On Eve of Sentencing, Carpenter Recounts His Days as Fugitive : Prisons: The former state senator tells of good life he enjoyed in Costa Rica, where he had fled after his money-laundering conviction. His cancer is in remission.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On New Year's Day one year ago, former state Sen. Paul Carpenter made a crude calculation.

Diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, he took the estimated two years he had to live and subtracted it from the seven-year prison sentence he expected for a money-laundering conviction.

The bottom line was unmistakable: He would die in a federal penitentiary.

Accustomed to having his own way as a high-ranking member of the California Legislature, Carpenter figured out a way to outsmart the system of justice.

He decided to flee to Costa Rica, a place he had once visited on a hiking trip, a tropical paradise with a balky court system that he thought would keep him away from the clutches of American law enforcement.

"I really felt . . . I would be left alone to live and die and spend the rest of my life there," he said.

But Carpenter's life as a fugitive ended with arrest last April and extradition in November. Now he is residing in the Sacramento County Jail, less than a mile from the state Capitol where he once wheedled campaign contributions out of lobbyists and pushed a conservative agenda.

Carpenter's cancer is in remission, a development that has prompted prosecutors to argue that he exaggerated the severity of his disease. It means U.S. District Judge Edward J. Garcia is less likely to consider the former senator's medical condition when he is sentenced today.

The prosecutors have filed a court memorandum, arguing that Carpenter's medical condition should not be a factor in his sentencing. Citing a recent examination by two cancer specialists who predicted that the former senator could live eight to 10 more years, they wrote: "That he is on the verge of death is simply false."

Carpenter's attorney, Charles Bloodgood, is expected to ask for leniency on the grounds that the disease is unpredictable and could become active at any time.

On a bleak winter day, Carpenter, who has spoken briefly with the press since his return to the United States in November, talked expansively about his plight as inmate No. 1716588. In a two-hour interview, he provided new details about his international odyssey, his attempts to elude federal officials and his months in a Costa Rican prison, where life was so good that he was willing to spend his last days there.

If Carpenter displayed any bitterness, it was only toward prosecutors, who have been relentless in their efforts to win his conviction and later to engineer his return to the United States.

Carpenter was convicted in December, 1993, of 11 counts, including obstruction of justice and money laundering, after a trial that featured one of his closest legislative colleagues--former state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys)--as the prosecution's star witness. The prosecution painted Carpenter as a corrupt politician who had served as a conduit for bribe money being paid to Robbins by an insurance lobbyist.

Friends and colleagues say they were not surprised that he skipped the country. If anything, they wondered why he waited so long.

In the Legislature, where he served one term in the Assembly and a decade in the state Senate representing parts of Los Angeles and Orange counties, Carpenter is remembered as a man who did not want to lose at anything and liked to take risks.

When former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. named ex-Vietnam War protester Tom Hayden to a state board and his then-wife, actress Jane Fonda, to the California Arts Council, it was Carpenter, a fellow Democrat, who immediately took out full-page newspaper ads, saying, "Fight the radicals."

Today, at 67, Carpenter's outlook is a little more mellow, and he wears a full white beard.

Speaking over a telephone in the jail visiting room, he says he has few regrets about his decision to leave the country. "In effect they were going to give me a life sentence," he says.

Carpenter smiles impishly when he remembers the stories written later about his escape. They quoted him as saying that he had crisscrossed the country to elude capture, flying first to Detroit, then New Hampshire, then back to Los Angeles and finally to Costa Rica.

In reality, he says, he simply boarded a jet at Los Angeles International Airport, flew to Las Vegas and then San Antonio, where he changed to a flight headed for San Jose, Costa Rica. "I was fairly confident that I was not being followed," he says.

The speculation that he had taken a different route came when letters carrying Michigan and New Hampshire postmarks and bearing his signature began arriving in Sacramento shortly after his disappearance.

Carpenter said he had sealed and stamped several letters, bundled them into two Manila envelopes and mailed the envelopes to postmasters in the two northern states. Inside the envelopes he placed a polite note asking the postmasters to put the sealed and stamped letters into mail slots at their post offices. The postmasters obliged, he said.

Once in Costa Rica, Carpenter called a Canadian he had met on his hiking trip and asked if the man wanted a roommate. When the man replied, "Sure," Carpenter moved into his condominium and immediately became swept up in the relaxed life of the expatriate community.

He dropped his last name and went by his first and middle names--Paul Bruce. But he claims he did little else to hide his identity and moved freely and openly among expatriates, even signing up for a Spanish-language course under his real name. In retrospect, he says, one mistake may have led to his capture.

On a lark, his friend suggested they enter a national bridge tournament to meet other expatriates. To their surprise, the two men won the contest, becoming Costa Rica's national team champions. "I hadn't played bridge in 35 years," Carpenter says, "but at one point I was adequate."

Shortly after their identity as the new bridge champions was carried in several publications, Carpenter was arrested on his way to sign up for the national health program.

Prison life in Costa Rica, was nothing like prison life in America. Inmates lived in wards. They staged pool and chess tournaments (Carpenter says he won one of the chess tournaments) and were allowed to cook meals on their own hot plates. When they did not cook in their rooms, they ordered takeout food from local restaurants.

"I ate prison food maybe 13 times in the seven months I was there," Carpenter says.

Visiting privileges, which at the Sacramento jail are restricted to two one-hour sessions a week, were generous, and periodically inmates were allowed conjugal visits. Carpenter says he visited regularly with his longtime companion, Doris Morrow, who relocated in Costa Rica once he was captured.

While Carpenter settled into the prison routine, his Costa Rican lawyer waged a seesaw battle in the courts to keep him from being extradited. Carpenter said the American government was unusually aggressive in its effort to get him returned, pushing the Costa Rican court to rule in what seemed record time.

In November, in handcuffs and leg irons, he was finally brought back to the United States and settled into a more regimented life in the Sacramento County Jail.

At the jail, there are no pool tables or chess tournaments and certainly no hot plates in the rooms. The former senator says he spends much of his time reading, finding it odd that most of the books in the tiny prison library are crime stories.

The other inmates seem unaware, he says, of his former status and he credits his training as a psychologist--he holds a doctorate in psychology from Florida State University--with helping him get along with fellow prisoners. "It made me a good listener," he says.

On this day, Carpenter's mood is buoyed by the news from a UC Davis medical team that an examination has shown his cancer is in remission and the likelihood of death is not as imminent as Carpenter once thought.

To Carpenter, the news is both reassuring and alarming. It means that the former senator is expected to live longer than he once believed was likely. It also means his condition is less likely to be a factor in Judge Garcia's sentencing.

So Carpenter says he is pinning his hopes on winning an appeal of his conviction. "It looks like now I have several years more of survival time, which is a change," he says. "I very much hope now to survive the ruling on my appeal."

To increase his chances for survival, Carpenter recently underwent a surgical procedure called an orchiectomy--removal of the testicles--which is often used to slow the spread of advanced prostate cancer.

Carpenter says he very much wants to live, even if living means confinement in prison. He says he misses the freedom to hike and camp and go mountain climbing--his favorite recreation--but he refuses to dwell on it or give in to depression. "I think it's fair to say that I'm tough. I'm an adapter. I'm a survivor. I've been on some tough mountains before," he says.

Confinement, the former senator adds, has some rewarding elements. It gives him a chance to meet "people from a stratum of society I would not otherwise have met," he said with a wry smile. "In my other life, I didn't know many thieves, wife beaters and murderers."

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