Lewis dons different uniform

Checking celebrity status at door, Ravens star starts term at Fla. prison camp

February 05, 2005|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Jamal Lewis left behind the matching diamond earrings he wore to court last year.

The prison doesn't allow its residents earrings.

He left behind his purple Ravens No. 31 jerseys.

The running back has a new color now - institutional khaki - and a new number. It's 55612-019.

As prisoners usually do, Lewis relinquished a great deal when he reported to Federal Prison Camp in Pensacola, Fla., shortly before noon yesterday to begin serving a four-month sentence.

FOR THE RECORD - In yesterday's sports section, a photograph of the Federal Prison Camp at Pensacola Naval Air Station should have been credited to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The Sun regrets the error.

Lewis, 25, hopes this sad interlude in his NFL career will end a saga that began in 2000 when he met a woman - a government informant - and made a series of mistakes that, despite what a judge described as a weak case against him, sent him to the minimum-security work camp.

"His mindset is he just wants to get this done," said Jerome Froelich, the attorney who represented Lewis after his indictment and eventual guilty plea to using a cell phone to assist a drug deal.

To get himself through, Froelich said, Lewis intends to look ahead to next season and focus on rehabilitating the surgically repaired ankle injured during the season. A cast was removed last week and Lewis entered the prison wearing a boot he is expected to need for at least half of his term.

Even football-focused, Lewis may find it hard to ignore the loss of his privacy, his celebrity and, to an unknown extent, his pride.

Lewis, who makes $200,000 a week, was to be assigned an upper or lower bunk in a barracks-style dormitory with communal toilets and showers. He was to receive a set of khaki work pants, shirts with buttons and a pair of steel-toed work boots to wear during the 7 1/2 hours a day he cuts grass, paints or performs other jobs.

He was to submit for approval a list of people who can telephone or visit him, including the Ravens' trainer.

Those who know him describe Lewis as embarrassed.

The Atlanta native, educated in Catholic schools, asked his attorneys not to disclose in advance which prison he was entering - Pensacola was not his first choice - and when.

Lewis, whose community involvement includes speaking in schools and contributing equipment to youth athletics, apparently didn't want fans to see televised images of the NFL's 2003 Offensive Player of the Year slipping into a prison whose 536 residents are mostly drug offenders and white-collar criminals. One fellow inmate is a former Wisconsin county prosecutor convicted of bribery.

There is an irony in Lewis' entering prison. His mother is a former prison supervisor in Georgia, and he once said in an interview that he had always hoped to steer clear of prison life.

It was before the 2000 season - and before signing his first NFL contract - that Lewis met a woman who would alter his life's course. One miscalculation was trusting her. She turned out to be an informant who recorded their conversations.

"She said at first that she was a real estate agent, and the first tape is about the houses that she's found," said Don Samuel, one of the Ravens' attorneys. "Everybody knows that the first thing football players do when they sign a contract is buy their mama a house."

Her method of gaining Lewis' trust is one of several facts related to Lewis' case that have emerged since his sentencing. Another is that it was the defense, not the prosecution, that made the first overture for plea negotiations to avoid a trial.

Lewis, whose contract was for six years and $35 million, indeed bought a home for his mother. But as he later admitted, he also arranged a meeting that summer between the informant, who told him she was a drug dealer, and a hometown Atlanta friend. Angelo "Pero" Jackson planned to buy cocaine from her and resell it.

For reasons it declines to explain, the Atlanta-based U.S. Attorney's Office didn't seek an indictment until February 2004. The result was that for years Lewis faced not charges, but uncertainty.

His older brother, John Lewis Jr., said Jamal had been aware of the federal inquiry and had been concerned about it.

As the football player's career was taking off, people he knew from northwest Atlanta's Bowen Homes housing project were receiving multi-year prison terms arising from a sweeping cocaine-distribution probe - the same one that had dispatched the confidential witness to tape Lewis' conversations.

The FBI investigation suffered because the informant couldn't seem to get Jamal Lewis on tape making comments suggesting a broad conspiracy. The informant fumbled a telephone recording device in five conversations with Lewis, and only her voice was audible on the tapes, the government said.

With minimal recorded evidence, prosecutors would have had to rely at trial largely on the informant's version of events, and her credibility was undermined by a criminal record that included fraud and forgery convictions, and her use of a string of aliases and fictitious birth dates.

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined repeated requests by The Sun to respond to questions about the case.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.