidence of actual gun use, Judge Granade handed down a stiff sentence: 15 months in the federal pokey. Fifteen months, for keeping a perfectly legal handgun under his bed.

Early this year, in a West Virginia case challenging a similar use of that federal statute for a non-violeny,casual narcotics user, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the conviction and ordered a retrial because, absent other compelling evidence, the use of the law in that way would violate the Second Amendment.

The Fourth Circuit is correct. Gun ownership unconnected to illegal use is nothing more than possession of a perfectly legal instrument of self-protection. The National Rifle Association should be, well, up in arms against this trampling of the right to bear.

Thus, completely apart from the murder case (and yes, dear reader, we will return to that narrative), Stephen Nodine found himself in a pen, assigned to Federal Corrections Institute Miami, in his old stomping grounds of South Florida. And, as was his wont, Nodine again, yes again, found himself befriended by the rich and famous. Even in a federal prison, Stephen Nodine was far removed from the welfare cheese of his early youth.

Lord Conrad Black, media mogul and respected historian, was in the same federal prison for alleged financial shenanigans -- a conviction many observers (especially conservatives) think was a total sham, an example of overzealous prosecutors criminalizing the mere give-and-take of the free market.

Black had written an excellent biography of Richard Nixon, so he knew Nixon's chief of staff, Alexander Haig, very well indeed. He and Nodine could trade Haig stories. And he and Nodine could trade stories, both well founded, of prosecutorial abuse. So it was that Conrad Black, Baron of Crossharbour, wrote a March 2012 piece for the Huffington Post, highlighting such abuses and using the Nodine gun case as a prime example.

"In the facility where we were, there was no shortage of people who did absolutely nothing to deserve to get there, but Stephen really stood out," Black told me in a May 21 phone interview. "There are many honest, conscientious prosecutors -- but also, many of them who have no real discipline on them can get away with what they want. People wielding great power with no curb on them are going to do a lot of damage. [I did everything I could to investigate Nodine's case, and] there were some particularly unappetizing aspects of how they treated him. It reeked."

IN LATE APRIL OF THIS YEAR, Stephen Nodine was released from federal prison. The murder charge, however, still hangs over his head, with a trial expected September 10. Here's why:

Seven months after Angel Downs died, Nodine was tried for murder. All of southern Alabama seemed to follow every development, every courtroom Tweet, each tiny new piece of evidence. It was coastal Alabama's version of the O.J. Simpson trial -- and it even had a leather glove moment. Prosecutor Judy Newcomb, in one of her several bizarre theories about the case, spent large amounts of time positing that Nodine had dragged Downs' body a few feet after the shooting, "staging" the scene before jumping in his truck and speeding away. As evidence of such staging, she kept insisting that Downs' long blond hair, curiously fanned out behind her head like a halo, could not have fallen that way as a result of the shooting itself.

At one point, Newcomb had pillows put on the courtroom floor to cushion herself, and then personally re-enacted the way Downs probably fell.

Oops! When Newcomb fell back, trying to show that hair doesn't normally splay that way, her own hair ended up fanned out behind her in, yes, a halo effect, almost exactly as Downs was found. The only thing missing was a defense attorney like Johnnie Cochran to holler that if the hair wasn't fixed, you can't convict.

Even so, the jury deadlocked. Nine of 12 jurors thought Nodine was guilty. His truck, after all, had been seen speeding away from the scene. No conviction, but no acquittal. Prosecutors insist that, with Nodine's federal sentence now completed, they will try him again.

But, without replaying a blow-by-blow of the earlier trial and of the cell phone records and video of Nodine's subsequent stops at a convenience store and a Mexican restaurant, and without recounting my own interviews, site visits, or stopwatch use to create a timeline, here are all the things that must have happened if Nodine actually shot Downs:

First, in a tiny time window of between two minutes (best-case scenario from Nodine's standpoint) and three minutes and 30 seconds (worst case), Nodine would have had to a) enter the house; b) be confronted by Downs, with her gun in hand; c) somehow get the gun from Downs' possession; d) end up in Downs' short front driveway, in clear light (it was about 12 minutes after sunset, but still fairly bright) and in clear sight of front windows of at least six and as many as a dozen other homes; e) not just fire a gun in a struggle, but shoot her execution-style, muzzle pressed hard against her temple, as if she were immobilized or entirely passive; f) realize he just shot his girlfriend without having planned to do so (remember, it was she who had the gun out), make split-second decisions to drop the gun near her right hand as if it were suicide (and place it perfectly for that purpose), but without wiping blood from the gun barrel; and g) bound over to his truck, jump in, and speed off.

He would have needed the presence of mind to make it look like suicide, perfect confidence in his luck that nobody saw the shooting in a fairly wide-open space, and the even greater luck that her blood would show up on her gun and the crook of her hand but that none of his fingerprints would be found on the gun (which was not tested for prints in a timely manner).

After all of this occurred in about 150 seconds, he then would have had to drive above the speed limit to a convenience store (leaving him no time at all to stop the truck for any self-examination or clean off any blood that might have ended up on him); stride into the store wearing the exact same clothes he had worn all day at the beach (as attested to by photos and by testimony of those present) and without the slightest apparent concern that blood or brain-matter or other awful indicia might be visible on him; buy a Diet Mountain Dew and, with breath still smelling of a boozy beach excursion, politely wish the clerk a good day.

Nodine later told police that he drove to the Timber Creek Golf Club to hit balls in preparation for a pro-am the next day, only to find the sometimeslighted range unlit; drove across from the golf community to a Ruby Tuesday's where he changed in the back of the parking lot into fresher clothes, while throwing his beach attire into the back seat of his cab; approached the door only to decide it looked too crowded; and returned to his truck and drove two minutes to a Mexican restaurant, where video cameras recorded him sauntering in as if without a care in the world and taking a bar seat to drink coffee and watch a Yankees-Red Sox game. The timeline shows he actually did appear at the restaurant almost precisely when one would expect if he had taken that exact route with those exact stops.

In just a few minutes, the phone calls began: A newsman had heard on the radio that law enforcement was looking for him, but didn't know why. Nodine professed bafflement. He called one lawyer, who knew nothing and told him to call another lawyer. He tracked down that lawyer, and…suddenly, dramatically, let out a loud, anguished exclamation.

Eventually the lawyer drove to meet Nodine at the restaurant, from which they went together to a nearby satellite sheriff's facility. Nodine voluntarily spent hours answering officers' questions without exception, with eyes red and occasional sobs, but (with a few small glitches) remarkable consistency about every occurrence that day and evening. Asked if he minded having his truck impounded, he said no problem and volunteered the keys.

In coming weeks, exhaustive forensic tests would be run on the truck, on everything in it, including on the beach clothes he left in a dry heap in the back seat. Not the merest trace of Downs' blood was found. No gunpowder residue from her gun either. Streaks of material widely reported (based on early suggestions from prosecutors) to look "bloodlike" proved to be entirely innocent.

So-o-o… she had blood on her gun and on her right hand, and brain matter was all over the scene, but none of it showed up on Nodine, none on his clothes, none on his own hands that would have wiped off anywhere in or on the truck, not even any droplets on the door handle or the steering wheel. Nodine made no attempt to hide anything, gave no evidence of distress (on video cameras in two different places) until exactly the moment when Lawyer Number Two told him by phone that Downs was dead-and he made no attempt to cite the Fifth Amendment or deny law enforcement access to his person or possessions.

Back at Downs' condo, investigators found no signs of struggle. Neighbors who clearly heard the gunshot report hearing no fighting or argument beforehand. Three of four forensic pathologists and psychologists concluded that Downs committed suicide, and the other one's supposition otherwise relied in"defensive wounds" on her hands that, it was later discovered, actually were visible on photos taken that day at the beach, before the two returned to her condo.

Four years earlier, Angel Downs had called her sister, sounding distressed, immediately before attempting suicide via pill overdose. She barely survived. On May 9, 2010, Downs called her sister, sounding distressed, just before she died. Ambien, taken recently, was coursing through her veins. As has been well established medically, Ambien and alcohol can be a dangerous combination. Both are depressants, as is Xanax, which was also found at therapeutic levels in her blood. On the other hand, Adderall, also in her system, is an amphetamine, an upper. She had no prescription for it, nor should she have, as she had a heart condition since birth. But in conjunction with the three downers, the mind- and sudden-mood-altering potential is huge.

Angel Downs, by all accounts a woman of generous heart and abundant friendship, was suffering what she called "economic hardship" of declining income in real estate sales. Downs had just written a letter that week demanding that Nodine leave his wife for her and saying that their illicit relationship made her look bad. And she had way too many chemicals affecting her brain.

Yet Stephen Nodine was charged with her murder.

Is it technically conceivable he could have done it, and been simultaneously smart enough, poised enough, and incredibly lucky enough to have left behind not a shred of physical evidence while otherwise acting like an innocent man? Yes, maybe, just barely -- if you squint at the evidence in just the right way and then willingly suspend every smidgen of disbelief.

And was Stephen Nodine's personal life a mess -- was he, in common parlance, a skank? Well, to pull no punches, yes. Skankiness in major measure, without a shadow of a doubt.

But skankiness is no crime. Not all violent deaths are murder. So Stephen Nodine sits in a friend's dining room, showing photos of his remarkable life, a GPS monitor attached to his ankle -- while vowing that he'll clear his name just as surely as he once cleared a scenic, residential road from the stench of a flattened possum.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.