RICHMOND, Va. - He rose to hero status in his home state during two dazzling seasons as the quarterback at Virginia Tech, a kid from the tough part of Newport News who was heading for the NFL. Michael Vick left as a soft-spoken star in the making.
The Michael Vick who emerged before a throng yesterday received anything but a hero's welcome. He was jeered and cursed by hundreds who have come to view him in recent weeks as the ruthless face of the brutal bloodsport of dogfighting.
The Atlanta Falcons quarterback said "not guilty" in a firm voice when asked how he pleaded to a conspiracy charge by U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson. Asked his preference for a trial, Vick responded "by jury." Hudson set a Nov. 26 date for Vick and his three co-defendants, all of whom also pleaded not guilty.
Vick was released without bond, but with a series of conditions, including the surrender of his passport, a pledge not to travel outside the immediate area of his primary residence without court approval, and to not sell or possess a dog.
Vick also was ordered to surrender any animal breeder or kennel licenses. He and the others face up to 5 years in prison and fines of $250,000 if convicted on all charges.
The allegations detailed in a gruesome indictment have sparked protests by animal-rights groups at the headquarters of the NFL and the Falcons. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell barred Vick from attending training camp while the league investigates.
Following the arraignment, Vick climbed into a white sport utility vehicle and rode away, leaving behind his lawyer, Billy Martin, to read a statement on his behalf - his first public comments on the indictment.
"I take these charges very seriously and look forward to clearing my good name," it said. "I respectfully ask all of you to hold your judgment until all of the facts are shown."
Vick's mother, Brenda Boddie, stood by Martin's side as he spoke. "I would like to say to my mom I'm sorry for what she has had to go through in this most trying of times," the statement said. He also apologized to his teammates for not being with them for the start of training camp.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank said the team wanted to suspend Vick for four games, the maximum penalty a team can assess a player, but the NFL asked him to wait. Instead, Blank has told the player to concentrate on his legal problems, not football."This is going to be a hard-fought trial," said Martin, one of five lawyers retained by Vick. "We are conducting our own investigation. We will look into these allegations, and we look forward to the opportunity to being able to walk inside this courtroom saying to the world that Michael Vick is innocent."
The case began April 25 when investigators conducting a drug search at a massive home Vick built in rural Surry County found 66 dogs, including 55 pit bulls, and equipment typically used in dogfighting.
Vick contended he knew nothing about a dogfighting operation at the home, where one of his cousins lived, and said he rarely visited.
According to the 18-page indictment filed July 17, dogs not killed in the fighting pit were often shot, hanged, drowned or, in one case, slammed to the ground.It alleges that the dogfighting operation began in 2001, not long after Vick was the first overall selection in the NFL draft. *