- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- They gathered in a parking lot long past nightfall, after the last karaoke singer stumbled over the final note and the signs flipped to CLOSED. It was fitting, that Sahel Kazemi's candlelight vigil would be held in the backdrop of Opryland, where the stars gravitate. Kazemi always said that someday she'd be famous.
The moon was full; the Tennessee air hung thick. Roughly 30 people formed a circle last summer and, one by one, told stories of the girl they knew as Jenni.
She shopped at Bebe -- her closet was full of the youth-hip clubbing clothes -- listened to R&B and goofed off too much at work. She had dreams that, depending on whom you talked to, ranged from flight attendant to interpreter to wife and mother.
She wore pink shorts and white-metal earrings the night of July 3, 2009, made plans to watch fireworks, and checked to make sure a friend got to her vacation safely. That was Jenni, friends say. Always looking out for the ones she loved. And a few hours later, police say, she took a 9mm semi-automatic pistol and pumped four bullets into former Tennessee Titans great Steve McNair, then turned the gun on herself.
A year has passed, an investigation has closed, and about 239,000 accounts have been published about the events of July 4, 2009. But nobody, really, is any closer to knowing who Sahel Kazemi was, or how a 20-year-old waitress could, in a matter of seconds, shake an entire community.
How do you put a face to an overexposed, unexplained picture? Do you start with the TMZ snapshots that show Kazemi as McNair's love-struck mistress, in a bathing suit, on an exotic vacation? Do you find a smattering of grieving friends and relatives who slam doors, shun the media, but quietly believe, 12 months later, that the truth is something entirely different?
Maybe you begin where the journey ends, in a cemetery 1½ miles from her old high school in Orange Park, Fla., down a hill, away from the roar of the highway. Kazemi's final resting place is near a tree, a World War II Marine and the caretaker's office. People stop by here, leaving $10 potted impatiens and plastic flowers, lingering long enough to gaze at the inscription.
It says, "My little angel."
Her early years
Azadeh Kazemi is on the phone late on a Sunday night in Australia, trying to go to bed. Only she can't sleep. She has done maybe one interview in the days since her sister's death and isn't in the mood to do another. On this particular day in late June, it's the anniversary of another sad day in the Kazemi family. The day their mother, Ghodsyeh, died a violent death in their native Iran.
She is careful with the information she passes along about her family. She knows that whatever she says, it's going to come out sounding wrong.
"I added you to Facebook," she says, "so you can have a look at us, my sisters and my family. We're just like normal people in a bad situation."
They grew up in Tehran, Iran, their lives divided into two sections. Part II started the day Ghodsyeh died more than a decade ago. She was a kind-hearted woman who sacrificed everything to raise her five kids. She went to visit another daughter, Soheyla, in Iran one day, and took 9-year-old Sahel along. Sahel was playing and didn't want to leave, so Ghodsyeh went home alone. She was murdered in a robbery/home invasion.
Police came to the house to investigate. When they found out the family wasn't Muslim, Azadeh says, they quickly left.
"The government is so bad," Azadeh says. "If you're not what they want you to be, you have no rights."
The Kazemis practiced the Baha'i faith, which was founded in the 19th century in Persia (which is now Iran). Islam does not recognize the religion, and Baha'is have been persecuted in Iran for decades. Azadeh couldn't go to a university in Iran, so she moved to Australia, and Ghodsyeh and Sahel were supposed to follow her. Their bags were packed the day Ghodsyeh died.
The family always believed that fate spared Sahel that day, even if the happy-go-lucky tomboy was too young to grasp or appreciate it. Things never seemed to rattle Sahel as much the others; she was the one who comforted the rest of them. According to one friend's account, she was taken out to ice cream the day of her mother's service.
"I talk about death all the time, especially after my mom passed away," Azadeh says. "She never did that. We had long conversations. She'd say, 'When you're dead, you're dead.'"
Settling in the United States
Two requests for Kazemi's immigration papers through the Freedom of Information Act produced a limited outline and 27 blank pages -- information withheld for privacy reasons. The documents say she left Iran for Turkey, then spent a couple of years there before arriving in the United States on Aug. 29, 2002. She is listed as an Iranian refugee. The file includes a few washed-out photos of a teenager on the cusp of massive change.
She was 13, didn't speak English and settled into Jacksonville, Fla., with her sister Soheyla, who also had relocated to the U.S. and was now her guardian. Kazemi's friends say she never talked about her father. References to him were redacted throughout her immigration documents.
By all accounts, she quickly acclimated herself to the life of a typical American teenager. She hung out at malls and stared at boys. Before long, she could speak three languages -- Farsi, Turkish and English. But the diversity didn't necessarily endear her to her classmates. A friend of Kazemi's says she got picked on in school and never really fit in.
She bounced from Englewood High School in Jacksonville to Orange Park. Officials at both schools didn't return calls to ESPN.com. In a police document, her nephew, Farzin Abdi, described Kazemi as having "behavioral problems" in high school but said she started to settle down when she met her boyfriend Keith Norfleet.
Norfleet is the man who could answer just about every question relating to Kazemi's high school days. She dropped out of school and left Jacksonville at the age of 16 to be with him in Nashville. Norfleet, now a manager at a White Castle, declined interview requests with ESPN, eventually sending a series of texts last week saying he was sorry. He's sick of the media, sick of defending a ghost. According to his MySpace page, he got married recently.
He eventually agrees to call on Thursday. He never calls.
Her life at work
Before the floods raged through Nashville this spring and the exit to the Opry Mills Mall was cordoned off by trucks and security in orange-and-yellow vests, Dave & Buster's restaurant was a bubbling pot of youthful hope and aspirations covered in black polos and name tags. They were in their teens and early 20s. They served food, jockeyed for tips and occasionally frequented the bars together when their shifts ended.
To this crew, Sahel Kazemi was known simply as "Jenni," the pretty girl who smiled and joked around enough to melt an eight-hour shift into something far more bearable but who also spent a good amount of work time jabbering.
"She didn't want to have any down time, time to be bored," says Courtney Carter, a former co-worker and friend. "Even if she went out the previous night and had very little sleep, she came in with all this energy.
"She got on some people's nerves because she was always joking about something. Sometimes, when you're not having a good day, the last thing you want to hear is somebody super bubbly. [But] this was the first job I wanted to stay at because I really felt like the people I worked with were family. Everybody was so close. Jenni I was probably closest to her."
The place had its perks, too. There was a different energy when a local athlete or celebrity dropped by. Every waiter and waitress wanted to help because it always meant bigger tips, especially if it was a Tennessee Titan.
And Steve McNair had a definite generous streak in him. According to credit card receipts obtained through probate documents, McNair's transactions often involved large tabs and tips that well exceeded 50 percent. One day in December 2008, before Christmas, the retired Titans quarterback plopped down in Kazemi's area.
He never really left.
Maybe it was somewhat endearing that Kazemi and her young crew weren't awestruck by McNair. "We would be at lunch," ex-roommate Emily Andrews says, "and they would come up [and say], 'Thank you so much, we love you, Steve.' I always thought it was over the top. But he was always that big of a deal."
Before McNair, Kazemi prided herself on her independence, that she would work two jobs to pay her bills, that she left Jacksonville and never looked back. But by May 2009, it was clear that attitude had shifted. She was working less, and depending more on McNair. He put a down payment on a Cadillac Escalade for her. She got swallowed up in the massive payments.
Andrews sat her friend down, said she was worried, told her she was creating a lifestyle that wasn't secure. Jenni didn't want to hear it. Andrews asked her what she wanted to do with her life. Kazemi didn't know.
Long before July 4, Kazemi was skeptical that McNair would be part of her future. She spotted another woman leaving the condo in June and followed her. She told her friends she felt foolish and embarrassed.
But it was clear Kazemi couldn't get McNair out of her head. In late June, she poured her heart out to a customer at Dave & Busters, telling a complete stranger about her affair.
She began to see other men that summer, but her heart always led her back to McNair. She called her sister Azadeh in Australia. You know that Britney Spears song "Womanizer"? she asked. That song reminded her of Steve.
"She was cheating, too," Azadeh says. "She said, 'I was faithful to him. If he's going to do that, I'm going to do the same.'"
The final day
The last hours of Kazemi's life are well-documented with the help of more than 200 pages of interviews, search warrants and text messages provided by the Nashville Police Department. Baby I might have a break down Im so stressed, she texted McNair at 10:05 on the morning of July 3.
Eight hours earlier, she was far more cryptic. Im gonna have all of u soon.
She called a handful of friends that day, making Fourth of July plans that wouldn't be kept. She tried to sell some furniture on craigslist, went to work and clocked out early, and texted McNair that she had to be with him that night.
One of her final calls was to Lakresia Polite, a friend she had planned on going out with that night. Polite said that she was in Memphis and that she couldn't go out.
Kazemi, Polite says, told her that's OK; she'd call Steve and see what he was doing.
The next afternoon, Polite's phone started ringing. Have you heard from Jenni? The TV stations were reporting that McNair had been shot and that a woman was found with him.
"From that moment on, it was panic mode," Polite says. "When I finally found out it was her, I couldn't do anything but cry. It wasn't just the fact that my friend had died. It was almost guilt for me.
"I'm thinking in my head that if I had gone home like I said, Jenni would've been with me. She wouldn't have been with Steve."
But police believe the conclusion was inevitable. They say that Kazemi -- overwhelmed by mounting bills, a DUI she had received two days earlier and the realization that McNair was seeing another woman -- shot McNair twice in the chest and twice in the head, then killed herself.
According to the investigation, traces of gunpowder residue were found on Kazemi's left hand; the Bryco/Jennings pistol was found underneath her head. A shift manager at Dave & Buster's who worked with Kazemi on the last night of her life told police that Kazemi normally was upbeat. But in the hours before the murder, something was different. She rolled her eyes when asked about McNair's promise to divorce his wife, Mechelle. Kazemi, according to a police statement, told her manager, "My life is just s---, and I should end it!"
McNair was a local legend -- he came within inches of giving Nashville a Super Bowl championship in 2000 -- and the media's fixation on his death reached Tiger Woods proportions. Former police chief Ronal Serpas moved swiftly. The cold-case unit, a collection of Nashville's best, was brought in to work the case. Pat Postiglione, a well-respected veteran homicide detective, was among those working the investigation.
The case didn't officially close until December.
Vincent Hill sits at a back table at Demos' Restaurant in downtown Nashville, rubbing a blue highlighter against a stack of papers. He is an ex-cop who still wears Erik Estrada shades, still has a thin blue line coursing through him. He spots two police officers settling in for dinner. He notes that one of the guys is a rookie.
By day, Hill investigates fraud for a credit card company. At night, he pores through police documents and tries to debunk the police's ruling on the McNair case. Roughly a week after the murder, Hill went on Facebook and contacted Kazemi's sisters. He typed something they no doubt were searching to see. He said he didn't think Sahel murdered McNair.
He points to the item in a police report that lists McNair as having only $6 in his pocket when his bloodstained body was found. Hill says he has talked to some of McNair's friends who say the quarterback thought he was broke if he didn't have a couple thousand dollars rolled together in a rubber band in his pocket.
He wonders about inconsistencies in the statements by Adrian Gilliam, the man who sold Kazemi the gun and is serving a 2½-year sentence in a federal prison for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Gilliam told police that on the night of McNair's murder, he was with his friend Tony Smith, who works at "Bail You Out Bonding." Smith, in a separate police statement, said he wasn't with Gilliam the night of July 3. Gilliam also exchanged numerous texts with Kazemi on July 3, but told police he initially lied to police about his relationship with Kazemi because his fiancée was present in the first interview.
Hill also wonders why Wayne Neely, the friend who found McNair dead in his downtown condo, called at least three people and waited about 45 minutes before a friend eventually called 911.
Don Aaron, a spokesman for the police department, says Nashville PD stands by its investigation, and he offered up Hill's personnel file. It's more than 100 pages long and features the highs and lows of Hill's 4½ years on the force: the reprimands, the commendations, the disciplinary action pending over a high-speed chase and accusations that Hill disobeyed orders.
Hill says that he resigned from the force to spend more time with his daughter and that he isn't doing this to sell books or besmirch his former employer.
"I was a very proactive officer," Hill says. "I wasn't just going in at 7 a.m. til 3 in the afternoon and sitting at Waffle House.
"I think my record speaks for itself."
Hill presented a complaint to a grand jury panel last month requesting that the McNair case be reopened. He says he pulled out a photo of Kazemi holding a puppy and an 8x10 picture of McNair in a barbecue apron, smiling proudly in front of his grill. He says he told the panel they're why he's here.
A few days later, Hill was informed that there was not enough new evidence to reopen the case. It was the news that the Nashville Police Department expected to hear, and it confirmed the result of what Chief Steve Anderson described as hundreds of hours devoted to solving the case.
"Without any doubt," Anderson said in a statement, "I remain confident in the murder-suicide conclusion."
But a year later, Kazemi's family and friends refuse to believe she would shoot someone, let alone kill herself. Andrews says guns "kind of wigged her out." And questions linger in unlikely places. Cotina Feazell, McNair's high school sweetheart and the mother of his first child, Steve Jr., says she wants the case reopened.
"I can't see how Kazemi did this perfect shooting, for one thing," she says, "first time using a gun. I think there's much missing in this case."
After McNair's death
Steve McNair died, and the world around him shook. His restaurant, Gridiron9, closed down on July 4 and never reopened.
Vent Gordon, who was riding with McNair and Kazemi on the night she got her DUI last summer, lost his job as head chef at Gridiron9. He answers the door of his apartment wearing a tattered Tennessee Titans cap with the No. 9 scribbled in marker. He calls it Steve's cap. Gordon says that he was one of McNair's closest friends and that sometimes he hears McNair talking when he sleeps.
He stands on the porch for roughly 10 minutes, then declines to do an interview. He has to consult with a lawyer. He says he's been harassed by the media for a year, had to change cars and residences, had to escape.
Others have slipped off the grid, too. His buddy Wayne Neely quit his job at the Nashville Sporting Goods Store, which was jolting because Neely, a former co-worker says, had been there for 18 years. "He was a legend here," a man behind the counter says. Neely didn't return messages left by ESPN and has avoided the media for 12 months. Nobody knows how hard this has hit him. He still lives in a peaceful neighborhood with a big front yard and a dog that yips when someone knocks at the door. He's just rarely seen.
Nobody thought McNair would die, not like this, not at 36. Nobody prepared for this. McNair had no will, and his estate is still tied up in probate court. His widow, Mechelle McNair, mother of two of his four boys, was named administrator of the estate. (Mechelle has declined interview requests from ESPN.) Feazell wouldn't comment on the probate case, confirming only that nothing has been resolved.
She says Steve Jr.'s pain goes beyond lawyers and wills. He was a star prep receiver in Mississippi before his dad was murdered, was being recruited by Division I schools and was just getting his share of one-on-one time with Steve, who had recently retired from football.
Now McNair is gone, and the pressure has shifted to Steve Jr., who looks and sounds so much like his dad that sometimes Cotina says to herself, Steve McNair Sr., you better get up out of here and leave me alone.
But the comparisons will have to wait, at least for a year or two. Steve Jr. is going to a junior college.
"People just don't understand it's been really hard on him," Feazell says. "Since July 4 of last year, not one day has gone by where we haven't heard Steve McNair Sr.'s name every single day."
Of course it's hard. In the days after McNair's murder, the Kazemi family received threats, many of them oozing with racial hate. Azadeh fielded some of them from a world away via her Facebook account in Australia.
Losing a little sister is hard, she says. Reading about the sordid details, some of which she refuses to believe are true, is maddening. Azadeh used to fight it and hope that someday they would know the Sahel she knew, the smiling little girl who tried to be strong for the rest of them, the kid her family believes was spared for a reason. Sahel's DVD collection arrived in Australia shortly after her death. It was all cartoons and comedies because, Azadeh says, Sahel didn't like the scary stuff.
One year later, Azadeh feels as if she's in a movie she can't turn off. She's tired of being judged, tired of defending, tired of everything.
"I don't care anymore what anyone else thinks because she's gone," she says. "For me, it's like waking up from a dream. She's gone, and everything has changed. I don't just think of it on the fourth of July. For us, it's every minute, every second."
It's 12:30 a.m. early Monday in Australia, and Azadeh politely says goodbye and hangs up the phone. It's time to let her sleep.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com. Paula Lavigne, a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit, contributed reporting to this report.
10hEric D. Williams
1hChris Broussard and Marc Stein