Monday, November 16, 2009

What About the Victim?

by Diane Fanning

Just after 3 AM, on February 6, 2007, United States Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman (right) rolled her luggage behind her as she walked in a light drizzle across the C section of the Blue Satellite parking area at Orlando International Airport. It was the last leg of her journey. All she wanted was to go home. As she reached row 33, the sense of relief she expected to feel at this point in her travels shattered when she realized that the strange woman from the shuttle was following her.

Colleen picked up her pace. The footsteps behind her slapped the wet pavement at an increased speed. She cut across to row 31, moving even faster toward her car. Now the sound of the pursuer's running footsteps echoed in her ears. Don't be paranoid, she thought as she tried to calm herself. The woman is probably just going to her own car and is in a hurry.

Despite the self-assurances, anxiety clutched Colleen's body in its tight grip. Relieved to reach her car, she jerked open the rear door and tossed her bag onto the back seat. She slammed it shut and opened the one in front. Sliding behind the steering wheel, Collen pulled the door shut and locked the doors in one swift move.

Two hands slapped on the window beside her. She flinched. Hearing a jerk on the door handle, she jabbed her key into the ignition.

The sight of the woman outside of her car did nothing to still Colleen's fears. Beneath the raised hood of a khaki trench coat, bushy black hair framed a pinched face. The dark glasses the woman wore in the dead of night obscured her eyes. She looked so much like an inept spy from a low-budget film that it would have been laughable if it wasn't so frightening. Colleen's fear for her personal safety ratcheted up yet another notch.
--excerpt from Out There: The In-depth story of the astronaut love-triangle case that shocked America

When her pursuer (right) was arrested, Colleen's fear was justified. In addition to her disguise, the stalker carried pepper spray, a two-pound drilling hammer, a black buck knife, and several feet of rubber tubing. Initially, police charged her with attempted murder and abduction.

The woman who chased Colleen through the airport parking lot wasn't a crazed nobody but Lisa Nowak, an astronaut who'd flown on a mission into space and was obsessed with Colleen's boyfriend, astronaut Billy Oefelein.

Nearly three years after Nowak -- wearing an astronaut diaper to keep stops to a minimum -- drove from Texas to Florida to stalk and terrorize her love rival, a court has finally decided her fate. Instead of the original felonies, Lisa Nowak plead guilty to third-degree burglary of a conveyance and misdemeanor battery.

Colleen Shipman suffered that night -- and continues to suffer -- from extreme trauma brought on by the attack. She pleaded to the judge: "Please don't be fooled. Lisa Nowak is a very good actress. She turned on her charm and spun a pitiful story. Almost three years later, I'm still reeling from her vicious attack. I know in my heart when Lisa Nowak attacked me, she was going to kill me. I believe I escaped a horrible death that night. The world as I knew it before Lisa Nowak attacked me is gone. I constantly look over my shoulder when I go outside so I can't be a victim to a surprise attack again."

She also told the judge that she suffers from migraines and high blood pressure and can no longer sleep without a light on. She's purchased a shotgun and obtained a concealed-weapons permit. "I have horrible anxiety --especially at night. I have terrifying nightmares of being cut into little pieces. I have barricaded my doors."

The judge seemed unmoved. Although he spoke harshly to Nowak -- "You are to stay totally away from her and have absolutely no contact of any sort. You brought this on yourself. I don't have any sympathy for you in that respect" -- he gave her a light sentence: one year probation, two days already served in jail, a mandated eight-hour anger management class, and fifty hours of community service.

On the one hand, Nowak (right) had no criminal record, led an exemplary life before and after the attempted attack, and lost her hard-earned position as a shuttle astronaut at NASA. She was certainly an unusual and unlikely perpetrator.

On the other hand, did that light sentence devalue Colleen by minimizing the trauma she experienced? The woman who stole her peace of mind and sense of security is free to continue her life without any incarceration. Yes, Lisa Nowak had been an outstanding role model most of her life. She lost the career of her dreams. And she still faces possible military charges by the Navy, her home base since she entered the United States Naval Academy in July 1981.

But Nowak isn't haunted by the image of an attacker coming out of the night to end her life. She is not living in fear of a repeat performance.

I can see both viewpoints on this outcome, but one thing still bothers me. If Colleen Shipman had stalked and launched the same attack on famous and lauded astronaut Lisa Nowak, would she have been sentenced so lightly? Shipman also led a model life and also had no prior criminal record. But she wasn't a celebrity. If, under those circumstances, Colleen would have gotten a more severe sentence -- which I think likely -- then justice has not been served.

What do you think?


Gaye said...

I think you are right, the sentence would be tougher for Colleen. Nowak's sentence was a slap in the face to all victims of violence.

But I wonder what Billy Oefelein's wife thinks of this.

Diane Fanning said...

I wonder,too, Gaye. Lisa's affair with Billy O began while he was still married. I wonder if his ex-wife wants the Navy to give a dishonorable discharge to Nowak.

Anonymous said...

I think that Nowak suffers from a mental illness, and should be treated as dangerous. I also believe that she should be IN a facility, and not allowed a part of society. Although I heard about this case, I never learned all of the details, however, the victim's symptoms are definitely those of a terrorized individual. She needs to be out of the Navy, and if she wasn't an astronaunt, I believe she would be.

Anonymous said...

Non-stranger crime gets no time.

Sorry for sounding a little like Johnny Cockran.

It always breaks down into one or the other.

Stranger vs non-stranger.

Anonymous said...

The code of military justice is not an exception to the authority of the civilian law, but an enhancement to accountability with the expectation of conformity to higher standards.

I support the decision to advise Lisa to avoid those offended, and would prefer to see her able to continue to be held to the high standards of a military officer with her present rank intact.

This case has been an arduous trauma for the accused, and I am very encouraged by the courts decision to not charge her with an attempt to detain.

It is good information that she deserves to be allowed to not only serve the debt, but to pay it in full.

Leah said...

We won't know if this was good enough unless and/or until she goes after someone else. I feel for Colleen though...she has every right to feel that she escaped death. We'll never know what would have happened and that is the good thing to come out of this.

Anonymous said...

Diane you wrote the book and you are still perpetrating the diaper rumor?

She had diapers in her car, she had kids of diaper age. The diapers would not have fit her.

In the end, Lisa did nothing but harrass and stalk, and we dont know what she would have done. I think the humiliation was enough on top of her punishment. You cannot punish someone for something you THINK they might have done.

cheryl said...

Well, Anonymous she wasn't punished by what we think she might have done.

To most of us with a brain though, it's clear that she intended to do more than "talk" with Shipman.

I believe Shipman and Oefelein are engaged now. He and his wife either divorced or were seperated in 2005.

Anonymous said...

Oefelein was playing them both. Maybe he was telling Nowak that Shipman was crazy. He plays a big part in this.

The fact that Shipman didnt dump his sorry ass when she learned that not only was he cheating on his wife with HER, but with Nowak too, and is still willing to be with him kind of speaks volumes about her as well.

Diane Fanning said...

Lisa told police in her initial interview that she was wearing a diaper when she drove. Her attorney called it a big lie that "Lisa drove from Houston to Orlando non-stop wearing a diaper." The untruth in the statement is actually that Lisa did stop in the panhandle of Texas.
Billy O was divorced by the time he started dating Colleen. That was not the case when he became involved with Lisa.
Billy O and Colleen are living in Alaska and engaged to be married. I don't think he was playing them both but I do think that he was not forthright with Lisa initially because he didn't want to have a confrontation. That was kind of weasly.

Janet Braunstein said...

I'm responsible, not Diane, for inserting "married" between "Colleen's" and "boyfriend." - ed.

Helen Ginger said...

I think you're right, Diane, in your assessment that Nowak got a lighter sentence than Shipman would have if the roles had been reversed.