Convicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich walked into 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.
With 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. Blagojevich — Illinois' second ex-governor now in prison for corruption — was convicted on 18 counts, including charges of trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.
"I'm leaving with a heavy heart, a clear conscience and I have high, high hopes for the future," Blagojevich told reporters and well-wishers as he left his Chicago home early Thursday for his flight to Denver.
Along with his attorneys, the 55-year-old Democrat spent about an hour driving around the minimum-security facility once arriving in Littleton, near Denver, stopping for lunch and waving to 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.
Blagojevich's lawyers didn't immediately return messages left Thursday afternoon. The attorneys have said it would take months to complete the paperwork to appeal his convictions and sentence.
In what had become a familiar scene in the three years since his arrest, an optimistic if not defiant Blagojevich bounded down the stairs of his Chicago home through a throng of photographers and cameramen Thursday morning. Supporters were shouting encouragement.
"Saying goodbye is the hardest thing I've ever had to do," said Blagojevich, who wasn't accompanied by his wife, Patti, though she could be seen through the windows. One of their two daughters peeked out a window before her father departed.
The night before, the famously talkative Democrat — who was caught on FBI wiretaps saying the opportunity to trade an appointment to Obama's old Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job was "f------ golden" — embraced the public spotlight one last time.
"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 told crowds of media and supporters, his wife standing by his side.
When he finally arrived at the prison Thursday, the spotlight went away — and he became Inmate No. 40892-424. The man with a taste for fine Oxxford-label suits was to be given khaki prison garb and boots.
He now lives in institutional beige stone buildings 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 also was heard on the FBI wiretaps scoffing at a low six-figure salary, will work a menial prison job, possibly cleaning bathrooms, 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 undoubtedly the most difficult change will be living without his wife and their daughters, 15-year-old Amy and 8-year-old Anne. In prison, their contact will be limited to a few times a month and, when he does see his family, Blagojevich will be able to hug and kiss them once at the start of the visit and once at the end.
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.
To fight boredom, the avid runner could jog on a prison track for the limited time inmates are 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."