Nunn saga filled with irony, high drama

FAMILIES' PROMINENCE RAISES PROFILE OF MURDER CASE

ralessi@herald-leader.comSeptember 20, 2009 

  • Ross-Nunn court hearing, part 1
  • Ross-Nunn court hearing, part 2

The Feb. 17 fight that finally ended the stormy relationship between Amanda Ross and Steve Nunn started after Nunn blew off Ross' suggestion to go out for chicken wings the next night.

The two exchanged blows, which was the fifth time Nunn had been violent toward her, Ross told Fayette Family Court Judge Tim Philpot in a March 4 court hearing. A sullen Nunn, who was trying to save his high-ranking state job, promised Philpot he wouldn't harm Ross.

"We had a tumultuous relationship with a lot of ups and downs, a lot of good moments and some just terrible ones," Nunn said. "But I am not a threat to her."

Ross, 29, was gunned down in the pre-dawn light of Sept. 11 in front of her Opera House Square town house. Police have charged Nunn, 56, with the murder and violating the domestic violence protection order Ross received against him in March. Nunn pleaded not guilty on Friday.

In the coming months, the resulting legal saga will likely become a spectacle not seen in Kentucky in modern times, with the collision of two prominent families, each with networks of friends that run in some of the highest political and social circles in the state.

Ross was the daughter of Terrell Ross, the most prominent financier of public projects in the state. Nunn, a Republican lawmaker from 1991 through 2006, is the son of the late Gov. Louie Nunn — an almost larger-than-life figure who was Kentucky's last Republican governor until Ernie Fletcher won in 2003.

"It's hard to say where it all goes from here," said Terry McBrayer, the Lexington lawyer and lobbyist who is friends with the Ross family and knew the Nunns well. "I just hope it doesn't turn into some tabloid display because it's just two very, very fine, strong-willed, prominent families that have come together in this horrible tragedy that's one of the saddest things I've seen in some time."

Adding to the drama is that Nunn could face the death penalty if convicted of the slaying. Ironically, Nunn was among 25 co-sponsors of a bill that became law in 1998. Among other things, it made it a death penalty offense for a person named in a domestic violence order to murder the protected individual.

Now that Nunn has been arraigned, the case goes to Fayette Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson, who hasn't commented on whether he will seek the death penalty for Nunn.

Larson, who has long touted his support for the death penalty in his campaigns and on his office's Web site, recently opted for plea deals to conclude two high-profile murder trials — of Shane Ragland, who was accused of killing UK football player Trent DiGiuro, and of Patrick Hutchinson, who pleaded guilty to killing his wife and Lexington firefighter Brenda Cowan.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg and former Kentucky attorney general, called Larson "one of the best prosecutors in the state."

"I have every confidence that if the evidence bears out that there was premeditation, and the evidence bears out that it qualifies for the death penalty, Ray Larson will pursue the death penalty," Stumbo said.

Living up to legacies

The Nunns have been political royalty around Barren County since Louie Nunn — the son of farmers — rose through the ranks, starting as Barren County judge-executive at age 29. By 1967, he was governor, the only Republican to hold that office between 1947 and 2003.

Steve Nunn followed his father into politics by serving in the state legislature. But he finished a distant third to Ernie Fletcher in the 2003 Republican primary for governor. By 2006, he had lost his state House seat.

"I think the legacy of Louie Nunn was both an asset and a burden to Steve," said Walter Baker, a former GOP state senator and state Supreme Court justice from Glasgow. "I don't think Steve ever escaped the shadow of (Louie's legacy) to really become himself."

Longtime Barren County GOP Chairwoman Golda Walbert said the allegations against Steve haven't tarnished Louie's legacy as a charismatic speaker and skillful politician who risked his future to pass an unpopular two-cent sales tax increase.

While less well-known across the state than the Nunns, the patriarch of the Ross family possessed his own rags-to-riches story.

Terrell Ross grew up in rural Fleming County, where he went to class in a one-room school building.

Amanda Ross would tell the story of the wedding of her parents — Terrell and Diana — in which family friends donated $42 for the newlyweds to honeymoon in Florida, said Martha Seagram, Amanda Ross's friend.

Diana then worked to put Terrell through Morehead State University, Seagram said. He graduated with a degree in math and taught at Fleming County High School. He later became head of the Buffalo Trace Area Development District, where he cultivated political contacts.

After landing a job at Merit Financial Corp., he and the managing director of the firm's Cincinnati office, Murray Sinclaire Jr., bought the securities firm in 1989 and turned it into Ross Sinclaire and Associates, now the sixth-largest municipal financial firm in the country. Using his contacts, Ross helped land deals to finance construction of schools and county courthouses across Kentucky.

Like Louie Nunn, Ross was a political creature.

"He would work the crowd just as much as Louie would, but differently," McBrayer said. "Louie would be in the middle of the room. Terrell was lower key."

Patriarchal effects

By the time Amanda and Steve began dating in September 2007, both had lost their fathers, who had been huge influences on them, friends of both of them say.

Terrell Ross died in October 2006, six weeks after being diagnosed with cancer.

"To watch your father die so quickly is tough," said Vince Gabbert, who worked with Amanda and Terrell Ross at Ross Sinclaire. "She already had a huge drive to succeed. But after Terrell's passing, that really drove her even more."

Louie Nunn had a fatal heart attack in January 2004, less than a year after advising his son on his failed campaign for governor.

Louie and Steve had a falling out during the divorce between Louie and Beula Nunn in 1994. Louie, in a letter filed with the divorce, accused Steve of attacking him. But the truth is more complicated, said one lawyer involved in the case.

"I know in my experiences in representing Steve that the aggressiveness and confrontation came from the other side, not from Steve," said Bowling Green lawyer Charles English.

Steve's second wife, Tracey Damron, helped patch up the father-son relationship.

And Damron said Louie's death changed Steve. She said he never physically abused her, but he treated her coldly from that point on.

Not long after Louie Nunn's death, Damron went out of town for a week. She later learned that, during her absence, Steve began a relationship with a younger woman, Damron said. Damron and Nunn divorced about three years ago.

'Playboy image'

After his father's death, Nunn began drinking more heavily, friends said, and womanizing, posting an ad and semi-nude photo of himself on the sugardaddies.com Web site. He also wore his late father's clothes, friends said.

"Once his dad died, he wore (Gov. Nunn's) clothes out to eat," said Rep. Jamie Comer, R-Tompkinsville. "You could tell that they were a little out of style, which was odd because Steve always knew what was in style."

Louie left Steve more than $651,000 in cash, according to Louie Nunn's probated will in Woodford County. But by this summer, Nunn appeared to be strapped for cash as he took out a $20,000 line of credit on his $200,000 property in Glasgow, according to documents filed at the Barren County courthouse.

Democrats, meanwhile, sensed Nunn was politically vulnerable for the House seat he had held for eight terms with little opposition.

"We knew in 2005 that the courthouse crowd was definitely actively chattering about Steve's playboy image," said Jonathan Hurst, who was the House Democrats' caucus director during the 2006 election.

During that race against Democrat Johnny Bell, Nunn showed up at campaign events with alcohol on his breath and a much younger woman on his arm at times, said Robert M. "Buddy" Alexander, a Glasgow lawyer and friend of Louie Nunn's.

"People were just saying he was having lots of parties, wild parties and loud music — just things that no candidate would ever do," Comer said.

Bell unseated Nunn with 53 percent of the vote. Observers said Bell ran a strong race in a year that was good to Democratic candidates, but that Nunn's conduct also played a role.

"There's no way Johnny Bell should have beat Steve Nunn except Steve made it so possible," Alexander said.

Volatile relationship

Nunn and Ross first met in 2005 when Terrell Ross hired Nunn to do consulting work for his financing firm, Ross Sinclaire.

Amanda, a Boston University graduate, worked at the firm as a financial analyst.

Mary Ann Blaydes Baron, the Green County judge-executive and longtime friend of the Nunns, said she first met Amanda when Steve brought her to Barren County while he was recommending Ross Sinclaire to finance the county's planned justice center. The county hired the firm.

Baron said Amanda seemed very serious about her career, in contrast to Nunn's two ex-wives.

"Personally, I didn't picture the two of them together," said Baron, who dated Louie Nunn after Beula's death.

Steve and Amanda, who both have been described by friends as gregarious yet fiery, began dating in September 2007 during the throes of a governor's race.

Nunn switched sides to back Democrat Steve Beshear against Fletcher, who defeated Nunn four years earlier in the GOP gubernatorial primary.

Beshear tapped Nunn, who developed a reputation in the General Assembly as an advocate for the disabled and underprivileged, to serve on his transition team and, later, as deputy secretary in the Health and Family Services Cabinet.

Ross joined the administration as a division director in the insurance department in February 2008.

That spring, Ross and Nunn moved in together at Ross's Opera House Square town home, where they began receiving mail addressed to "Mr. and Mrs. Steve Nunn," Ross testified at her March 4 domestic violence hearing.

Nunn proposed to Ross on Oct. 10, her 29th birthday.

Within a month, the relationship "had deteriorated," Nunn testified.

On Feb. 15, they got into an argument, and Ross said Nunn "kicked me" as he was leaving her house. She provided a photo to the judge during that March 4 hearing.

Two days later, "I made the mistake of coming back over there," Nunn testified. "She asked to go get chicken wings the next night."

When he said he had tentatively made plans with a male friend, "well, she didn't like that answer," Nunn said.

They fought again. Nunn said she restrained him from leaving, and he admitted "that I did slap her in the face."

That was enough for Philpot, who granted the domestic violence order against Nunn for a year.

"Exactly who did what to who I don't think matters all that much," Philpot said, noting that Amanda was undeniably hit in the face.

Nunn resigned from his state job later that day.

Ross got a license to carry a gun after the protective order, as the Herald-Leader previously reported.

She also took up sporting clays shooting, and on Labor Day — four days before her death — Ross scored 84 out of 100 at the most difficult course at Elk Creek Hunt Club, said her friend, Seagram.

On Sept. 9, after an apparent chance encounter with Nunn at a Frankfort Rite Aid parking lot, Ross told Sharon Clark, her boss at the insurance department, that she believed Nunn would kill her.

Clark said she offered to take her away from her house, but Ross declined.

"She said, 'Sharon, he will find me wherever,'" Clark said.

Courtroom drama

It has been more than a century since someone with such a prominent political pedigree has faced murder charges in Kentucky.

Starting in 1900, Secretary of State Caleb Powers was tried for masterminding the assassination of Democratic Gov. William Goebel, who was declared the winner of a contested election. Powers, a Republican, was pardoned in 1908.

Legal experts say that case couldn't be compared to the spectacle that could surround a trial of Nunn because of media scrutiny.

Lexington attorney Fred Peters said media coverage of the case is "more extensive and broader than I've probably seen in a long time."

Warren N. Scoville, a London-based defense attorney who has been friends with Nunn for more than 20 years, said it could be difficult to find an impartial jury.

"The coverage has made it virtually impossible for this man to get a fair trial in the commonwealth of Kentucky," he said. "The only people you're going to get on a jury are people who don't read."

Herald-Leader staff writers Valarie Honeycutt Spears and John Stamper and news researcher Lu-Ann Farrar contributed to this report.

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