Pleading guilty to a crime you don't think you committed - FOX 10 News | fox10phoenix.com

What would it take for you to plead guilty of a crime you don't think you committed?

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Victor Mercado Victor Mercado

By M.L. Elrick
FOX 2 Investigative Reporter


DETROIT (WJBK) -- It's almost like Victor Mercado was never here.

By the time the Kilpatrick Inc. trial resumed on Tuesday, he had left town on a ticket he likely booked even before setting down the pen he used to sign his unexpected plea deal last week.

He didn't even leave an empty chair behind.

But Mercado hangs over the trial as a reminder of what pressure can do to a man facing 20 years in prison -- even a man who believed so strongly in his innocence that he passed up a chance to get on with his life in return for a virtual slap on the wrist.

Which is, incidentally, precisely how everyone expected Mercado's part in this mess to be resolved.

After all, as Mercado's attorneys said, he wasn't part of the "Circle of Trust" comprised of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the FOKKers (Friends of Kwame Kilpatrick).

Prosecutors even admitted that he didn't take a dime for whatever role he may have played in helping FOKK head Bobby Ferguson get contracts from the city water department Mercado once ran.

Nevertheless, even after he lost his job running the water system in San Antonio and hired on at a hardware store for $10 an hour, Mercado steadfastly refused to cave.

Whether too proud, too stubborn, or, as his lawyers protested, just plain innocent, Mercado, 61, stared down charges that could have sent him away for the rest of his life.

He stood his ground even after his lawyers were unable to sever him from the "Kilpatrick Enterprise" proceedings so he could stand before a jury on his own.

He kept his peace even after he took his place next to three men for whom he felt no affection and owed no loyalty.

After a month of testimony, it seemed to be the right play.

Jurors heard witnesses who worked with Mercado describe him as a tough but fair boss who tried to get the unwieldy billion-dollar agency under control.

They saw documents from the late John Feikens, the federal judge overseeing the water department, praising Mercado.

And they read text messages which Kilpatrick and Ferguson had exchanged showing they didn't particularly like Mercado and that certainly left the impression that Mercado -- who Hizzoner once described as a "slick ass" -- was at best a reluctant part of whatever schemes they ginned up.

Still, Mercado couldn't sleep at night.

He seemed at times like a dead man walking.

One morning during a break in testimony, I told him as we waited for an elevator: "So far, you're guilty of being a good boss." His gratitude for that seemingly innocuous comment was so great that I was almost taken aback.

So his lawyers continued holding occasional discussions with the feds. While Mercado hadn't been willing to accept earlier offers, he finally agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion in return for a deal that did not require him to cooperate and that called for a maximum sentence of up to 18 months in prison.

After all the fighting, after all the damage to his reputation, after the effective destruction of a career he worked long and hard to build and, even though the trial seemed to be going his way, Mercado just plain decided he couldn't risk a lengthy prison sentence.

He's hoping to get probation, but there's still a good chance he'll do some time.

Yet when Mercado went before Judge Nancy Edmunds to tell her how he had broken the law, he did not hitch, he did not stutter, he did not weep or waver.

The uncertainty, the pressure, the waiting was finally over.

And a man who believes he is innocent found he could only begin to feel free again by agreeing to go to prison.

Follow M.L. Elrick's coverage of the Kilpatrick & Co. trial daily on FOX 2 and at www.myfoxdetroit.com. Contact him at ml.elrick@foxtv.com or via Twitter (@elrick) or Facebook. And catch him every Friday morning around 7:15 a.m. on Drew & Mike on WRIF, 101.1 FM. He is co-author of "The Kwame Sutra: Musings on Lust, Life and Leadership from Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick," available at www.kwamesutra.com. A portion of sales benefit the Eagle Sports Club and Soar Tutoring. Learn more at www.eaglesports.com.

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