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MIKE DOWNEY

For Inmate 04302-112, Team Now Costs 2 Cups of Soup

September 16, 1997|MIKE DOWNEY

LOMPOC — On the day Bruce McNall went to prison, March 10, he got an insider's look at the camp where he would spend the next 70 months. He saw the tall eucalyptus trees. He saw the dairy, where many inmates work. He also saw the other two correctional facilities in Lompoc--the one for more hardened criminals, and the maximum security one with the wire fence and the gun towers--and he met the men in charge.

One asked, "What kind of job do you want?"

Everybody works. An inmate earns a daily wage, 8 cents up to 40 cents, although none may carry cash. On a hand-carved wooden post at the prison's entrance, "Quality Work Is Our Mission" is inscribed. McNall's net worth in 1993 was estimated at $150 million. He owned seven homes, a 727 jet, thoroughbred racehorses, the L.A. Kings pro hockey team, the Toronto Argonauts pro football team, a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley, a Range Rover, an Aston-Martin, a Mercedes and a Maserati.

"What kind of jobs have you got?" he asked.

For a while, he did some typing and filing. But eventually he went to work inside a warehouse, handling packages and shipping. When not there, he slept, wrote or read letters, watched one of the few TVs--persuading someone to switch channels from a basketball game to a hockey game was no simple task--or shopped in the commissary for affordable supplies, even if it was nothing more than a cup of freeze-dried soup.

In prison, no matter what kind of prison, you pass the time any way you know how. The federal prison camp at Lompoc houses its inmates in a dormitory, with bunk beds, and cabinets separate the cells, rather than iron bars. From McNall's first day here, the bunk opposite his was occupied by a large man from Alaska, a convicted drug seller. McNall recalls, "He looked like Grizzly Adams."

They got along all right. Getting along with people was never McNall's problem.

His cellmate's pastime in prison was "owning" a softball team. Lompoc has constant bed checks, head counts and strict regulations inmates must obey or lose privileges. Smoking is permitted only outdoors. Gum-chewing is forbidden. Phone calls are monitored. Visitors may come only on weekends, and must be FBI-cleared and prison-approved. Conjugal visits are not allowed. Neither are photographs, although a house camera may be borrowed for snapshot use, by permission only.

For anyone who follows the rules, does his work, doesn't abuse an occasional favor granted, the hardship of confinement can be made more tolerable. Lompoc has fine recreational facilities. The softball games, for example, are good for keeping up morale. If an inmate can start up his own team, that's OK.

McNall always did love sports. In that sense, he felt something in common with the big man from Alaska.

Perhaps it was inevitable that McNall bought the team from him.

"What did you pay?" he is asked.

The man who once paid $420,000 for a coin, more for a baseball card, $4 million for 25% of a hockey team, $18.2 million to football player Rocket Ismail for a personal services contract, $20 million to Jerry Buss for another 51% of that hockey team and borrowed a quarter of a billion dollars from a number of banks, illegally, feels he made a very good deal.

"Two soups," he says.

*

I spent three hours Sunday with inmate 04302-112. Interviews are discouraged, so I came to visit as a friend. We spoke of his case, his sentence, his co-defendants who will be sentenced in November, his day-in, day-out dealings inside Lompoc, but off the record, I agreed, because it could compromise McNall's situation, or make it worse.

Friend or no friend, dropping in on McNall is impossible.

Kurt Russell, the actor, was flying his private plane over central California one weekday, not long ago, when he realized Lompoc was directly below. He turned to his passenger, Goldie Hawn, the actress who frequently could be found at Forum hockey games back when McNall ran the team. Russell evidently said something along the lines of, "Hey, let's go see Bruce."

This is the way McNall understands the story, anyway.

Landing his aircraft, Russell located transportation to the prison compound. He and Hawn found someone in authority and said they would like to visit McNall. Not possible, they were told. In the first place, visitors could not be received in the middle of the week. Furthermore, unexpected visitors could not be received at all. Requests must be made long in advance, forms filled out, backgrounds checked.

"But would you like to look around?" someone politely asked.

Next thing he knew, Russell was on a tractor, touring the prison farm.

The friendships made by Bruce P. McNall during his halcyon days as Hollywood's hockey mogul have remained steadfast, by and large. Acquaintances take him like a spouse, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse. McNall, 47, cannot get out of prison until 2002, at the earliest. Beyond that, there will be five years' probation and a $5-million fine to pay off.

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