Convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich left his home early Thursday morning and hopped in a car, the first leg of a trip that will end with him behind bars in a federal prison in Colorado, and the latest chapter in the stunning downfall of one of the most charismatic political figures in Illinois' history.
Blagojevich, wearing a dark shirt, sport coat and jeans, had trouble making his way through a crowd of photographers, reporters and well-wishers shortly after 6 a.m. His wife, Patti, who has appeared with Blagojevich so many times outside the same Chicago home, proclaimed his innocence and who stood crying next to him on Wednesday night, did not accompany him to the car. Nor did his two daughters, who presumably minutes earlier said their goodbyes before heading to a prison where he will spend at least a dozen years.
"Saying goodbye is the hardest thing I've ever had to do," he said. "I'm leaving with a heavy heart, a clear conscience and I have high, high hopes for the future," A newspaper delivery man handed Blagojevich a paper that he offered to the crowd before climbing into a car to take him to O'Hare International Airport for a flight to Colorado. Then, just as he disappeared into the car, he turned to reporter and said, "I'll see you when I see you."
As they have throughout his three-year legal ordeal, supporters were outside the former governor's house yelling encouragement. "We'll be praying for you, we'll take care of your family," some shouted.
About 40 minutes later, Blagojevich, his sport coat off, could be seen going through security at O'Hare International Airport, where he raised his arms as he went through the imaging machine. Just as he was surrounded by cameras at his house, a crowd of travelers at the airport snapped his photograph as he made his way to the gate. His flight was scheduled to take off later in the morning.
When Blagojevich walks into prison Thursday — the state's second former governor in federal prison, joining George Ryan, who was also 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 that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat. FBI wiretaps revealed a fouled-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. The one-time reality show contestant 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 impeached 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 his wife, 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.
A law graduate, he could head to the prison library to research his case. He and his attorney are appealing both the lengthy 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."