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Prison changes a man. Makes him hard and cold, "like the frozen earth itself," as Hemingway once observed. Only returning to the outside has allowed Marlon Leftwich to thaw his spirit, to warm his soul.
He was paroled in August after serving a six-month sentence, ample time for seasons to change and hope to decay. The San Francisco native landed behind bars for a crime spree vast in geography but narrow in its choice of targets: Over a six-week period, federal court records state, Leftwich crisscrossed California, Arizona, and Nevada to rob 44 convenience stores.
He didn't get rich along the way, stealing a paltry $755 in cash — and more than twice that amount in junk food. Before politely asking each store clerk to open the register, Leftwich would stuff his brown leather trench coat full of high-fat munchies, ranging from fried pork rinds to Little Debbie Devil Squares. (Perhaps predictably, his fondness for beef sticks led federal agents to dub him the Slim Jim Bandit.) His "weapon" was an empty Bed Head shampoo bottle that, when pointed from inside his coat pocket, passed for a handgun.
Leftwich's three-state snack binge ended on a brisk February morning in Daly City. The feds, tipped off by a confidential informant, set up a sting at a 7-Eleven near an exit ramp off Interstate 280. A young FBI agent posed as the store's clerk, chosen for the role, in part, because of his acne-mottled complexion. A security camera recorded Leftwich, his thin black hair cinched in a ponytail, as he drifted through the aisles, pocketing a dozen bags of CornNuts and Combos, five boxes of Pop-Tarts, and eight Hostess fruit pies — four apple, four cherry. Moments later, as he approached the checkout line, the FBI agent vaulted over the front counter and slammed him to the floor.
"He took me down hard," Leftwich says, wincing at the memory, cradling his tattoo-streaked forearms against his chest. "The fucking pie filling went everywhere."
He recounts his arrest while sitting in a cramped room in a Tenderloin SRO that he asked SF Weekly not to identify, fearing unwanted attention. A stack of copies of the Examiner doubles as his chair. He sleeps on a wooden pallet swaddled in bubble wrap; when he rolls over at night, "it sounds like the Fourth of July." On a rusty hook inside the door hangs his ruined trench coat, dark fruit-pie splotches visible in the wan light cast by the room's lone ceiling bulb.
The 43-year-old Leftwich moved here after his release from prison to piece together the shards of his life. He found a job in pest control, and though to him it marks a demotion from his stylist days at Supercuts, he earns enough to afford basic cable. (Affording a television has proven more difficult.) Thanks to weekly hypnosis sessions with a nutritional psychologist, he has tamed his junk-food addiction, shedding 24 pounds from his 6-foot frame. To symbolize his new start, he shaved his head. As much as anyone, he resembles a bald Malcolm Young, the spindly rhythm guitarist for the hard-rock band AC/DC.
But for all the progress made toward retrieving his self-respect, Leftwich, his face pale and gaunt, wears the gaze of the haunted. Flitting back and forth, his narrow-set, sea-blue eyes betray his anxiety, as does his habit of checking the door's peephole every few minutes. He needs to talk. He needs to set down a burden too heavy for one man to bear.
For transporting stolen goods across state lines, Leftwich wound up assigned to the federal penitentiary in Taft, 40 miles southwest of Bakersfield. With no beds available until mid-March, however, he spent the first week of his sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin. When he met his cellmate — or "cellie," in prison parlance — Leftwich thought he recognized him. His black hair styled in a mohawk with dreadlocks, the inmate, stout and thickly muscled, spoke in a voice oddly squeaky for someone so buff. He introduced himself as Greg.
As it happened, the next day, while watching ESPN on the only TV in the prison commons area, Leftwich learned why his cellie looked vaguely familiar. The cable sports network aired a spring-training update on the BALCO case, the federal steroids investigation that has embroiled Giants slugger Barry Bonds since 2003. Across the screen flashed the images and names of some of the scandal's key players, including BALCO founder Victor Conte, Bonds' former mistress Kimberly Bell, and his onetime personal trainer — Greg Anderson.
"I almost had a Depends moment," Leftwich says. "I'm thinking, 'My cellie is the guy who juiced maybe the greatest player of all time.'"
Aside from the 43-year-old Bonds, Anderson is arguably the person most responsible for this year's crowning of a new home run king in Major League Baseball. In late 2005 Anderson served three months for steroids distribution and money laundering in connection with the BALCO probe. But it's his unwillingness to testify in front of the latest grand jury convened in the case that has kept Anderson, 41, in federal custody since August 2006. Held in contempt of court, he shows no signs of cracking before the grand jury's term expires in January, stoking intense speculation about what he knows and whether Bonds bought his silence.