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The black BMW knifed south on Interstate 5 toward a destination both known and unknown to Daniel David. As a simple matter of geography, he understood where he was headed a federal penitentiary in Taft, 40 miles southwest of Bakersfield. It was the idea of living behind bars that posed the mystery, partly because he had never served time, partly because he had refused to believe this day would arrive.
David rode shotgun on the almost five-hour drive from his Berkeley apartment to Kern County. His friend, Peter Akers, sat behind the wheel, easing off the gas when dust clouds swirled across the highway, cutting visibility on a cold, blustery day early last month. Sports chatter played low on the radio while the two men talked, their conversation loose and light despite the reason for that morning's travel: David needed to report to the prison to start a 30-month term for his role in a business venture gone awry.
"It was as nice a trip as you could have under the circumstances," Akers says. Still pressing his legal fight on the road to incarceration, David called his lawyer three or four times, hoping to receive word of an 11th-hour reprieve. "He thought there could be a miracle," Akers says. "He thought we could just be on a long joyride."
But other calls David made along the way betrayed his doubts. He told loved ones he might be out of touch for a while, though even then he kept his tone upbeat, as if he were leaving for vacation. He didn't want anyone to worry.
The car rolled past signs for unfamiliar towns Coalinga, Avenal, Lost Hills until Akers exited the rutted interstate near Old River. Some 20 miles later, the Taft Correctional Institution came into view, an archipelago of flat-roofed buildings consisting of a low-security prison and a minimum-security camp. The compound stands on ground the color of sawdust, parched terrain common to the middle of nowhere.
A prison guard in charge of admitting new inmates allowed Akers to join David during the initial phase of the process. The guard described the camp, where David would stay, as "a pretty laid-back place. All you have to do is follow the rules." He concluded the session by stepping out of the room to let Akers and David say goodbye. Their mutual stoicism held for only a moment before both men broke down.
"You can do this," Akers said as they hugged.
The return trip north felt endless to the 59-year-old Akers, who variously refers to David, 41, as his son, brother, and best friend. He replayed their farewell in his mind and wiped away more tears. As the horizon slowly swallowed the sun, his thoughts were interrupted by a call from another friend Narsai David, Daniel's father.
A culinary icon in the Bay Area, Narsai belongs to the elite fraternity of celebrity chefs, his reputation spanning kitchens of four-star restaurants around the world. Most in this region know him for his daily segments on KCBS radio, during which he serves up recipes, wine reviews, and food news with good-natured brio. Yet talking to Akers, Narsai sounded nothing like the jovial gourmet who once hosted his own PBS program, or who draws crowds to the Union Square Macy's for weekly cooking shows. His voice cracked as he asked about his only child entering federal custody.
Those close to father and son say Narsai's cheery public persona belies his anguish over the younger David's legal woes. In 2002, federal prosecutors alleged that Daniel and a business partner ran a pay-phone scam out of South San Francisco that fleeced nearly $450,000 from long-distance phone carriers. Narsai urged his son to set aside pride and accept a plea deal rather than risk years in prison; Daniel insisted he could prove his innocence.
He lost the gamble when a jury convicted him in 2004 on multiple counts of money laundering, mail fraud, and using a fictitious identity. Narsai and Veni David, Daniel's mother, choked back tears as they listened to the verdict. Their son remained defiant. Outside the courtroom, he declared, "It's not over."
In reaching his profession's summit, Narsai, a first-generation American born to Assyrian émigrés, relied on willpower and resiliency. The traits passed to his son, to judge from Daniel's efforts to clear his name. He has spent upward of $200,000 on attorneys while devoting countless hours to scouring case law and his court files. Dozens of friends and relatives back his cause, with some lending him thousands of dollars to cover legal bills.
Last summer, an appellate court upheld his conviction, dismissing the import of a statement he considers vital to his long-shot bid for a retrial. During David's sentencing hearing in 2005, a prosecutor conceded that the phone companies, contrary to earlier claims of losing money, reaped hefty profits from his enterprise. To his supporters, the admission confirms the virtue of his struggle to win release. To skeptics, he should have listened to his father from the beginning.
"If [Daniel] hadn't been in denial about this for so long," one family friend says, "he'd be out of prison by now."