Face time: Author Jonathan Coleman visits Jim Baldi in jail

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. 

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