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Downey's Latest Lapse Another Jarring Reversal

Drugs: Arrest shifts the scene of the actor's personal life from a bright new TV role to a police photo.

November 28, 2000|CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert Downey Jr. looked healthy and happy when he walked into a fashionable Sunset Plaza boutique on a Saturday last August, his 7-year old son Indio in tow.

"He was in great spirits," recalled Karen Zambos, manager of the Tracey Ross boutique. Downey chatted up the sales staff and purchased a $350 pair of rhinestone-studded women's tennis shoes as a gift.

He had every reason to be ecstatic: He had just been released from state prison and was already shooting his new role on the hit TV show "Ally McBeal." After a year in a prison cell, he was back enjoying his old celebrity haunts.

Downey appeared to be taking steps to ensure his sobriety. A friend said he was involved with Walden House, a nonprofit rehabilitation program based in San Francisco. A person from the program would occasionally accompany him to the Ally McBeal set in Manhattan Beach, the friend said. Downey submitted to drug tests every week.

Then how--and why--did he end up in a Palm Springs hotel Thanksgiving weekend, allegedly with almost five grams of cocaine and methamphetamine stashed in a brownish pill bottle? Was that his first slip? Or--if rumors are to be believed--just the slip that got him caught? Once again.

What is clear is this: Less than four months after Downey's Aug. 2 release from Corcoran State Prison, his apparent respite from addiction was shattered. He was arrested late Saturday by Palm Springs police at Merv Griffin's Resort on suspicion of possessing cocaine and methamphetamine, being under the influence, and committing a felony while out on bail.

Police went to Downey's room after an anonymous 911 call from a phone booth in Cathedral City east of Palm Springs, Palm Springs Police Sgt. Patrick Williams said. According to a transcript of the call, a man said, "Uh, yeah, I'd just like to let you know that in Room 311 at the Merv Griffin Resort there's a man that has an ounce of cocaine and a couple of guns and is pretty upset. Thank you."

When police arrived, they say, they found Downey and the illegal drugs, but no weapons. Downey, who was arrested at 9:45 p.m. and booked three hours later, was described by police as cooperative. A search of the hotel room Sunday turned up another half gram of cocaine, Williams said.

By Sunday morning, the new image of the talented Downey, resuming his acting career with an appealing turn as the wisecracking new love interest of Ally McBeal, was supplanted by the latest police photo--Downey with bloodshot eyes, bedraggled hair, a dazed smile.

He was released early Sunday on $15,000 bail. He is due in court Dec. 27 in the desert town of Indio.

Investigators say a woman might have been in Downey's room before police arrived. "We would protect her identity but we'd like to know what happened," Williams said.

Police would also like to find the anonymous caller. "They were right about the drugs, wrong about the weapons," Williams said. "We'd like to know how they got the information."

That caller did Downey a favor, said a Downey friend who is also a recovering cocaine addict: "Thank God. I mean, the guy has a death wish. It totally breaks my heart."

For the actor, an Academy Award nominee who slips easily into different characters, the role of recovering addict has been been impossible to maintain. His arrest Saturday was only the latest setback.

"He's obviously demonstrated that he's incapable of staying drug-free without some significant ongoing help. And I'm talking about more than just the attendance of 12-step meetings," said James Stillwell, the executive director of Impact, a drug and alcohol treatment program that operates jail programs and a residential facility in Pasadena. Downey was enrolled in Impact's in-jail treatment program in 1999 before beginning his prison sentence.

"Am I surprised? Of course not," said Stillwell, a recovering addict, clean for 27 years. "I'm disappointed. Saddened. I don't ever like to see a fellow addict fall."

The 35-year-old actor got out of prison this summer on $5,000 bail, pending a state appeal court decision. He was incarcerated twice for violating probation on earlier drug charges. Downey's attorneys argued last summer that he had been held in prison too long because of a sentencing error, and the state appeal court agreed. The state attorney general has challenged the ruling.

It is unclear whether Downey's arrest Saturday will affect his bail or send him back to prison.

His television bosses believe he will still be able to work. David E. Kelley Productions, the company that produces "Ally McBeal" for 20th Century Fox Television, was so pleased with Downey's work on eight episodes of the show that he was signed to act in two more. He last worked on the set Nov. 15. Monday night's episode was his fourth appearance.

"He is expected to return to work over the next two weeks to complete both episodes," said Chris Alexander, a representative of 20th Century Fox Television.

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