ORLANDO — A former astronaut who drove 1,000 miles from Houston to Orlando to mount a bizarre attack on a romantic rival pleaded guilty Tuesday to reduced charges and was sentenced to a year on probation.
Lisa Nowak, a Navy captain, pleaded guilty to third-degree felony burglary and misdemeanor battery. She originally had been charged with two felonies — attempted kidnapping and burglary — along with misdemeanor battery. She could have gotten life in prison under the more serious felony charges.
Nowak confronted her romantic rival, Colleen Shipman, in the parking lot of Orlando International Airport in February 2007 after driving from Houston. Shipman had begun dating Nowak's love interest, former space shuttle pilot Bill Oefelein.
Wearing a wig and trench coat, Nowak followed Shipman to the parking lot and tried to get into her car, then attacked her with pepper spray. Shipman was able to drive away.
Police arrested Nowak a short time later in the parking lot near a trash can where she was seen getting rid of a bag. In Nowak's bag police found a steel mallet, a knife, a BB pistol, rubber tubing and several large garbage bags.
"Almost three years later, I'm still reeling from her vicious attack," Shipman told Circuit Judge Marc L. Lubet after Nowak's plea, holding back tears. "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," said Shipman, a former Air Force captain.
Shipman described how she still fears for her life, suffers nightmares, migraines, high blood pressure and other medical problems, has bought a shotgun and has a concealed weapons permit. She said her Air Force career was ruined by medical problems stemming from the attack. She now lives in Alaska with Oefelein.
"The world I knew before Lisa Nowak is unrecognizable," Shipman said. "Every stranger I see is a potential attacker."
After being told by the judge to face Shipman, Nowak apologized for the pain she brought to Shipman's life.
"I hope very much that we can all move forward from this with privacy and peace," Nowak said.
Lubet ordered her to have no contact with Shipman or Oefelein and to write Shipman a letter of apology. The sentence included two days in jail, but the judge waived it for time already served. He said the plea could adversely affect her career and retirement benefits with the Navy.
"You brought this on yourself. I don't have any sympathy for you in that respect," Lubet told Nowak.
The plea came after an appeals court ruled last year that diapers, latex gloves and other items found in Nowak's car could be used as evidence in a trial that had been scheduled for next month, but her six-hour police interview after her arrest could not. The court said investigators took advantage of the former astronaut, who had not slept for more than 24 hours, coercing her into giving information.
Prosecutor Pam Davis had asked for jail time and at least five years of probation, dismissing claims from Nowak's defense attorney that Nowak had been "overcharged" by police detectives because of her high profile.
"This has nothing to do with Ms. Nowak being an astronaut. This is about what she did," Davis said.
Nowak, 46, is a married mother of three. She flew on the space shuttle in 2006, but was dismissed from the astronaut corps after her arrest and has since been on active duty at a Navy base in Corpus Christi, Texas. Oefelein, 44, also was forced out of NASA.