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Mugging leaves Baldwin recovering but still shaken

Helene Elliott

January 23, 2007|Helene Elliott

John Baldwin remembers walking to a nightclub near the hotel where he and partner Rena Inoue were staying last month during the Grand Prix figure skating final in St. Petersburg, Russia. Inoue, tired after their exhibition performance and wary of venturing beyond the hotel, remained in their room while Baldwin and another skater went out with two women they had met during the competition.

The group was together about an hour, until he went to search for a restroom. He vaguely recalls being led to a car, sure for some reason that it was a cab and his friends waited inside.

Instead, he was driven to the woods outside the city, beaten, robbed and dumped in the snow. He lost his wallet, camera and driver's license. His Turin Olympic ring was pried off his finger.

A couple passing by might have stopped the assault. He's not certain. Finding his hotel key in his pocket, the couple drove him to his hotel and gave him a card that bore the words "I help you" and the names Omar and Anastasia. He hasn't reached them to thank them or ask what they saw.

"I don't really remember when I got hit and passed out. I don't think it was going on in the car," he said of the attack. "I think they pushed me out in this area that had all this dirt and maybe I was rolling around and they kicked me. I don't know.

"It's scary when you just black out and you can't recall something. I've never blacked out before and not been able to remember."

A month later, Baldwin says he still feels dizzy if he's lying down and sits up quickly. But he said he has had no problems on the ice, where the slightest wobble during a lift could jeopardize Inoue's safety.

His recovery cost the Santa Monica duo about three weeks of training as they prepared to defend their pairs title at the U.S. championships this week in Spokane, Wash. They're trying to forget the incident, but it has changed them.

"When something like this happens to you or the people you're close to, it will make you to look at your life from a different aspect. It could have been a lot worse," Inoue said.

"Even though he was covered with blood and bleeding and everything, at least I didn't have to go outside and look for him and find out he's dead or something. It really could have happened."

Inoue said she wasn't initially concerned that Baldwin was out late the night of Dec. 17. "I knew he still had to pack his stuff, but he's 33 years old. He's adult enough to know what he has to do," she said.

She heard the door to their room open at 6 a.m. and nearly fainted when she saw him. "His face and his head were bleeding. He was like crying, shaking," she said. "It took me a little time to figure out what was really going on.

"He told me he got mugged and he got beat. He kept saying, 'They stole everything. They stole everything from me.' "

Baldwin told her to call the police, but she hesitated because she doesn't speak Russian. She went to the hotel lobby but didn't see anyone familiar, and she knew the rest of the U.S. delegation had departed.

In desperation she called Rafael Arutunian, a Russian coach who speaks English. She said he told her that calling the police would be futile because such crimes are common and because Baldwin couldn't remember details that might identify the attackers. Even if he filed a report, they were due to leave on a noon flight. Inoue decided to treat Baldwin with ice packs and get him home.

"I was worried, but at the same time, I cannot take Johnny to a hospital in Russia," she said. "I just don't trust it."

Two stops and 26 harrowing hours later, they arrived at LAX and hurried to the emergency room at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica. The diagnosis, a copy of which he gave to The Times, said he had a concussion and vertigo and excused him from work or travel until Jan. 3.

Baldwin said he told officials of U.S. Figure Skating about the attack and was disappointed that they didn't acknowledge it on the organization's website, if only as a cautionary tale. "I just want people to know what happened," he said.

He published his account on his and Inoue's website, www.renaandjohn.com, hoping to silence rumors on figure skating message boards that questioned his veracity.

Baldwin said his guard was down but added, "I don't know how that makes a hole in my story. Was I drunk? Maybe I was. What does that have to do with anything? So if you're drunk, you deserve to be mugged?"

U.S. Figure Skating spokeswoman Lindsay DeWall said the organization's executive director, David Raith, is investigating the matter. She also said skaters are routinely told to be careful while traveling and are directed to the U.S. State Department website for additional guidance.

"The reason we haven't stepped forward is we think we need to gather as much information as possible," she said. "Number one what we care about is John is safe and he got the medical treatment he needed."

Inoue and Baldwin, seventh at the Turin Olympics and fourth at last year's World Championships, have hit emotional extremes this season. Overcoming groin injuries and Baldwin's bout with shingles in November, they enjoyed unprecedented success in winning Skate America and finishing second at two other Grand Prix events before their fourth-place finish at St. Petersburg.

Best of all, they're alive to tell the tale.

"I think I'm going to be on my guard more whenever I go out, even in the U.S.," Baldwin said.

"I don't think that there's any situation that we're not prepared to deal with after all this stuff."

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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