by JT Ellison
You may be aware of the shot heard round the world that emanated from my backyard this week. Sports legend Steve McNair was shot and killed on the 4th of July. Murdered, in his own home, in his own living room, on his own couch, a stone’s throw away from the house that he built, known officially as LP Field, but still referred to by most Nashvillians as The Coliseum. The place where giants and gladiators stride on any given Sunday for our entertainment.
As far as stories go, it’s sad. Terrible even.
But this is Nashville. Which means there’s more to the story than meets the eye.
Steve McNair was a good guy. As an athlete, he was a glorious God. In a quick glance at his football career en totale, from little Alcorn State in Mississippi to the Houston Oilers to the Tennessee Titans, he is referred to in reverential tones, a tough and humane player who never complained, never shirked his duty, always set the example on the field. He will be remembered well, I think. I’d say there’s better than an 80% chance he will be posthumously inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. And Steve deserves to be in Canton, there’s no doubt about that.
But Steve didn’t make the news this week because of his skills and dedication to the game. Steve made the news this week because he was cheating on his wife with a 20-year-old waitress from Dave & Buster’s, an obviously unstable little girl who racked up a DUI, a semi-automatic purchase and a murder, all in three days.
Steve is in the news because he cheated on his wife with a girl who shot him dead in his own living room, then killed herself.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? It’s a classic locked-room murder scenario – inside the locked house with no signs of forced entry are two dead bodies, one riddled with bullet holes, some close contact shots, and a second, smaller body, with a contact wound to the right temple, laying on the murder weapon. The two persons involved were in a rather public relationship despite the fact that one of them was married. The two persons involved were not known to have any domestic assaults on record, were law-abiding citizens, and seemed to be in love.
So what really happened in the early morning hours on the 4th of July???
That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out.
On the surface, this does look like a straightforward murder/suicide. But this is Nashville, and nothing is ever what it seems. Here’s what we know for sure.
- In the wee hours of Thursday morning, July 2, Steve’s mistress, Sahel Kazemi, was pulled over for a DUI. Steve and another unidentified person were in the car with her, but were allowed to leave in a cab. Steve returned and bailed her out in the morning.
- Sometime later that day, Sahel legally purchased a semi-automatic weapon in a private sale.
- On Thursday July 2, Sahel also put her furniture up for sale on Craigslist: “NICE FURNITURE. TV, COUCH, COFFE TABLE AND MORE – $1 (hermitage).”
- On Friday night, July 3rd, Steve was on his usual rounds, out on the town for the night. A woman approached him in a lakefront bar and accused him of slipping her a roofie last year. She threatened him, saying her boyfriend was going to kill him.
- Friends saw Steve and Sahel talking in the Escalade he’d bought her for her birthday. They didn’t seem to be fighting.
- Steve was sent home by himself in a private car around 1:00-2:00 a.m. Sahel was waiting for him when he arrived.
- Sometime on the morning of July 4th, Steve’s friend came to the house they shared (this seems to have been a bit of a “bachelor pad” for the boys), unlocked the door, went inside and saw the bodies. Instead of calling the police, he called a third friend. More than 45 minutes elapsed between his arrival and the eventual 911 call.
- Steve was shot four times, twice in the chest and once on each side of the head. The first three shots were from a distance of at least three feet, the last temple shot was at close range.
- Sahel was shot once, a contact shot to the right temple.
- The gun, the same gun Sahel purchased on Thursday evening, was found beneath her body.
- Her hands tested positive for gunshot residue, Steve’s hands had no trace.
Steve was a big, big supporter of the restaurant and bar industry in Nashville. And it wasn’t exactly a state secret that he played around on his wife. It was something that I couldn’t ever reconcile about him – this was an unbelievably accomplished athlete who had the respect of every single person who’d ever met him – but boy, did he like the ladies. Drove me nuts. Be the same man Saturday night as you are Sunday morning, and you get a lot more respect in my book.
Steve was dear friends with the owner of a few establishments that we frequent, and it was in one of these establishments where we met Steve for the first time. This was several years ago, when he was still Air McNair, the quarterback for the Titans.
We were sitting at the bar, and Steve came in with his driver. He sat next to us. We chatted a bit. He was sweet. I was struck by two things: one, he had a gigantic watch with diamonds the size of tennis balls on the bezel, and two, he was unfailingly polite and good-natured to all of the fans and well-wishers (and even the lone detractor) who came by to shake his hand and wish him luck on Sunday. Despite our proximity for the evening, I didn’t want to ask for an autograph. That’s not how we do it here in Nashville.
Celebrity in Nashville is a business. You can’t shake a stick in this town without running into someone hugely famous. Whether it’s Starbucks or PF Chang’s or Venetian Nails or Magic Mushroom or Joe’s Crab Shack or Whole Foods or Sunset Grill, you’ll see someone. But no one really does anything about it.
You see, Southerners are unfailingly polite. They know how to mind their own business, (which they do exceedingly well on the surface, but fail miserably in reality – how else would we get the good gossip otherwise?) But it wouldn’t be right to accost a famous person while they’re minding their own business. That’s how the likes of Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban and the legions of other celebrities that now call Nashville home can go out to Starbucks on a Sunday morning unannounced and be left alone – we’re too polite to stare and point. Instead, you’re likely to get a nod and a smile, and that’s it. Lovely for them, really.
But for the athletes, well, if you’re sipping rum and coke in a little suburban bar, you’re probably going to have a few folks stop by to wish you well.
Strangely enough, the night Steve died, he was doing just that.
Being a mystery writer in Nashville has its ups and downs. We have plenty of crime, more than enough to make my novels realistic. I’ve had two pretty farfetched scenarios that I’ve made up in my twisted little head make the news in real life. Three, now. The opening of my debut novel is, ironically, set on the 4th of July, with my protagonist, Taylor Jackson, sitting at her desk while the fireworks are shot off, wondering what crime scene she’s going to be called to.
Any minute now, she’d be answering the phone, getting the call. Chance told her somewhere in her city, a shooter was escaping into the night. Fireworks were perfect cover for gunfire.
On this 4th of July, Randy and I had a most surreal night. We were downtown to have dinner and watch the fireworks. There was a storm brewing; one of Nashville’s nasty tornado-inducing thunderstorms was on the way. The city decided to move up the fireworks to 8:10 p.m. so people could take cover as the storms rolled through. Of course, you can’t time out Mother Nature, so the rain started in earnest after the second or third firework. We were standing on 3rd Avenue, in a restaurant parking lot, under an umbrella, with the fireworks blasting into the sky to our left backlit by lightning, and the whirling lights of police cruisers attending the McNair crime scene to our right, both in perfect view of one another. I couldn’t tell if we were all celebrating America’s independence, mourning Steve’s death, or what.
They’d removed the bodies by this point, and the rumor mill was churning in full gear. The first news broke that he’d been found in an alley and it was a murder/suicide, both those reports were quickly backed away from. It took ages for the media to report that the bodies were inside the house and that Steve did own the property. As a matter of fact, after the very first presser our Public Information Officer Don Aaron did, there was nearly a four-hour lag until the media got anything new. And let me tell you, four hours of not talking to the media in this town is probably a new record.
Some of the early gossip had Steve’s wife, Mechelle McNair, as the shooter, having found her husband in flagrante delicto with a younger woman. There was also talk of his new business venture, a restaurant he’d opened earlier in the week, and some of the folks he may have gotten involved with there being responsible.
The fascinating thing is, this investigation is playing out in the news just like the damn books I write, step by step, unraveling the pieces day by day. The police are doing a stellar job of not jumping to conclusions. They are being methodical. They are using state of the art forensics, managing the media, keeping everyone at arms length and staying away from classifying this as what it seems too quickly. They are doing one hell of an investigation, and I applaud them. Because there are plenty of what ifs and pieces that aren’t adding up just right.
Some of the what ifs:
- What about the woman who threatened Steve at the bar? Where is she and where is her boyfriend?
- Why is Sahel’s ex-boyfriend Keith Norfleet so convinced she was leaving Steve to reunite with him?
- Why don’t the police consider him a suspect, especially in light of this?
- Why did Sahel tell her sister Steve was getting a divorce that would be final in two weeks? (There are no divorce filings on record.)
- Why did she up and put her furniture for sale?
- Was the mistress pregnant? Why won’t the police say yes or no definitively?
- Why did she suddenly buy a gun of her own? (Steve was arrested for a DUI years ago and had a firearm in his possession, we know he had guns.)
- Was Steve having yet another affair, one which Sahel found out about?
- Why did Steve leave Sahel in the back of a police car when she was asking for him to come talk to her? (Here’s video of the arrest.)
- Why didn’t Steve’s friend call the police immediately upon finding the body? And why did he move the shell casings at the scene?
- Why would a girl who was head over heels in love with a very, very rich man suddenly snap and decide to kill him?
- How many people had keys to the condo where the bodies were found?
- What really happened between 2 a.m. and 10 a.m.?
These are just a few of the unanswered questions floating around town right now. I have to think like the mystery writer I am with this – it’s not easy to stage a suicide well, but it has been done. The methodical shots to Steve’s body seem off to me: shoot him in the head, then step around the body and shoot him twice in the chest, then administer the coup de grace to the opposite temple up close? Does that sound like the grouping of a 20 year old in love?
As you can imagine, the murder of one of our own, of possibly the biggest sports star we have, has shaken a lot of people. We’re in the spotlight, and so far, I think Metro has shown themselves to be competent and capable. As of Wednesday afternoon, this was ruled an official murder/suicide. The case is closed pending final toxicology reports.
My prayers go to Mechelle and the McNair kids. I hope that someday, they’ll be able to separate the man they thought Steve was from the man he showed himself to be in the end.
So what do you think happened? Is this a classic locked-room murder/suicide, or is there something more sinister afoot? I mean really, we are crime fiction lovers…
Wine of the Week: 2006 Bivio Italia Tuscan Red Bivio means “fork in the road” in Italian, so I couldn’t resist using it here today. Maybe if Steve had taken a different road, he’d still be with us. Regardless, the wine is luscious!