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!
What do I think happened?
I think she decided she was going to kill herself. I think he happened to be there at the time so she took him out first. I think the friend arrived and saw that the Legend might die along with the player and tried to figure out how to clean it up without breaking any laws too badly.
The mystery to me is why a man who could have anything would choose an unstable 20-year-old. Then again, having just read the biography of Joe Namath, maybe it’s not a mystery. Maybe the real mystery isn’t what happened to Steve McNair, but why we do the stupid illogical things we do, like dating an almost-teenaged waitress when we have a spouse and kids. Why do we do things so incredibly illogical and display mental and ethical contortionism to rationalize it?
I’ve never cheated on my wife, but I’ve rationalized some incredibly stupid things in the name of getting ahead, being a man, getting my pound of flesh. What the hell we think when we do those things…that’s the real mystery.
I’ve been thinking about you, my Nashville buddy, this week. What a GREAT job you have done summarizing this horrible incident.
My family and I were at a friend’s house on the Fourth, fighting flies as we attempted to eat our barbecue while our children covered themselves in ketchup and barbecue sauce. My Blackberry buzzed in my pocket. I licked my fingers and read the text: Steve McNair dead in a double homicide. It was from my football buddy. I told the assembled group. One girl almost dropped her plate. She and her husband are Tennesseans, both Belmont grads. Stunned to say the least.
As the day wore on, the women watched the kids as us lazy men sat around, our belts unbuckled, pondering what may have happened. One of my other friends, a doctor and a heckuva smart guy, reckoned it might have been a murder suicide. She was jealous, told him to leave his wife, he said no. Bang. Bang. I think it was a pretty good guess.
Me, I don’t really know, but I do know this: As a resident of the state headed by one Mark Sanford, and as a fan of Steve McNair and the movie Fatal Attraction…it doesn’t pay to cheat. If you make the vows, abide by them. If you can’t abide, break it off before you go on the prowl.
There are too many examples of this type of thing.
RIP Steve. I still remember marveling over you on Saturday afternoons when you were at Alcorn State. John Roberts would break in, showing the stump-like kid at the small school throwing absolute bombs. The most unlikely Heisman candidate of the bunch. Sad.
Great post, JT, with some interesting information I hadn’t known before.
I think, as mystery writers we do tend to let our imaginations go wild when real life murders occur. Our reflex is to think of something new and unpredictable to entertain the reader. In the words of the old saying, we see hoofprints, we think of zebras, not horses.
But, unfortunately, real murders are often pretty simple. That doesn’t diminish the tragedy.
It may very well be that this was some sinister plot staged to look like a murder suicide. But that’s not the way to bet.
I know, I’m no fun at all.
The big thing for me, is the shooting style. Not a hystical 20-year old girl for sure. My first thoughts were and still are something involved with drugs or money somehow and the girl was the convenient loose cannon cover.
"hysterical" Oy, more coffee please.
What a fantastic assessment of one of the most tragic stories I’ve ever heard. The facts you present are astonishing. I really don’t know how to wrap my head around it. I just feel very sad about the whole thing – there were so many lives wrecked. To me, it seems to roll out like a movie, maybe a Robert Altman film, like "Short Cuts," where we step into the lives of a dozen characters and any one of them has reason to be the killer, but there’s really only one responsible. Or "American Beauty." Your personal insight adds much more depth to the glossy media picture that is being transmitted around the world.
I think Metro oughta put JT on the case…
I’m not surprised an all-around decent guy like McNair cheated on his wife. It’s a common component in the cult of star power. Whatever he did on Sunday morning, it probably never occurred to him a little sumpin’-sumpin’ on the side wasn’t simply his due. It probably had been all his life.
When I was in high school, I was a solid football player, enough of a standout on my team that college scouts interviewed me and my coaches. And I could get laid every five seconds if I wanted to (which, of course, at that age was all the time I needed. Ahem.) It was part of the cult of the successful athlete. I guarantee you it wasn’t my looks.
Then I suffered a severe knee injury which ended my football days for good. And when it came to getting any, it was like someone had shut off a faucet.
Friends of mine who continued to play, continued to get to play. And they took it as just part of what it means to be a successful athlete. It didn’t matter what their values were otherwise. Some were hardcore religious, some were hardcore libertines, but everyone got laid. Who they were as people were beside the point. It was what they were, cogs in the sports machine. They don’t even have to be the star. The girls were there for them. And for someone with the long and incredibly successful athletic career, it would be second nature.
Certainly plenty of successful athletes are true to their relationships. But not as many as we think.
What happened to McNair is sad. For the sake of his surviving family, friends, and supporters, I hope that his end isn’t the lens through which they judge his entire life. After all, sure, he was a cheating lady’s man, but he was a lot more than that. Ultimately, he was a complicated, worthy, flawed human being with much to admire. It sounds like the people of Nashville mostly intend to focus on the worthy.
I think I’ve finally cleared my head of the "whodunnit" mentality that’s been killing me. I truly admire those of you who can spin a great plot with clues and suspects and twists and all of that. I can’t. What gets my attention about this story is all of the people left over to deal with this mess and what they might be doing. You’ve got the sketchy ex of the supposed shooter, the disgruntled wife, the sketchy partners in his restaurant business etc. With as much money and fame as he had, everyone is going to be scrambling to get their share and that’s what interests me. Thanks for this great summary.
Psychologically, the fact that she put her furniture on Craigslist for $1 to me actually supports the shooting pattern. Punishment. She’d thought about this. Methodical. But maybe that’s just me.
I don’t feel so bad for his wife because she apparently tolerated the cheating for a long time and there is a cure for cheating husbands–make him an ex-husband via divorce. I feel terrible for his kids.
On a separate note: I really think Austin and Nashville are twins. We have all our celebs here too: Lance, Matt, Sandra, regular visitors like Tarantino, the whole cast of Friday Night Lights and tons of musicians — and it is a distinct violation of Southern manners to make a big deal about them. That’s probably why they stay.
There were two things that I didn’t put in this story that I probably should have.
When Sahel shot herself, she arranged herself on the couch so she would fall dramatically into Steve’s lap. Initially she did, but gravity took over and she slid down to the floor at his feet. I assume that’s how the gun got underneath her: it dropped to the floor and she fell on top of it.
Secondly, in an ironic twist worthy of all ironic twists, Steve shot a suicide prevention public service announcement last week. It hadn’t aired yet, but I can’t help but wonder if he came home from that talking about suicide prevention, and Sahel was already a little on edge and the idea got planted in her head – oh, here’s a way out. Sahel suspected Steve of cheating on her with yet another mistress, so knowing her world with him was getting ready to end seems like motivation enough to me. Leaving her in the car to stew over her DUI (when he was obviously inebriated himself) may have been the final indignity for her. It’s pretty obvious that she did plan this out.
Chris, I think rationalization should be an Olympic sport. Lord knows I’ve done a bit of it in my day. We all do. It’s human nature.
Chuck, that’s just it. We see this behavior time and again – and like Bill commented so openly, there is a double standard in place for sports and rock stars. Of course, the women who put up with them are just as culpable in my mind.
Dusty, you have a wee bit more insight than some of us, being a defense lawyer and all that. Occam’s Razor applies to murder nine times out of ten.
PK, it was a bit gansta for a girl. But these kids now (I can’t believe I just typed that) seem to have been influenced, and not in a good way, by the culture.
Stephen, I think I’m so fascinated by this because it does read like a book, with all the attendant dirty little secrets being spilled onto the page. It’s felt like a movie here the past week, that’s for sure.
My question is about the night she was charged with DUI. She is 20 years old and the legal drinking age is 21. So why was no one charged with contributing to underage drinking?
My thoughts and prayers are with his wife and children. No, he did not deserve to die for this, but like someone said earlier, if you want to play get divorced.
Bill, thank you for sharing that. It’s true. Why do you think so many strange little boys grow up to be musicians? Because they knew they’d get laid. I wonder how many great bands wouldn’t exist without the lure of groupie sex?
Bryon, that’s your strength as a writer, the aftermath. It’s a rare talent, my friend.
Jeff, absolutely. She may have been acting in the heat of the moment, but she was definitely going off the rails. She ever told a work friend she should end it all.
Austin and Nashville are twins, definitely. I feel a SXSW in my near future.
Sandy, I’m sure there was an underage drinking charge on the ticket as well – we actually have very strict drunk driving laws in Tennessee. She also told the cop she wasn’t drunk, she was high. It didn’t help her case.
Of course, if I was going to set up a murder-suicide, putting an ad in Craigslist for the woman’s furniture for a $1 would be the perfect touch: oh, look, she was despondent. Much easier to do than a suicide note, which would have to pass hand-writing analysis.
In reality, the whole thing is tragic. I feel the worst for the kids. There’s no way to hang onto a good image of their dad, now, no matter how well he played.
Unless there’s some law in Nashville that says that you have to spend 8-10 hours in the drunk tank after arrest, leaving me overnight in jail before you picked me up would be reason enough for me to shoot you.
The whole thing’s pretty sad. But I’m fed up with stories of adulterous men who we then go on to praise for something else they did in their life. Governor. Actor. Singer. Athlete. Feh. Enough of this cult of celebrity. Let’s celebrate somebody’s character for a change.
Toni– I don’t know about that. The older I get I’m starting to find out some pretty bad things about my dad but I still have all of the memories of us together, all of the time he spent with me, everything he did good as a dad and that won’t ever change. I just feel bad for the kids because they won’t have any more of those moments with their dad.
Why do you think so many strange little boys grow up to be musicians? Because they knew they’d get laid. I wonder how many great bands wouldn’t exist without the lure of groupie sex?
Of course, when you’re actually IN a band, unless it’s big enough to have a road crew, you discover that all the girls left with drunk guys while you were helping break down and load the drums in the van.
Bill, if you’re a jock and you can score with just about anyone you want…why do you pick a waitress whoselittle more than half your age and has stability problems? It wasn’t a one-night stand. NO ONE is that good in bed or looks that good in spandex.
If I were a jock and I could have my pick of the litter, I’d go for someone good like Elizabeth Mitchell or Vanessa Marcil or someone like that. (And she, knowing my awesomeness, would immediately go for me, as well. How could she not?)
Maybe, in the words of Yogi Berra, you have to go through it to understand what it’s like to go through it. Alas, I am not a jock or a musician. I’m a middle-aged unpublished writer and we *never* get laid.
Deep, deep sigh. I think I will cry now.
Good lord, I guess my depression eliminated my ability to create reasonable sentences.
Literacy: perhaps I will try it some day.
Bill, if you’re a jock and you can score with just about anyone you want…why do you pick a waitress whoselittle more than half your age and has stability problems?
Young and crazy=AMAZING ride.
It’s afterwards that the problems start.
Why is everyone looking at me like that?
I think J.D. about covered it, Chris.
For the record, looking back, the best thing that could have happened to my football career was that knee injury, even if I did have to work at getting laid (and mostly failing) for the rest of my life.
Wow, this is an incredible post. I’ve been offline for a couple days and hadn’t read the latest news. I love reading this from your perspective and pondering the questions you raise.
JD, is the ride worth the cost of admission?
Bryon, I am happy to be wrong in that case. And I am very glad you have those good memories to hold onto.
Thanks for this post. It cut through a lot that I’d been avoiding because, like Louise, I’m getting so sick and tired of the cult of celebrity.
McNair’s murder is tragic. I can see how it would rivet an entire town or state. But I’m finding all of this voyeuristic delight in celebrities’ misfortune to be repulsive.
I’m not saying this about you or this post — but about the nonstop Michael Jackson obsession, the deification of Farah Fawcett and on and on.
We’re people. Why is a famous person’s story so much more compelling than other stories out there?
Here in NM on June 28, five teens in Santa Fe were going to a party when a drunk driver veered into their lane and killed four of them. The horror of that renders me speechless in a way that no single celebrity’s death can.
Oh . . . I guess I’m feeling grumpy today.
Louise, I thought I was the only one who had similar feelings. Every death’s a tragedy, blah blah yada yada, ok. But, horrible person that I am, I have a real dearth of sympathy for this married guy that was porking a girl not a lot older than his oldest son. Hope that ride was worth it. I do feel horrible for his boys though.
(also, two sons both named Steve/Steven? jackass)
I was definitely trying not to deify here, that’s for sure. Pari, I know just what you mean. We had a cop get shot two weeks ago, in the line of duty. It’s a long, complicated story, but it certainly hasn’t left the MSA. Which is a shame, because he’s a hero. But I’ll be writing about him too. Never fear. But I do think that the opportunity has arisen to discuss morals and values here today, so I’ve done my job.
Now as far as MJ is concerned, I’ve managed to miss 90% of the media coverage and am not feeling a moment’s remorse.
Your post was excellent and did a good job of examining the morals — as did the discussion. That’s why I was grateful for it.
As to how McNair died, I hope the truth comes out — whatever that is — because it’ll give his family some peace. It’s the not knowing that can drive one mad.
Just got back in from a very long day – travelling 300+ miles anywhere in the UK on a Friday afternoon is just crazy, but around London is practically certifiable – so my brain is totally fried, but just wanted to say I’m toally in awe of your logical assessement and analysis of this case.
Kinda explains a LOT about the skills you utilise so well in your books ;-]
"JD, is the ride worth the cost of admission?"
Chris I am not a lawyer named JD, nor do I play one on television. But early in adulthood I tied up with a crazy woman just a bit older than I was. Wish I had recognized the insanity from several arms’ lengths. It was a matter most emphatically not worth the cost of the exit.
Taking the chef’s knife out of her hand got to be boring, too.
"Taking the chef’s knife out of her hand got to be boring, too."
So that’s where the knives went….