Kilpatrick skipped town the night text message scandal broke - Los Angeles Local News | FOX 11 LA KTTV

Kilpatrick skipped town the night text message scandal broke, testimony confirms

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By M.L. Elrick
Fox 2 Investigative Reporter


As Prosecutor Michael Bullotta ticked off the 20 round-trip flights businessman Tony Soave provided Kwame Kilpatrick and his family, I got antsy in court Wednesday waiting to see if one trip in particular made the list.

There were exotic destinations like Nassau and Bermuda. Mundane destinations like Cleveland, Chicago and Houston. Curious destinations like Greensboro, N.C.

By the time the list of trips on Soave Enterprises' Dassault Falcon neared the bottom, I was leaning forward, my eyes straining.

And there it was: Tallahassee. Jan. 23, 2008.

The date Jim Schaefer and I broke the text message scandal on www.freep.com.

The trip's appearance on the list eliminated any doubt about a longstanding rumor. Like many things that have emerged at trial -- including several situations I had written draft stories about, but didn't quite feel like I had enough information to publish -- Soave's testimony confirmed what sources had been saying for years.

More significantly, the appearance on the list of the Kilpatrick family's getaway flight transported me back to that tense winter night nearly four years ago.

After months of reporting, writing, double-checking, editing, triple-checking, and agonizing meeting after meeting after meeting, we had reached the point of no return.

Sometime after Kilpatrick lost a whistleblower lawsuit filed by former mayoral bodyguard Harold Nelthrope and deposed Deputy Police Chief Gary Brown (now president pro tem of the Detroit City Council), Schaefer and I began pouring over thousands of text messages sent on Motorola Talkabouts that the city paid for.

The messages -- some mundane, some profane, and some proving that the mayor and his chief of staff lied under oath -- would form the backbone of what seemed likely to be the most explosive of a series of exposes Schaefer and I had written over the previous five years.

I haven't read much about the crew of the Enola Gay, but if they worried that the A-bomb might blow them out of the sky before the bomb bay doors opened, then I know how they felt.

Schaefer and I had worked in such secrecy that even our families didn't know about the text messages until after a day before our story ran -- and only after we contacted two of the mayor's most-trusted advisers to let them know that we needed to talk to the mayor about a v-e-r-y important matter.

Kilpatrick had long before stopped issuing a public schedule. So finding out where he would be wasn't easy. And we wanted to tell him in person what we had found -- just in case there was an explanation that hadn't occurred to us.

This became even more complicated when we learned Kilpatrick was in Washington. That caused our bosses to hold the story for a day, on the chance we might be able to meet with him when he got back to Detroit.

But when we found that the castle drawbridge would not be lowered -- even after we divulged the details of our investigation -- the Free Press, in what was then a bold decision for a newspaper, decided to publish the story online the night before rolling the presses.

To say we didn't know what would happen next is an understatement.

I had told my bosses weeks before that I wouldn't be surprised if a phalanx of pastors held a press conference to denounce the paper. I said that would have been my play, if I was advising the mayor. (Executive Editor Caesar Andrews said he was glad I was on our side.)

Investigations editor David Zeman said the judge in the whistleblower case would be outraged that a fraud had been perpetrated on his court and could call everyone on the carpet. The mayor might even lose his license to practice law.

Schaefer said the public might not care at all, shrugging the story off as just another indiscretion by a mayor whose many shenanigans had numbed the public.

And, of course, we all considered that Kilpatrick might deny the authenticity of the text messages and accuse us of perpetrating the most high-tech lynching since Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court.

Still, we forged ahead.

As the editors gave the story one final look, Schaefer and I had to chase rumors that other reporters were about to break a big Kilpatrick story.

It seemed inconceivable that anyone could pop a bigger story, but I remember making calls on one tip that Kilpatrick was going to be charged with jury tampering in the whistleblower case -- a preposterous notion, given that jurors deliberated for less than an hour before awarding Brown and Nelthrope more or less what they sued for! (We later found out that the genesis of these bum steers were bits and pieces of our own story, twisted and transformed as they worked their way through Michigan's political and business grapevine.)

While we had the utmost confidence in our story, we were nevertheless relieved when the mayor finally issued a statement late that night that said: "These five- and six-year-old text messages reflect a very difficult period in my personal life. It is profoundly embarrassing to have these extremely private messages now displayed in such a public manner.

"My wife and I worked our way through these intensely personal issues years ago. I would now ask that the public and the media respect the privacy of my wife and children and of Christine Beatty and her children at this deeply painful moment for our families."

That same night Kilpatrick chose the one option we had never even considered: He ran.

And now, thanks to Soave's testimony, we know how the mayor and his family winged their way to the Kilpatricks' previously-unknown home in Tallahassee.

Like so many things about Kilpatrick, thinking back on that night leaves me shaking my head.

As I look ahead at a trial that should go at least another two months, I wonder how many of the other far-fetched tidbits that I've heard over the years will turn out to be true.

By the way, the mayor eventually did claim the text messages weren't his, leaving us with another classic Kilpatrick conundrum: Since both things he said can't be true, which one is the lie?

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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