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Living on the edge

Times Staff Writers

For a year, Christopher Bowman had told John Baldwin Jr. he was coming home to Southern California, but he didn’t follow through, and after a while Baldwin stopped believing him.

Then, a few days before Baldwin was to leave for Tokyo to compete in the World Figure Skating Championships last March, Bowman called him, asking to be picked up at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade.

The man he saw was not the confident athlete who twice won the U.S. men’s figure skating title, a dynamic performer who was known as “Bowman the Showman” because he so easily enthralled skating judges and audiences.

This Bowman had lost his lifelong battle with his weight, carrying as much as 300 pounds on a 6-foot frame. A former child actor and featured skater who earned good money on the Ice Capades tour, Bowman was destitute, having gone through his bank accounts, his friends and a marriage that produced a daughter.

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“I think he was planning on staying indefinitely, but I just didn’t have the room,” said Baldwin, who once employed Bowman to choreograph his skating routines. “I put him in a hotel in West L.A. and paid for it for a little bit. I knew he didn’t have any money.”

When Bowman left, Baldwin turned to his skating partner, Rena Inoue, and uttered words that were chillingly prescient.

“I said, ‘I hope something terrible doesn’t happen to him in the next six months,’ ” Baldwin said. “He had extreme highs and lows. I was afraid he was going to do something extreme.”

On Thursday, Baldwin got the phone call he had always known he would receive.

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Bowman, 40, had been found dead in a room at a Budget Inn on a busy, nondescript block of Sepulveda Boulevard in North Hills.

Bowman was pronounced dead of unknown causes, said Sgt. Greg Houser of the Los Angeles Police Department. The Los Angeles County Coroner is investigating to establish whether he died from natural causes or a possible overdose of prescription drugs.

Lt. David Smith of the coroner’s office said prescription drugs were found at the scene but would not identify them.

Houser said Friday that Bowman’s death did not appear to be a suicide.

“We were told by a friend who found him that he went to sleep and didn’t wake up. The friend checked on him, believing he was asleep, but he wasn’t breathing,” Houser said.

He added there was “no indication of trauma and no sign of a struggle inside the room,” and no drug paraphernalia was discovered in the room.

A relative of Bowman’s ex-wife, Annette, said the family “needed a few days” before publicly addressing his death. Telephone messages left for Annette Bowman were not immediately returned.

“He could have had it all. He was a national champion and world medalist and he should have been an Olympic champion, and he dies by himself in a budget hotel room. It’s just horrible,” said Aimee Kravette, a former skater who coached at Panorama City and knew Bowman since he was a child. “I’m just feeling sad for the loss of life and I’m feeling angry because of the way he lived -- and the way he died.”

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Bowman’s last months, as pieced together Friday from accounts of friends and colleagues, were lived largely on the run. He bounced from one cheap motel to the next and sometimes slept in his car. He told different stories about where he lived.

He coached a few skaters at the Panorama City rink but couldn’t find more than occasional work because skating officials were wary of his past. He spent two stints in rehab for drug and alcohol problems and never missed a party. In 2005 in Michigan, he was sentenced to 18 months’ probation for a misdemeanor involving having a gun while drunk.

Friends say he had become unreliable and forgetful. One said Bowman judged a local competition and, when he saw pictures of it a few weeks later, did not recall having been there.

Members of the figure skating community say Bowman stole Baldwin’s identity as part of a money-making scam, but Baldwin, out of friendship to his onetime idol, declined to press charges. Baldwin declined to comment on the incident.

Bowman’s mother, Joyce, said she had spoken sporadically to her only child since he returned to Southern California. Their last conversation occurred around Christmas, and she said she still had a present for him at her Van Nuys home.

“We just talked about that we wanted to get together, to reconnect, and that we were missing each other,” she said. “He was our pride and joy.”

She also said she feared he was wrong to leave his ex-wife and 10-year-old daughter, Bianca, behind in the Detroit area. Baldwin described Bowman as “very positive but very lonely,” a feeling Joyce Bowman sensed too. She wondered what it might lead to.

“We worried about him being out here,” she said. “He had talked about wanting to start working out here, acting and some other things, coaching, but we didn’t feel this was a good place for him.”

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When authorities gave her Christopher’s wallet Thursday, she became choked up.

“It’s loaded with nothing but pictures of his daughter, beautiful pictures,” she said.

The beauty of those pictures contrasted with the ugliness of his drug addiction.

Joyce Bowman had tried to help him. Sometimes he wouldn’t listen. Other times, his addictions to cocaine and other drugs were too powerful.

“He’d never hurt anybody, but he hurt himself,” Joyce Bowman said. “He could not handle the success, the party world. It was too much temptation and he was too happy-go-lucky to say no.

“We wanted him to be well, not to go down a road he would destroy himself.”

He was trying to throw himself back into his sport. Dawn Eyerly, vice president of the L.A. Figure Skating Club, said Bowman had asked to help evaluate the club’s adult competitors. She sent him an e-mail early Thursday accepting his offer.

“It was sad watching him go through a very tough time after his competitive career,” she said. “This news is heartbreaking, and the sadness and sense of loss will be felt throughout the entire skating community.”

Those who knew him said they knew it was a matter of when, not if, they would hear what they heard Thursday.

Doug Williams, a skating judge and official, said he last saw Bowman three months ago. “It seemed like he was trying to get his life together, but he was truly depressed about his divorce with Annette,” Williams said.

“He was trying to get a book written to expel some of his demons, and he had ideas for movies and stories. He was a great storyteller. That’s part of the problem -- you never knew if he was telling the truth or not.”

Baldwin said Bowman had read him some excerpts from a rough draft of the book. Like Bowman, the writing was engrossing.

“He loves to tell stories of his glory days and is a great storyteller,” Baldwin said. “I don’t know if it was going to be a fictional tale, but I know it would be entertaining.”

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

lance.pugmire@latimes.com


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