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Milwaukee released Wickander at the end of the 1996 season. No team picked him up for the 1997 season, and the Texas Rangers released him at the end of spring training in 1998.

Wickander says he hasn't touched a baseball since then.

"I'd never had a job other than baseball," Kevin Wickander says. "I'd worked for my dad's company, but I always knew I was gonna go back and play ball. I finally started figuring out that we were broke, and I didn't know what to do about it."

He says he found a possible solution in the want ads -- as a car salesman for a local Nissan dealership. "It fit me just right. I'm a go-getter, and I was still doing those white crosses by the boxful, going like a son of a bitch, which you have to do in that job."

Wickander says that, after a rugged initiation, he became a top salesperson, first at the Nissan dealership and later at Camelback Toyota. It was on a test drive while working for the latter that Wickander says a potential customer introduced him to meth.

"I took a guy out that I knew from high school. I was pushing 70, 80 hours a week, and I was kind of looking that way [methamphetamine]. We're driving out in the Camelback mountains, and he asks me if I want to do a hit. Sure.' The guy never did qualify for the car -- a black Tundra. But I called him next morning and said, Hey, can you hook me up with some more of that stuff?' Boom, it was off to the races. Anything with ephedrine in it, I love it!"

By mid-1999, Wickander says, he was smoking meth three or four times a week -- "I never was a junkie hanging out in the projects, but I had my crutch with me all the time, because I could never seem to get ahead."

The latter is corroborated by an April 1999 court document that details the foreclosure of the Wickanders' northwest Phoenix home. Months before that, Wickander says, his wife had kicked him out of the house, and later filed for divorce. (Kim Wickander -- who has remarried and changed her surname -- didn't respond to a request for an interview.)

Kevin Wickander slipped ever deeper into the meth subculture. Before the end of 1999, he'd discovered a niche that suited his tweaker lifestyle perfectly: remodeling west Phoenix houses at all hours of the day and night.

"I had learned from my dad how to build a house from the ground up," he says. "I knew someone who would buy homes from a leasing company, have them redone inside, then rent or sell. I could make a little cash for my drugs and food, and have a place to live for a few months at a time."

Wickander says he rented a storage shed, which became a surrogate home for the next few years: "I ran a light cord outside of it and tapped it into the main wire. I had a TV in there, a little air-conditioning unit, most of my clothes, and my baseball memorabilia. It was a place I could chill out."

Wickander toiled alone in the remodels -- nine in all, he says -- until his arrest last February. "I was low overhead and a hard worker. I could work at 4 in the morning and no one cared. Guys would steal tile from somewhere, then sell them to me half-price -- I'd get a kickback from my boss. I'd fence a bunch of other stuff. To tell the truth, the cops missed a lot of other stuff they could have got me for."

Phoenix police first arrested Wickander in August 2000 after watching him break into a vacant home on West Greenway Road. Police reports say undercover officers saw him scale a wall, pry open a back door, then leave without taking anything. Detectives found disconnected water lines in the bathroom and kitchen inside the home, which led them to believe Wickander had been planning to steal the dishwasher and other items.

The police reports say Wickander confessed to breaking into homes looking for items to use in his remodels. He spent two days in jail before making bail, then checked into a Phoenix drug treatment center, where he stayed for about a month.

In February 2001, a judge put Wickander on two years' probation after he pleaded guilty to a reduced felony charge. But the following month, Glendale police arrested Wickander for possession of an ounce of meth. Again, he confessed, but a judge then reinstated him on probation despite the new felony conviction.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin