Face time: Author Jonathan Coleman visits Jim Baldi in jail

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Convicted embezzler James K. Baldi is currently serving his sentence at the Cold Springs Correctional Unit in Greenville and could face additional prison time for a new federal charge. Convicted embezzler James K. Baldi is currently serving his sentence at the Cold Springs Correctional Unit in Greenville and could face additional prison time for a new federal charge.

There he was, much as I remembered him: the same mischievous, knowing, somewhat furtive look, jaunty and clean-cut as ever; even the erudite black glasses were not that much of a surprise. He is nearly 50 now, but still incorrigibly youthful, and, despite all that he is up against, hopeful, hopeful for “one more day.”

James Kirk Baldi—waiter, bartender, former college professor with a Ph.D., accountant, restaurateur, fugitive—had enjoyed life one day at a time since he fled these parts with his much younger girlfriend, Kristian Throckmorton, in the summer of 2010, leaving a number of people in his wake who felt, among other things, angry, disillusioned, financially taken, and betrayed. He somehow managed to stay gone until January 4 of this year. One more day. For him, it was like a mantra for his deceptively paradisiacal life on the run. Just one more day. It didn’t last. As Joan Didion wrote, “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.”

So on that first Friday evening of January, nearly 3,000 miles away from Central Virginia, a team of United States Marshals surprised and surrounded Jim Baldi at Pachino Trattoria and Pizzeria, the San Francisco restaurant where he and Throckmorton (a.k.a. Dario and Eliana DiSovana) worked, and where he had charmed, as is his wont, many of the regular clientele. Five weeks later, after time spent at San Bruno #5, one of San Francisco County’s main correctional facilities, he was extradited to Charlottesville, where he faces a variety of embezzlement charges in both city and county courts.

I had written him a short note on a yellow legal pad and said I would like to come see him at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail on Peregory Lane. We had, at separate times, gone out with the same woman, and we had played basketball together on a few occasions. We would nod to each other on the Downtown Mall, and I was, and remain, good friends with someone who was particularly close to him.

What I didn’t know at the time I received a letter back from Baldi was that I was the only person he had put on his visitation list —or so he said. Other than his attorney, Scott Goodman, he preferred not to see anybody, he told me when I appeared for the first time on the gray Saturday morning of March 2.

Thirty minutes, twice a month, is all the time he is granted for visitation. In my line of work as an author of nonfiction, I have made a number of visits to prisons—federal, state, and local—but this is the first instance when I have had to stand the entire time.

He seemed pleased to see me. Why, I am not entirely sure and can only guess. He also struck me as nervous, alternating between looking at me directly and avoiding eye contact altogether. I asked about his children, Gina and Nick, whom I had met briefly years before. Gina is 20 now, just a few months older than my own daughter, and Nick a year younger. Like me, Baldi had physical custody of them half the time, starting when they were both young, and I always had the impression that he was a caring, devoted father. I was curious if Gina and Nick had been in contact with him and he said they hadn’t.

He claimed it was on account of their mother’s wish that they stay away until after his legal issues were behind him. I started to say that they were grown now and could make that decision for themselves, but I didn’t. I did find it curious, though, that he seemed to know something about his daughter’s life—that Gina was in her third year at UVA—but nothing about his son’s. The subject of his children, as one might expect, was difficult for him, and I let it go.

So why was I there, you might ask? I had not come to interrogate him or to elicit a confession, or to unearth some unambiguous evidence that he felt contrite about the things he was being charged with and wanted to make amends. I had come because, years before, I had written a book called Exit the Rainmaker, a book that recounted the planned disappearance of a beloved Maryland college president and the impact his leaving had on the institution, on his wife and family, and on a community in which everyone knew him… or at least thought they did.

Not only had the act of disappearance held a fascination for me ever since I read of Huck Finn’s desire to “light out for the territory,” but so had the fierce, often overwhelming desire to reinvent one’s self, borne out of the fervent hope, ever present and however misguided, that the proverbial grass will be greener on the other side. It’s an old, romantic American story that, somehow, never gets old.

As I dug deeper into the subject, I was also fascinated to learn of how many people, both men and women, actually do this every year, and of the countless more who fantasize about doing it, but who stop short for a variety of reasons. To me, on some level, it is a form of suicide, social suicide, and I found myself reflecting on whether it is an act of courage or cowardice, an act of sanity or insanity, or some strange mixture of all four. But most interesting, and haunting, of all was the biggest question it raised: How well do any of us really know someone else?

That question aside, there was of course one significant difference between the college president’s disappearance and Jim Baldi’s: Jay Carsey was not running from the law. He was free to go wherever he pleased. If one chose to view his leaving as a crime, given how upset so many people were at the time, it was a moral one at best.

I was curious if Baldi had read Exit the Rainmaker, and he had. He didn’t go straight to California, he said, but had stopped and worked along the way; he had chosen his places carefully but did not say where. The restaurant industry was something he knew as a world unto itself, a world that he and Throckmorton, a blonde who is now in her late 20s, could easily blend into without being scrutinized. She was still in California, he said, and they were still together, speaking on the phone on a regular basis.

After his arrest, Throckmorton had begun working at another restaurant nearby, but when I phoned to speak with her, I was told she was no longer working there. The couple had reportedly forged green cards from Canada which bore their aliases, but the U.S. Marshals have not confirmed that. (When I recalled that Baldi’s dissertation concerned the Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Canada, this detail made a certain amount of sense.) Contrary to what was reported in 2010, Baldi insisted that Throckmorton had never returned to Charlottesville. He was fairly emotional in speaking of her, saying that “Kristian’s a good girl, a very good girl,” expressing how much he missed her. A close friend of mine recalled often seeing them together in Beer Run, holding hands. When I asked if he wanted, or expected, her to wait for him, Baldi said that was his hope. Another hope for one more day.

In the meantime, Baldi is looking ahead, looking forward to getting his legal troubles behind him and “turning the page.” Determined “to remain thoughtful and quiet and focus on my case,” he was glad to have a radio to listen to and books from the jail library to read—George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Graham Swift’s Waterland, and particularly and perhaps tellingly, C.S. Forester’s acclaimed series of books about Horatio Hornblower, the fictional Royal Navy officer whose global adventures spanned the Napoleonic Wars.

“On every single level, this has been a nightmare,” Gina Baldi said last week on the phone. “I love my father very much, I truly do. But he abandoned us. To be 16 and 17 and not know if he is dead or alive, we had to deal with the fallout of that. It will take me a very long time before I can trust him again. And I will do everything I can to prevent him from hurting me and Nick anymore. He is much more fragile than I am, and it is my job to protect him.”

The deep hurt in Gina’s voice was unmistakable and heartbreaking; her voice itself was older than her years. It was the hurt of a daughter whose father had not been present last May when she graduated summa cum laude and was given the highest award Piedmont Virginia Community College bestows on a student. Who had not shared in the joy she experienced at receiving a coveted research internship at Johns Hopkins last summer, and is unlikely to have any knowledge of her plans to pursue a degree in either medicine or public health when she graduates from UVA.

“My mother has had nothing to do with our not visiting him yet,” she emphasized. “Nothing at all.” Just because he is back, she said, she and Nick were in no hurry to see him, though she had recently gotten a note from him and they were planning to go soon. She was nervous at the prospect of feeling upset all over again.

“I have no idea what to expect,” she said. “I do know that I don’t want to go out there and just have him ask me about school and my grades and mundane things like that.”

If there has been any silver lining in the whole ordeal, in this story of loss, it is this: It has not only brought Gina and her brother closer to their mother, stepfather, and four half-siblings, but it has brought them closer to the Baldi side of the family, especially with the death of their grandfather, Albert Baldi, three days before Christmas (a mere two weeks before Jim Baldi’s arrest).

When I recently looked over the electronic guest book that funeral homes put online for people to send their condolences, I couldn’t help noticing this entry (and being reminded how each family deals with things in their own peculiar way):

Aunt Judy, Jimmy, and Katie

Our family is deeply saddened to hear of the loss of Uncle Al. He was always warm and welcoming whenever our family visited Maine and New Hampshire. We will keep you and your families in our prayers during the difficult days ahead.

Loads of love,

Terri and Dan and Family

Jim Baldi’s relatives apparently never knew, or never were told, that “Jimmy” had ever been gone.—Jonathan Coleman 

Jim Baldi is expected to appear in Albemarle County General District Court on March 28 at 10:30 a.m. and again, on April 1, in Albemarle County Circuit Court at 9:30 a.m. 

  • O. Wilde

    Jim Baldi is the antithesis of that ridiculous hypocritical town. His charm is not just charm. It represents a personality utterly at odds with the pseudo-intellectuals and moralizers of Charlottesville. He stole some money; you ruin the environment, pay people a less-than-living wage, and treat black people like second-class citizens, all while you roll around in your velvet ditch.

  • wahookitty

    There was absolutely no need to mention his children in this article. They deserve privacy and respect, and the author showed neither. I am one of Nick’s professors, and this situation has truly and greatly stressed him out. Now it’s in print for the world to see. Mr. Coleman owes the family an apology.

  • david t.

    this is a small town. i have had dinner with the author (years ago). and i knew jim baldi personally and professionally. i think the story was artful, but untactful, given the narrow degrees of separation in such an interconnected community. i wish that jim’s kids hadn’t been mentioned in the article, since it lent little to the “news” of his crimes, and offered scant regard to their dignity and the personal/private processing of their dad’s actions. their father’s choices created a public scandal; the impact on them should be held as private. at the heart of it, it leaves me wishing the editors had exercised more judgment and respect.

  • cmgllghr

    Note, however, that the author does have history with the family members and is not a random writer pushing his way into their lives. Coleman has forged a connection with Baldi through the role of parenthood and has met the children…. the piece does not aim to publicize a family’s grief but foster sympathy and humanize a very difficult situation. I think it does not seem obtrusive, but instead poignant.

  • AC

    I don’t believe the children’s privacy was invaded. She chose to speak with the author and he gave them an opportunity to have a voice in this difficult situation. The fact remains that the man is their father and I’m sure speaking to someone she knew about the situation and who handled it tactfully was preferable.

  • http://www.facebook.com/amyklemley Amy Lemley

    Great article. Con men are a many-faceted gem, and this piece explores some facets another writer might have ignored. While I am distracted by the destruction he left here in Charlottesville, and the can’t-stop-envisioning-it detail of his and Kristian’s speaking with fake Italian accents at work, and the confusion about why she wasn’t picked up for fraud or other crimes, Coleman relates to Baldi as a fellow parent, with adult children the same age–children who were apparently still under 18 and in his joint custody when he disappeared. Hearing the perspective of one of those two grown children adds much richness to this piece–and this is the kind of coverage only C-Ville and the Hook offer us locally. At age 20, Gina Baldi is an articulate woman whose choice to comment was her own. Reaching out to her for comment is a journalist’s job; clearly, she is mature and self-confident enough to have declined if she had preferred. I am mystified how anyone could suggest Coleman “owes the family an apology”–how marginalized that suggestion could make Gina feel if she were not so sure of herself as she seems to be. Baldi is the one who owes the family an apology, who owes those who trusted him with their livelihoods (and their families’) an apology, and who owes this community an apology.

  • Lisa

    In response to the comments regarding the mention of Baldi’s children and the interview with Gina- I feel that this was absolutely appropriate and necessary for this piece. Speaking as someone who is interviewed often due to my involvement in the music business, I ask all of you, “Isn’t it true that we all have free will to be interviewed — or not?” I find it admirable that Gina volunteered this information to Jonathan. I found the piece to be extremely interesting because of Gina’s input. Maybe everyone else just wanted to read the same old, same old, same old “facts?” I also wonder why so many feel the need to walk on broken glass around this subject? Should we pretend that this man did not have a family who loved him, a family who was hurt, a family who is still hurt? At one time or another, either over coffee, at a picnic, or even in passing on the Downtown Mall, we have all asked each other, “I wonder how his family is doing?” We can kid-glove this small town all we want, but it’s filled with highly intelligent folk who are please that Mr. Coleman tastefully acknowledged the elephant in the room. Well done!

  • M. H.

    Wow. I am truly, sincerely impressed. C-ville, you’ve dumbfounded me. This is one of the most pathetic excuses of an article I have ever read. Poorly developed, poorly executed, poorly written, and unquestionably in poor taste–I haven’t read something this half-baked in print since my 4th grade Creative Writing class where we printed out our poems about nature on colored construction paper and stapled them together to make a “book”. Jonathan Coleman’s cloying, melodramatic style made this article almost unreadable—and yet accidentally enjoyable at the same time.

    I appreciated how Coleman pulled out his biggest guns right away, drawing up one of the weakest character sketches I’ve ever read. “Mischievous, knowing…furtive”—did this guy just google “synonyms for wily” and figure he’d done his job? Coleman made Baldi sound more like a cartoon fox than a human being with, presumably, more facets than “tricky”. He does show a glimmer of creativity, though, using the word “erudite” to describe an accessory—something neither I nor Messrs. Merriam and Webster ever thought to do.

    The amount of sentiment injected into this article is frankly nauseating—“the deep hurt in [her] voice was unmistakable”, “if there has been any silver lining in this whole ordeal, in this story of loss…”. A published author (did you all know he’s published? Did you? Buy Exit the Rainmaker today) should know better than to write while Sarah McLachlan’s SPCA commercial is playing in the background. That was the only explanation I could come up with for his decision to make this pathetic attempt at playing the reader’s feelings.

    Mr. Coleman’s extended plug for his almost-relevant book was, in my opinion, very helpful. I know exactly where to look if I decide I want to read hundreds of pages of this tripe. I’ve heard it said that every author must find his “voice”, and it appears Mr. Coleman has found his—that of a disingenuous jackass who manipulates the children of a man he says he shares friends with, all the while coating his writing in a thick layer of treacly insincere compassion. A perfect summer read.

    The one element of this article that I enjoyed the very most was Coleman’s use of the phrase “One More Day” as a motif. Some people may see this ploy as a ludicrously juvenile attempt to add pathos and style to this article, but I have often thought that authors should use more phrases inspired from Les Miserables as themes for their writing. I myself like to spice up my
    writing by inserting “And I’m JAVERT” wherever possible.

    But really, the only part of this article that truly captured my interest was the fact that this is a published author’s work. This man wrote a whole book, and people bought it. Still, there’s no accounting for taste in this country. Somehow, Two and a Half Men manages to pull in millions of viewers each episode. I can only hope that these are the sort of readers Coleman is pulling in—he doesn’t deserve anyone else.

    • TT

      christ MH what a prick you are…busy life? happy life?

    • KT

      Yikes… you alright?! I’m wondering why anyone would ever spend so much time publicly bashing someone else… jealousy, insanity?! Eeeek. I feel sorry for you, MH :( Get some help.

  • z.z.

    In response to M.H. The post seems much more a hostile, vindictive and personal attack on the author than a considered response to the article.

  • A local

    A community deserves much more from its news sources than this. There is no indication that the author asked any questions pertinent to Baldi, his disappearance, the case before him. Rather, there seems to be self-directed marveling at the author’s luck to know a person facing charges, self-referential comments (“He seemed pleased to see me”?), and a five-paragraph digression about a book published more than 20 years ago.

    Baldi’s story holds a bevy of unanswered questions. Someone should’ve asked them.

  • z.z.

    To: A local. You are ignoring the point. The author quite clearly stated why he was there, or why he wasn’t there: he had no intention of interfering with the case before trial. That seems the right thing to do.

  • z.z.

    And even at that, the piece contains a lot of information. So the suggestion that “there is no indication…..” is inaccurate.

    • A local

      Not “interfering with the case before trial” is a straw man. More importantly, an interview with Baldi is a great opportunity to pose questions relevant to the case. While the article contains “a lot of information,” I would ask: About what, exactly?

  • z.z.

    z.z. There is a difference of opinion here. I didn’t read this as “an interview” with Baldi. This is the approach he chose to take. Yours would have been different, clearly. The daughter’s voice in the piece is ultimately what matters the most anyway.

  • BW

    Those of you who are defending the decision to include the Baldi children in this article, fine. But you should know he included quotes that those children would never have uttered. Inventing quotes doesn’t count as good journalism.

    • z.z.

      The author doesn’t “invent” things.

      • z.z.

        I know his work well and in all the years he has been writing, his integrity has never been questioned. With all due respect, BW, you don’t know what you are talking about.

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