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Vick pleads not guilty

There are protests outside courthouse and at Falcons' training camp, where players focus on football. Trial date is set for Nov. 26.

July 27, 2007|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. — Around the same time Thursday that quarterback Michael Vick was in Virginia pleading not guilty to federal charges related to illegal dogfighting, a plane circled low and slow over Atlanta Falcons training camp. Flapping behind it was a banner that read, "New team name? Dog-killers?"

"I was wondering when it was going to run out of gas," Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler said later.

The controversy surrounding Vick seems to be running on a full tank, however.

At least that was the feeling outside Falcons headquarters on a sweltering first day of camp, where more than 100 protesters lined the street outside the gates. Spurred on by a bullhorn-wielding organizer, some held professionally made signs and chanted slogans such as, "Sack Michael Vick! There's no excuse for animal abuse!" Many of them were walking dogs.

Across the street, a gathering of about 20 Vick supporters answered with handwritten signs reading, "Let Vick Play!" and "Vick is the Man!"

The scene was similar in Richmond, Va., where Vick and three co-defendants who also pleaded not guilty were in U.S. District Court for a bond hearing and an arraignment. Their trial was set for Nov. 26, four days after the Falcons play host to Indianapolis in a Thanksgiving night game.

But the likelihood of Vick playing football this season seems to grow dimmer by the day. The NFL has ordered him not to report to training camp and has launched its own investigation -- headed by a lawyer who once held the No. 2 position in the Department of Justice. And Falcons owner Arthur Blank has said the team was prepared to suspend Vick the maximum it is allowed -- four games -- for conduct detrimental to the team had the NFL not acted first.

The four co-defendants are Vick, 27, and three of his friends: Tony Taylor, 34, of Hampton, Va.; Purnell Peace, 35, of Virginia Beach, Va.; and Quanis Phillips, 28, of Atlanta.

Although the four will remain free pending trial, U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis W. Dohnal ordered them to adhere to certain conditions, among them surrendering their passports, not selling or possessing dogs, and not traveling within the continental U.S. without court approval.

Each of the men face a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine along with three years of additional supervision if convicted on all charges.

Vick, through his attorney, released his first public statement since the indictment, saying he takes the charges "very seriously" and looks forward to "clearing my good name." He apologized to his mother "for what she has had to go through in this most trying of times." Also, in an oddly worded conclusion, he apologized to his Falcons teammates for not being with them "at the beginning of spring training."

After his court appearance, Vick was met by a chorus of boos by protesters as he climbed into a white SUV and rode off.

The Falcons held a team meeting the morning before their practice to talk about the situation and discuss the way players should deal with the questions of reporters. After the practice, several key players expressed their support for Vick but said they were determined to focus on football.

Asked if he has read the 18-page indictment, linebacker Keith Brooking shook his head no.

"What good is it for me to have thoughts, or judge Mike, or have an opinion on that?" he said. "Our legal system in the United States is set in place, and due process will take its course. I don't think it does us any good to sit and comment on that or have an opinion about it. Because that's not our objective."

Just outside the facility, opinions were flowing freely. Kelly Alder of Buford, Ga., who owns three pit bulls, said she began organizing the protest with a grass-roots e-mail campaign that began even before the indictment was handed down. She is calling for Vick to be suspended at least until his trial.

"I do believe in due process," she said. "And what I say is if Michael Vick did nothing, I will walk right up to him and apologize. But police officers are suspended [when they face criminal charges], so are lawyers, and so are teachers."

Across the street, season-ticket holder William Gill wore a Vick jersey and held over his head a sketched portrait of his favorite Falcons player.

"I think Michael Vick is being tried in the court of public opinion," he said. "We should let the law take its course. You have people like [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] trying to destroy his life and this team.

"I love dogs and I love animals. But in this case, everything is alleged."

Crumpler said players and fans are going through a "grieving period," and said he expects the season to go well, but "it's just going to be a little bump in the road as we move forward."

Interrupted teammate Lawyer Milloy: "It's a pretty big bump in the road. Everybody recognizes that. ... It's affecting not only people in our locker room and our organization, but especially Mike."

The Newport News (Va.) Daily Press contributed to this report.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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