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Convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich stepped off a plane in Colorado on Thursday and headed to a federal prison to begin a 14-year sentence for corruption, the latest chapter in the downfall of a charismatic politician that seemed more like a bizarre reality TV show than a legal battle.
In what has become a familiar scene in the three years since Blagojevich was taken out of his home in handcuffs by federal agents, the former governor had earlier bounded down the stairs of his Chicago home as a throng of cameramen, photographers and reporters crushed around him and well-wishers shouted encouragement.
As he has done repeatedly before and after his conviction, Blagojevich sounded an optimistic and even defiant note.
"I'm leaving with a heavy heart, a clear conscience and I have high, high hopes for the future," said Blagojevich, wearing a dark shirt, sport coat and blue jeans.
Blagojevich was not accompanied by his wife, Patti, who wiped away tears the night before as he addressed the media. She and the couple's two daughters did not step out of the house, though she could be seen through the windows and one of the two girls peeked out a window from time to time before her father departed.
"Saying goodbye is the hardest thing I've ever had to do," Blagojevich said.
Followed by helicopters and television news crews on the road that brought to mind the low speed chase of O.J. Simpson, Blagojevich arrived at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. A mob of travelers took photographs on their cellphones as Blagojevich, his arms raised, stood in a body scanner before heading to the concourse.
(Watch video of the drive to prison below) He stepped off a plane less than three hours later at Denver International Airport, where local media reported he got in a car waiting for him at the airport gate.
When the prison-bound vehicle passed the facility, the throngs of reporters were confused. It turns out, according to NBC Chicago, that Blagojevich's crew got lost and decided to grab lunch:
After some searching they ended up at Freddy's steak burgers, a fast-food joint where Blagojevich would have his final meal as a free man.
When Blagojevich walks into prison Thursday – the state's second former governor in federal prison, joining George Ryan, who also was convicted of corruption charges – he will undergo a full-body strip search and hand over his personal belongings, save for his wedding ring. The man with a taste for fine Oxxford-label suits will be given khaki prison garb and boots.
Then, he will become Inmate No. 40892-424.
The one-time golden boy of Illinois politics with a penchant for television cameras is expected to report to a Colorado prison by 2 p.m. to begin his 14-year prison term on corruption charges, marking the state's second governor in a row to be sent to prison for corruption.
Jurors convicted Blagojevich on 18 counts, including charges he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat. FBI wiretaps revealed a foul-mouth Blagojevich describing the opportunity to exchange an appointment to the 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 reporters' microphones and hovering television helicopters 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 told the crowd outside his Chicago home. "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."
The 55-year-old married father requested the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood in suburban Denver. Although a minimum-security facility, it looks every bit a prison: stone buildings are institutional beige, the grounds encircled by high razor-wire fencing. Blagojevich, leaving behind his wife and two daughters in the family's 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. But most of the facility's nearly 1,000 inmates are there for drug offences, and some could be in for violent crimes including murder, said U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke.
Inside, Blagojevich's life will be strictly regimented. The ex-governor – who was heard on the FBI wiretaps scoffing at the idea of earning 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 a half dozen head counts a day, including several overnight, and Blagojevich will be told what to do rather than give orders to sycophant aides, as he did while Illinois' top executive.
"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."
Blagojevich's fame outside won't do him any good inside, explained Jim Marcus, a Chicago-based defense attorney and former prosecutor.
"You say you were once the governor of Illinois – no one gives hoot," Marcus said. "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 off his trademark thick hair, though maintenance may pose challenges. Hair dryers, for instance, are prohibited.
To cope in prison, ex-cons say, Blagojevich must master unwritten prison codes. Among them: Never gaze at other inmates for longer than a second or two, least they take the stares as a sign of aggression.
But the most difficult change undoubtedly will be living without Patti 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 another 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 if he successfully enters a substance-abuse rehabilitation program, which his lawyers requested and the sentencing judge recommended without explanation.
He could read or play pool in a game room. The avid runner could jog, but only on a prison track for the limited time he's allow into the main yard. Internet access is prohibited, as are cellphones.
"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."
A law graduate, he could head to the prison library to research his case. He and his attorney are appealing both the 14-year sentence and his convictions.
Blagojevich's former attorney Sam Adam Jr. told Fox Chicago that the ex-governor will be vindicated -- but that it might take a few years:
Adam Jr. said if all the tapes would be played in context, Blagojevich would be exonerated. He was hopeful that when the appeals court heard all the tapes, his conviction would be overturned.