LITTLETON, Colo. – Convicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich entered a federal prison in Colorado to begin a 14-year sentence for corruption on Thursday, the latest chapter in the downfall of a charismatic politician that seemed more like a bizarre reality TV show than a legal battle.
Followed by helicopters and TV news crews broadcasting his every move, Blagojevich stepped out of a black SUV and walked into the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood in suburban Denver just before noon. Along with his attorneys, the 55-year-old Democrat spent about an hour driving around the facility, stopping for lunch and waving at onlookers before relinquishing his freedom.
"I think it's kind of surreal to him, but he seems in good spirits," said Brian Pyle, who owns the Freddy's Frozen Custard and Steakburgers in Littleton where Blagojevich had lunch. Pyle said he shook the former governor's hand as he left, telling him: "Stay strong." He said Blagojevich thanked him.
His attorneys didn't immediately return messages left Thursday afternoon.
In what has become a familiar scene in the three years since he was arrested, Blagojevich bounded down the stairs of his Chicago home Thursday morning as a throng of photographers and reporters crushed around him and well-wishers shouted encouragement.
Blagojevich sounded optimistic if not defiant before heading to the airport, a tone he has taken both before and after his convictions on corruption charges, including trying to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat.
"I'm leaving with a heavy heart, a clear conscience and I have high, high hopes for the future," Blagojevich, wearing a dark shirt, sport coat and blue jeans, told the crowd.
He wasn't accompanied by his wife, Patti, though she could be seen through the windows. One of the couple's two daughters peeked out a window before her father departed.
"Saying goodbye is the hardest thing I've ever had to do," Blagojevich said.
The helicopters and camera crews following Blagojevich brought to mind the low-speed chase of O.J. Simpson. A mob of travelers took photographs on their cellphones as Blagojevich, his arms raised, stood in a body scanner before heading to down the concourse at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. He stepped off a plane less than three hours later at Denver International Airport, where a car was waiting.
When he walked into prison, Blagojevich became Illinois' second former governor in federal prison for corruption, joining George Ryan.
He also became Inmate No. 40892-424. The man with a taste for fine Oxxford-label suits was to be given khaki prison garb and boots.
Jurors convicted Blagojevich on 18 counts after hearing FBI wiretaps that revealed a foul-mouth Blagojevich describing the opportunity to exchange an appointment to Obama's old U.S. Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job as "f------ golden."
The famously talkative Democrat embraced the public spotlight one last time Wednesday evening, seeming to relish the attention of dozens of reporters and cameras outside his Chicago home as he expressed faith he would successfully appeal his convictions. He claimed he always believed what he did while governor was legal.
"While my faith in things has sometimes been challenged, I still believe this is America, this is a country that is governed by the rule of law, that the truth ultimately will prevail," Blagojevich said, his wife standing by his side.
"As bad as it is, (this) is the beginning of another part of a long and hard journey that will only get worse before it gets better, but ... this is not over."
His new home, although a minimum-security facility, looks every bit a prison: Stone buildings are institutional beige, the grounds encircled by high razor-wire fencing. Blagojevich, who left behind a spacious Chicago home, will share a cell the size of a large walk-in closet with up to three inmates.
The prison has a few other high-profile inmates, including Jeff Skilling, the former CEO and president of Enron who is serving a 24-year sentence for fraud and other crimes. Most of the facility's nearly 1,000 inmates are there for drug offences, though some could be in for violent crimes including murder, said U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke.
Blagojevich, who was heard on the FBI wiretaps scoffing at a low six-figure salary, will work a menial prison job, possibly cleaning bathrooms or doing landscape work — starting at 12 cents an hour. Guards take several head counts a day, including overnight.
"He's going to be doing a lot of, 'yes sir' and 'no sir,'" said Jim Laski, a former Chicago city clerk sentenced to two years in prison for corruption in 2006. "It's a humbling, humiliating experience. But you have to take it."
Ex-cons say Blagojevich must master unwritten prison codes, such as never gazing at other inmates for longer than a second or two. And his fame outside won't do him any good.
"You say you were once the governor of Illinois — no one gives hoot," explained Jim Marcus, a Chicago-based defense attorney and former prosecutor. "Prisoners are going to say, 'You're in the same boat as me, pal. Now go clean the toilets.'"
Perhaps some good news for Blagojevich is that he won't have to shave his trademark thick hair, though maintenance may be challenging. Hair dryers, for instance, are prohibited.
But the most difficult change undoubtedly will be living without his wife and their daughters, 15-year-old Amy and 8-year-old Anne. In prison, his contact with them will be limited to a few times a month and, when they do see each other, Blagojevich will be able to hug and kiss them once at the start of the visit and once at the end.
On all the other days, he'll have to fight boredom.
Under federal rules, inmates must serve at least 85 percent of their terms before becoming eligible for early release. That's nearly 12 years for Blagojevich, though his term could be reduced under a prison program.
The avid runner could jog on a prison track for the limited time he is allowed in the main yard, or he could read or play pool in a game room. Internet access and cellphones are prohibited.
A law graduate, he also could research his case in the prison library. He and his attorneys are appealing both the 14-year sentence and his convictions.
"After the initial fear of the first days, boredom is the main enemy," said Marcus, the defense attorney. "Getting up at the same time, eating, working, sleeping at the same time ... that's what gets to so many inmates, and Blagojevich is in for such a long time."