When Timothy N. Belden got out of college around 1990, he found himself entering an arena that couldn't have been sleepier.
He joined Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a research operation backed by the Energy Department, where he was a utility policy analyst who wrote detailed studies on the most arcane subjects. Among the many reports he co-authored was the abstruse "Theory and Practice of Decoupling."
A decade or so later, however, Belden found himself in a very different world as head of Western electricity trading for Enron Corp.
The Houston-based company was then the biggest and most aggressive player in a field that had become incredibly fast-paced and high-stakes in the wake of the deregulation of energy markets in California and elsewhere.
Along the way, Belden had evolved from an idealistic, environmentally conscious policy wonk to the quintessential Enron company man: smart, innovative and aggressive.
On Thursday, the 35-year-old Belden paid the price for going too far with that aggressiveness. He pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with illicit trading tactics during California's 2000-01 energy crisis.
"I did it because I was trying to maximize profit for Enron," Belden told a federal judge in San Francisco. He agreed to cooperate in the continuing investigation and pay back $2.1 million in ill-gotten gains.
Those who've known Belden for a long time were left trying to make sense of how a person they considered supremely trustworthy had gotten caught up in a huge corporate scandal.
"He's the most decent person I know in the whole energy industry -- bar none," said Steve Stoft, an energy consultant who hired Belden at the Lawrence Berkeley lab.
Stoft fondly remembered his friend's passion for the environment, noting how Belden had once bought into a windmill company "because he wanted to invest in alternative energy."
But as the years passed, and Belden abandoned his life as a researcher to go to Portland General Electric Co. and then Enron, he seemed to become interested in a different sort of power: his own.
One energy consultant who worked with Enron in its glory days remembers Belden as "sufficiently smart and sufficiently intimidating to call his own shots. In that culture, success bred power."
At Enron, Belden was at the nerve center of a vast operation that bought and sold electricity around the clock. About 100 traders worked in constant activity under Belden on the high-tech trading floor that Enron occupied in the World Trade Center in Portland, Ore.
Deal after deal was lined up for the next month, week, day -- or even minute -- with the Golden State's official markets, the California Power Exchange and California Independent System Operator, or with traders from the dozens of other energy companies operating in the West.
Belden and his lieutenants -- some of whom now are scrambling to cut their own plea agreements with prosecutors -- were particularly talented at playing one market off another or at wringing payments out of Cal-ISO to relieve congestion on the transmission grid, internal Enron memos show. Frequently, Enron's traders created the electron traffic jams they were then paid to fix, the documents indicate.
This year, a state Senate committee investigating alleged energy market manipulation by Enron and other companies received five compact discs containing Belden's e-mails.
In one e-mail on May 12, 2000, just 10 days before electricity prices first spiked, Belden sent a tantalizing message to another Enron executive in Houston:
"We long. Pricing keep going up. So far so good."