02/02/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
YOU NEVER KNOW WHERE YOU'LL run into a star. Ask the 25 traumatized employees of a La Verne, Calif., supermarket who found themselves recovering Jan. 15 at the local police station after an armed robbery in which two of their colleagues were wounded. At one point shaken staffers blinked away tears to see someone handing out coffee. Then they did a double take. The Good Samaritan with the refreshments was none other than Christian Slater. Star of Broken Arrow and the new, soggy saga Hard Rain, Slater is currently playing a limited run as an inmate at the La Verne Public Safety Facility, aka the city jail. "There was a pause of recognition," says police Lt. John Hackworth, "then he went back to his other duties—mopping the jail."
Slater is serving a three-month sentence for an Aug. 11 incident in which he struck his then-girlfriend, sank his teeth into her rescuer and scuffled with police after bingeing on cocaine and alcohol. Since reporting to the minimum-security prison on Jan. 14, the actor has had to clean toilets, wash police cars and trade his cell phone for a collect-calls-only model in the 12-foot-by-16-foot cell he shares with one other prisoner (though there is room for four). Still, as a trusty, a minimum-security inmate with access to a TV, VCR and microwave, Slater is not complaining. In fact, says his actor father Michael De Gainsborough, "it's the greatest thing that could have happened to him, as far as he can see."
And not just because he got to select the jail and delay his sentence five days to attend the L.A. premiere of Hard Rain (not unusual allowances, say prosecutors, for offenders on misdemeanor counts). With 90 days of drug rehab and three years' probation still ahead of him, Slater, who spent 10 days in an L.A. jail for a 1989 drunk-driving offense, hopes to clean up his act when he's through mopping floors. "We all go through bad times," he told reporters at the opening of Hard Rain. "It's a matter of...how you take responsibility and open your eyes to all the good stuff that you've been shutting out."