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IT'S THE AFTERNOON of July 4, 2009, and the news is starting to trickle out in Nashville: Steve McNair, the old local-hero quarterback, has been found shot to death in a downtown condo. The details are jarring: Two shots to the chest, one to each temple, and lying at McNair's feet is his 20-year-old mistress, Jenni Kazemi, killed by a single shot to the head. Just four days later, the Nashville police will conclude that Kazemi killed McNair, who was 36, in a murder-suicide.
Right away, though, McNair's and Kazemi's friends and families have questions—about the motive, the murder weapon and the crime scene, for starters—and, nine years later, those concerns haven't quieted. Fall of a Titan, a new podcast from SI, delves deep into the McNair case, poking holes in the police narrative and raising questions about how the former NFL MVP died, with each of the nine episodes focusing on a different character. Visit SI.com/McNair to catch up.
THE PRIVATE EYE
Vincent Hill, a former Nashville police-officer-turned-P.I., isn't buying what his old colleagues are selling. Four days, he figures, must be some sort of record for a murder investigation of this magnitude. So he starts his own. He interviews people close to Steve and Jenni. He writes a book about the whole ordeal and then another. Eventually, Lucille McNair, Steve's mother, hires Vincent to investigate the case on her behalf.
"Lucille and I were sitting out on her porch ... and she said, 'Vince, I don't believe this little girl killed my son.' And I said, 'Lucille, I don't believe it either.'"
As Hill works the McNair case, he checks in regularly with Alvin (Doc) Simpson, a close friend of the McNair family dating back to when Steve played quarterback at Alcorn State, where Doc was a student-friendly psychology professor. On this point Doc is the most outspoken member of the McNair circle: He doesn't believe Kazemi murdered his friend, so he begins connecting Hill with people who might be able to point the investigator in the right direction.
"I have had dreams and I ask [Steve] what happened, and every time he starts to tell me, I wake up. One [dream], he said, 'Doc, they shot me,' and he held his shirt up. And I answered, 'Well, who did this?' And as soon he began to tell me, every time, I wake up. I believe his spirit is still trying to speak [to me]. That's why I still have this need to know, so his soul can be at rest."
Those who knew Steve McNair best have ties going back to Mount Olive, Miss., where he rose from poverty to finish third in the 1994 Heisman voting while playing at a HBCU, turning himself into something of an African-American icon. After being drafted by the Houston Oilers, he was co-MVP in 2003 as a member of the Titans. With fame, though, came temptation. Steve was a playboy: He had two children by two women before marrying his college girlfriend, Mechelle—and one friend estimated that Steve had as many as six mistresses by '09, when he discreetly rented a condo where he could hide these dalliances.
"[Steve] did everything—scored the most, ran the most. It was a one-man show at Alcorn. He literally carried that whole university on his back."
—FLOYD REESE, Oilers/Titans GM (1990--2006)
"He was an attractive man. All kind of women were gonna be pulling after him. Married women, unmarried women."
McNair meets Jenni Kazemi at a Nashville Dave & Buster's, where she's waiting tables, around Christmas 2008. He sweeps Jenni off her feet: There are trips to Vegas and Key West, a Cadillac Escalade, money at a moment's notice. Flash forward half a year. Police say Jenni is going through financial problems, she believes Steve is cheating on her, and she's just gotten arrested for DUI. This, police later conclude, was enough to drive her to kill Steve and herself. (They also cite a coworker, Sonya New, who recalled Jenni saying, "My life is s---. I should just end it.") But Jenni's friends and family contest this all. They say Jenni was seeing other guys; she wasn't depressed. Nor was she desperate for money; Steve took care of that. And she wasn't violent; she'd never shot a gun. (Speaking of: Where'd Jenni get a gun, anyway?)
"She was in the circle. She dated other Titans.... It wasn't like Steve was her golden goose and she wouldn't be able to find another one."
—CHRIS WALL, bodyguard for McNair
"She called me the morning after her DUI. And that wasn't even a dramatic thing for her.... It was almost like, 'I got a DUI, but it's O.K.... Steve's gonna handle it.' She wasn't worried about that."
—EMILY ANDREWS, friend of Kazemi's
"Let's clarify something... In the context of what we were speaking of, there was a pause: 'My life is s---. I should just end it.' We were talking about [her] relationship with [Steve].... 'I should just end it.' I did not take that statement to mean, 'I'm going to kill myself.'"
A focal point of Hill's investigation is the Bryco-Jennings 9mm handgun that police say Kazemi purchased a few hours before killing McNair. The seller, Adrian Gilliam, walks police through the whole transaction. But Gilliam, a convicted murderer, lies to the police: first about his relationship with Kazemi and then, it seems, about his alibi.
"I didn't even know her name, man."
—ADRIAN GILLIAM, to police (who later learned Gilliam and Kazemi were romantically linked)
"Now Adrian's a good friend of mine, but I ain't gonna lie for nobody, O.K.? I'm gonna tell you, [his alibi] didn't happen."
—TONY SMITH, friend of Gilliam's, to police
Police also question Kazemi's off-and-on companion of several years, Keith Norfleet. They find that, in the weeks leading up to July 4, he appears to have been trying to win Jenni back. He also comes across as jealous of McNair: Investigators show particular interest in a hostile rap song, seemingly directed at the retired QB, that Norfleet wrote and posted to MySpace around the time Jenni moved out of his apartment.
"I write music because that's how I vent. [Jenni] knew that. Everybody knows that.... It's rap music.... You know how somebody would write in a journal or anything like that."
—KEITH NORFLEET, to police
Another suspect, in Hill's eyes: McNair's bodyguard Robert Gaddy, who, by all accounts, recently had a falling out with Steve over some money Gaddy allegedly stole. Later, on July 4, Gaddy was one of the first two people to arrive at the scene of McNair's murder, along with Steve's friend Wayne Neeley. The fact that 44 minutes passed between Neeley's arrival and the first call to the police, though, makes many people suspicious, including Steve's older brother Tim, who asks Gaddy after Steve's funeral: "Did you kill my brother?"
"One of the last conversations [Lucille McNair] had with Steve was, he was upset at Gaddy for stealing $13,000. And when Steve got to Nashville—his words, not mine—he was gonna shoot that big motherf----- in the knees to bring him to size to kick his ass."
As Hill continues his investigation, Lucille McNair takes matters into her own hands. She and Simpson meet with Nashville police to see the crime scene photos and get some answers about the case. But the pictures—the ones police are willing to share, at least—only raise more questions: about the scene itself, about the bodies, about a mysterious pool of blood in McNair's lap....
"[Police] were very rude ... very disrespectful. And they wanted us to know emphatically that we ... did not matter whatsoever. They were sticking to their story, and there would be no opportunity to compromise anything. Any police department where you have a ... murder and you're not willing to accept any new evidence, that shows cover up. All day."
As others search for answers, Steve's family sorts through his finances. Those close to McNair say he had wanted for a while to divorce his wife, Mechelle, but because he never signed a will, she gains control of his $19.6 million estate. And the way Mechelle conducts herself—right up until she sells the house Steve bought for his mother—raises eyebrows.
"Everybody knows that, for the last two years of Steve's life, Steve wanted a divorce from his wife—but she would not give him one."
—SPURGEON BANYARD, teammate of McNair's at Alcorn
"She stayed like a busy bee [on the day Steve died]. I even think she was looking for certain things on [his] laptop.... I think they were looking for a will fairly early."