JUNE 6, 2010 4:47PM

Feds enter Gulf Coast murder saga

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The rains are here. Each day is an oven until afternoon showers bring shade and steam. The sauna then unfolds and lasts through the night.

The oil has come too. Rusty toned goo is drifting toward the marshes and washing onto the sugar-white sands to the south. The protracted tragedy rolls on.

Former Mobile County Commissioner Stephen Nodine is away from all of it. He normally would have been in the thick of the media coverage of the ecological disaster – likely even issuing ostentatious sound bites as per his reputation – but he was jailed on May 24 for the murder of mistress Angel Downs.

The day after arrest, Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack changed the terms of Nodine’s $500,000 bond, requiring Nodine to post at least $100,000 of the sum. If freed, the commissioner would be subject to electronic monitoring after surrendering his passport.

Meanwhile across the Bay, defense attorneys Dennis Knizley and John Williams continued with depositions from the prosecution’s witness list in the Mobile County impeachment proceedings against Nodine.

Before entering for an hour-long deposition, Mobile County Commissioner Mike Dean talked to press.

“The right thing is for him (Nodine) to do what's best for his constituents,” Dean said. “He needs to step down.” 

Evidence of a damning past emerged. In 1987, a former Nodine girlfriend filed a police report alleging he was harassing her after their relationship soured. She told authorities she returned home at 1:30 a.m. and Nodine had cut a screen to break in and await her. She said he struck her during the confrontation. Neighbors heard screams and called the police. 

Nodine’s initial appearance before the Baldwin County bench was Wednesday, May 26. He appeared in Judge Charles Partin’s court via video monitor, disappointing a herd of photographers. He flashed onto the screen in traditional black-and-white stripes, joined by one other inmate in orange.

The amount of Nodine’s bond was already a hot topic.

“I consider him a flight risk,” DA Judy Newcomb said. “He was recently divorced and it appeared to me he was liquidating his assets and so I think $500,000 dollars is an appropriate amount.”

“That’s ridiculous to think that suggests some flight risk,” Knizley said. “He’s got a 13-year-old son here and he loves him deeply and he’s not going anywhere.”

Newcomb told media Angel Downs’ ex-husband Chris Downs was in the courtroom. She went back inside and quickly debriefed him before introducing Downs to the press.

Downs somberly described the friendship with his ex-wife as forged in a health ordeal during their 12-year marriage.

“We were divorced for five years,” Downs said. “The last couple of years were very good, we were friends. We joked about our dating experiences or lack thereof.”

“She wouldn’t talk very much about him (Nodine) in front of me because she knew it would make me mad,” Downs said, his eyes welling. “We were not aware of some of the abuse that was going on and had I known it, I would have done everything in my power to stop it legally.”

“I’m in sales, a pretty good judge of character,” Downs said. “I thought he (Nodine) was a player, a manipulator. I thought that he would look for someone’s volatility, uh, vulnerable and I think at that period in her life Angel was very vulnerable.”


WKRG.com News

After the hearing, Mobile restaurateur Tony Moore was seen at the jail with a petite blonde in tow. A longtime Nodine friend, Moore told a local television station he sheltered Nodine in the weeks before surrender. He was unable to visit the prisoner on that afternoon as Nodine was still in conference with his attorney.

As Moore left the jail, he carried a pair of prescription pill bottles in his left hand.

“Those yours?” he was asked.

“No,” he murmured as he slipped them into a pocket. He didn’t want to make any statements on the record but was cordial.

Moore described his recent accident – a face-first dive onto concrete with his hands in his pockets – that resulted in a string of reconstructive surgeries.

Nodine could often be found in Moore’s successful downtown eatery, a venture following Tony’s release from a federal sentence on bookmaking by he and his father. Moore’s dad, Naif “Junior” Moore, claimed to have authored a novel on his life as a professional gambler.

A question lingered. The prisoners who filed past media awaiting the grand jury wore orange jumpsuits. Nodine’s benchmate on the video screen wore orange. Why the stripes?

I asked a source if the various uniforms designated classification.

“Yeah,” they said.

“What are the classifications?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” they answered. “There’s six or seven of them. I can’t ever keep them straight.” They paused. “But I make sure I keep up with those striped ones.”

“Why?” I asked, taking the bait.

“You do the math.”

Silence.

“Violent maximum,” came the words, low and quick.

Angel Downs’ hairdresser was not only deposed for the impeachment but talked to media. She said Downs didn’t know Nodine was married initially and Downs broke off the relationship several times.

“I was concerned about his behavior and fearful for her safety,” Mandy Jordon said when talking of Nodine’s stalking. “I knew a little bit of what she was dealing with and the struggles that she was having.”

 “She would never have taken her own life,” Jordon said. “She loved life. She was a very happy, outgoing person and I do not believe, at all, that she took her own life.”

Jon Gray liked publicity – it was his business after all – but it had to be completely under his control.

His public relations firm, Strategy Inc., had been involved in state and local politics for years, aiding Republicans with Gray’s proliferate advice. He was self-styled the “Karl Rove of Mobile”

By 2004, Steve Nodine was a Gray client. Both men seemed to realize the value of sources to media personnel. They knew how to play the information game.

The strategies from the Gray camp were often predictable and seemed replete with subtle fear and coded language. In a place where the word “Democrat” is so culturally synonymous with African-Americans that it is sometimes used as a euphemism for “black” among whites, it was easy to sense exploitation.

In 2005, Gray was caught letting himself into the city/county municipal complex at night. He acquired a key card allowing access to restricted areas and was moving through the darkened offices and courtrooms. No charges were brought against him, though, once a judge dismissed concerns. 

Later that year, he was running the campaign of a finalist for the mayor’s office, a former contractor facing the first ever legitimate African-American contender for the job. Gray’s campaign angle for the white candidate? A TV spot flatly stated, “Every election's important, but the election next Tuesday will affect our city more than any other in our lifetime.” Gray also specifically noted drumming up greater voter turnout in District 6.

Gray’s man lost. Mayor Sam Jones became Mobile’s first black mayor despite earning no more than a third of votes in any majority-white precinct.

Nodine would eventually target Jones as a chief political rival.

Gray was named on the prosecution’s witness list in the impeachment.

Meanwhile, a dispute emerged regarding impeachment depositions from County Attorney and Nodine confidante Mark Erwin. Erwin was the first person Nodine phoned after Downs’ death. Erwin was also called to the Nodine home the next day where he removed a pair of handguns and rifles, giving them to then-Nodine defense attorney Matt Green.

Erwin refused to testify, citing a recommendation from the state bar that he invoke attorney-client privilege until a judge ruled.

Judge Sarah Stewart, presiding over the impeachment trial, made a quick decision on Thursday, May 27. Erwin must testify and the only protected information would be direct exchanges between Nodine and Erwin. All other aspects – his demeanor, the state of the home, who was present – was fair game.

Erwin was miffed. He was in a heated race for the DA’s slot and further involvement in the Nodine business was hacking at his support. 

Gray was running Erwin’s campaign. 

Note: Rich had nothing to do with the notorious case highlighted in the ad other than the fact that she worked in the D.A.'s office.  

 

After Stewart forced Erwin’s hand, he was done. He staged a press conference after his deposition and called for Nodine’s resignation. In the course of framing himself as a victim of political machinations, Erwin attacked the length of time, the six months between drug discovery and impeachment.

If the case had been brought earlier, Erwin said, “it is likely that we would not have experienced the tragedy in Baldwin County.” 

It was unclear whether Erwin noticed what he implied. What had Nodine told Erwin on the phone from Don Carlo's or at the house the next morning?

Nodine quickly resigned. His team found it prudent.

“Three things. One his present circumstances in that we have not been able to effectuate his release yet,” Knizley said. “Two, he decided it was in the best interest of his family and the best interests of the people of Mobile County because of all the circumstances surrounding his situation now that he stepped down.”

“During the employment of Assistant County Attorney Mark Erwin, his work has been primarily directed by Commissioner Stephen Nodine,” County Commissioner Dean said immediately. “Mr. Erwin's services will no longer be required and I am asking for his resignation.”

Nodine was indicted on federal firearm charges that afternoon. The bill noted he was “an unlawful user or addicted to any controlled substance as defined in the Controlled Substances Act. By use or addiction, Nodine is prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition.”

The statutory maximum penalty provided by law is 10 years imprisonment.

On Friday, May 28, a judge set guidelines for a special election to fill Nodine’s commission seat. The primary would be in mid-July, the general election in late August.

Within hours, candidates began to pop up, eager to pick through the political carcass for whatever fancied them.

Semmes, Alabama is a rural community northwest of Mobile littered with plant nurseries. The overwhelmingly white crossroads is also marked with a particular antipathy toward the City of Mobile and subsequently became a power base for Nodine and his cronies using the politics of division to further their aims.

Mickey Dearmon had grown up in Semmes. His dad, Norris Lavon Dearmon, Sr. was known chiefly by one name: Rat.

Rat had once worked in the police department of Prichard, a municipality north of Mobile. While on motorcycle patrol, Rat wrecked his bike and body.

“When they came up on him,” one officer recalled, “his femur was sticking out of his leg.”

Dearmon left and moved to Semmes, founding their Volunteer Fire Department. Over time, various allegations emerged about misappropriation of funds but nothing was ever proven. Critics pointed to Dearmon and his wife who worked in the fire department too.

Son Mickey followed suit. Before long he was an assistant chief and his wife became involved.

Mickey got along well with Nodine. Dearmon spearheaded an effort to incorporate Semmes, something that seemed oddly related to not only apprehension between Semmes and Mobile but between Nodine and political rival Jones.

Dearmon called WKRG after Nodine was arrested, offering his side of things. He told the TV crew that Nodine had been good to Semmes, had greatly furthered many ventures, historic settings and recreational facilities. He said Nodine had stayed at his house in the weeks before incarceration, even showing the crew suitcases and belongings in a guest bedroom.


WKRG.com News

Mickey insisted on Nodine’s innocence.

Memorial Day came and went with those ceremonial treks to the beach and bayside summer homes haunted by the specter of oil barriers floating within sight of the shore.

Judge Partin addressed the motion for Nodine’s bond reduction on Tuesday, June 1. There was no video this time. Nodine was there in person, the first public appearance in prison garb and chains.

Chris Downs once again sat with the prosecution team.

Attorney John Williams told the bench the bond amount was unattainable at present. The defense called to the stand a pair of character witnesses.

The first, Associate Pastor Brad McClain of Dauphin Way United Methodist Church, talked about his familiarity with Kimberlee Nodine and 13-year-old son Christopher, how he saw them regularly and what fine people they were.

He told the DA he knew of Steve Nodine but had no personal relationship with him until the last three weeks, until after Downs’ murder.

“He openly shared that he’s made significant mistakes,” McClain said. “I don’t believe he poses a danger to anyone or danger of leaving. He has a very close, loving relationship with his son.”

Newcomb asked about the drug abuse and philandering, if that pattern indicated love for Nodine’s son.

“No,” McClain answered.

“Did he seek counsel after his trouble last November?” Newcomb asked. “Did he show any desire to change?”

“Steve has made me aware of his mistakes,” McClain said, deftly sidestepping the question.

Mickey Dearmon took the stand next. He described himself as an entrepreneur, the owner of a pair of car lots and an associate chief at the fire department.

“He’s a good friend, a personal friend,” Dearmon described Nodine. “He’s the guy to call if you need something.

Dearmon said Nodine would live with him if he met bond. He talked about his wife and three teenaged daughters and the trust he feels in Nodine.

The DA asked again and discovered that Dearmon is not married but lives with his girlfriend. He also admitted his daughters chiefly live with his ex-wife.

Dearmon told an uneventful version of what happened at Downs’ condo on May 9.

“He said he left his wallet, went back to get it from the counter and then left again,” Dearmon said. “He didn’t see her.”

Both witnesses pointed to Nodine’s strong love for his son as a reason he would pose no flight risk.

Dearmon told the DA on the stand that he had never “been in trouble.” She discovered otherwise and confronted him with an arrest record after the proceeding. Dearmon tried to feign mild ignorance at first.

“I haven’t had time to research it yet,” Newcomb said. “I generally asked Mr. Dearmon if he had been in trouble and he had said no and apparently he has been arrested. I certainly think it should have a bearing on whether he is someone appropriate for Mr. Nodine to reside with.”

Election returns rolled in with the twilight. Mark Erwin was trounced in the GOP primary with competitor Ashley Rich winning roughly 3-to-1.

In Baldwin County, incumbent Judy Newcomb failed to qualify for a run-off in the primary. Another DA will eventually try the Downs murder case.

Mickey Dearmon called every media outlet he could on Wednesday night, told them he was headed to Bay Minette with the bond for his buddy Steve. The crews converged outside the corrections center where Dearmon found the lights and microphones he sought. He told of putting his entire worth on the line to bail out his friend. 


WKRG.com News

By the next day, Mickey was entertaining TV crews in his home yet again.

On Thursday, June 3, Judge Partin suddenly reduced Nodine’s bond in half. The burden was met but the defendant remained behind bars on a federal detention order.

Nodine traveled to Mobile on Friday, June 4 for his initial appearance in federal court. Attorneys Knizley and Williams sat in the gallery with press and onlookers as Nodine jingled by and sat at the defense table. He was charged and pleaded “not guilty” to the firearms charge.

His only defense will be to claim he wasn’t addicted to any drug, which would take away an avenue for the defense in his ongoing drug charges in Mobile County.

Nodine also told the court he was indigent, that his divorce, lack of income and legal bills had taken their toll. The court assigned him counsel.

Knizley and Williams will still represent Nodine in the murder and drug cases but they weren’t paid for the firearms case.

A schedule is set. Jury selection in the federal case begins on Aug. 2.

But key dates are coming sooner.

On Friday, June 11, Nodine will be arraigned in Baldwin County. A schedule will be issued then that tells when the trial is to begin.

Expectations from journalists on that “beat” are that it could easily be a year before trial. Baldwin County is known for a considerable backlog of cases.

Two days later, on Monday, June 14, Nodine will face a pre-trial detention hearing in the federal courthouse. Federal cases are renowned for either holding defendants until trial or releasing on “unsecured” bonds that require no money or property.

Should Nodine be released on June 14, he will be fitted with a monitoring device and placed on house arrest, likely at Dearmon’s expansive home with a back lawn that rolls down to a pond.

He’ll be looking at a month and a half until jury selection at the federal courthouse. If he’s going to flee, that’s his window.

Should Nodine catch the firearms rap, he’ll be held until the murder trial. Should he beat the charge, he’ll return to a lengthy stay at Dearmon’s country house. He could get antsy.

Hurricane season reaches its peak in mid-August and lasts until nearly October. All it would take is one storm hitting the central Gulf Coast, one giant distraction raining chaos on power grids, security and civilization. One glitch and Nodine could be gone. 

Author tags:

gulf shores, murder, alabama, mobile

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Make sure you watch the clips provided, not just the ones in the body of the blog but those at the links too. The cast of characters in this is just too rich to miss any of it.
This is like a novel! I'm bookmarking.
"I thought he was a player, a manipulator"
there are just too many of them
well done, I also love your descriptions of the weather!
xenon- Yeah, as it unfolds, this is providing a wealth of information for a longer piece. Imagine what it will be like after the firearms, drug possession and murder trials and all the evidence and testimony that comes forth during those (the last one in particular).

That's one of the purposes these OS installments provide me is getting things moving toward that end and keeping the macro-organization in line.

Hoop- Nodine's excuses for remaining in place awaiting trial are flimsy. And if the best character witnesses Nodine can muster are a pastor who admits he barely knows the defendant and a shifty little fellow already caught lying on the stand, that tells you all you need to know about the guy.

I can't believe a dead blonde from years back (Holloway) has resurfaced in the news again and this fresh case with far more intrigue and political ramifications isn't even on the radar screen.

Kathy- Thanks. My health issues keep the weather in the forefront of my mind at all times. It's a major factor when you have pulmonary problems.
Very good piece Kevin. I love the balance you portray in your writing. Facts, feelings and conflicts. Please keep them coming.

I am still intrigued with Nodine's past or lack of it. I thought it interesting he was said to have run a juvenile offender program in Decatur, GA.

Also did you know he spent much time in his youth in the Bahama's. I was also told by a HS friend he lost a sister who was run over by a car. His parents were divorced and a bother John is rumored to also have a past of DV and drugs. There's another sister too. I don't think I've ever known a more enigmatic politician.

Joran Vandersloot and the Gulf Oil are distracting from this being picked up. But DateLine is looking at it, so we may see something soon.

Very good reporting! Keep up the great work.
Wow . . . are you going to write a book on this? I think it would be a best-seller!
chacha- Thanks for the kind words. I'll never be Capote by any stretch. But then again, I won't be faking conversations and quotes and passing them off as legitimate either.

By the way, I need you to contact me via e-mail if you would please. Check your OS box.

Owl- Yes, this is definitely material for a longer book but there's a lot more research to be had toward that end. I actually think I'm going to have to do two versions: a full length one and an abridged one to add to the Petal Blight and Root Rot series. I know the second of those two (the anthology) will sell well in Mobile as folks here are terribly amused by their own corruption.

My "pipe dream tamped with irony" is that sales could help finance my eternal relocation from Mobile to the Pacific Northwest. While this state and city in particular are a great reservoir of these things – look up the name "Frank Boykin" sometime – I would dearly love to live the last portion of my life someplace where the political and physical climate suits me to a tee.
Once again, you absolutely kicked butt on that one. I bow to the master.
Have you seen the latest? HA what a cast of characters!!! http://blog.al.com/live/2010/06/businessman_who_put_up_bond_fo.html
Shane- Thanks. Don't call me Mr. Miyagi, though.

chacha- You don't know the half of it re: that Dearmon story. There's more that I've been working on in the last 24 hours that will come out in a few days. I'm trying to get it done before Friday's arraignment in Baldwin County
Wow. Just, wow. My head is spinning.

Great reporting. Rated.