A 41-year-old East Ridge man attempted to plead guilty to federal drug-related charges moments before his trial began Monday, but the judge didn't buy it.
Gregory Alan Mercer faces four federal charges in which prosecutors allege he possessed, manufactured and distributed methamphetamine from his garage business, S&G Auto Sales on U.S. 41, from 2006 until July 2009.
U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier denied Mercer's guilty plea because Mercer had changed his plea previously.
"The court cannot look into the defendant's mind or heart, it has to rely on what he says," Collier said. "The court cannot trust what the defendant says under oath."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Woods told the jury in his opening statement that Mercer started as a simple meth user but within months began leading a conspiracy to make and distribute meth in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia.
Mercer's attorney, Mitchell Bryant, agreed that his client had possessed and used meth but denied he was a leader.
"He's an addict," Bryant told the jury. "He's not the head of some giant drug cartel. He allowed people to make batches of meth in his mother's garage simply so he could get his daily fix."
The indictment against Mercer claims that he possessed the chemicals and equipment to make meth and manufactured 50 grams of meth to distribute.
Attorneys and police witnesses described the meth-user subculture as intricate, chaotic and fluid.
A dozen co-defendants are listed along with Mercer on the indictment and some are scheduled to testify against him today.
Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force Agent Alan Miles, who worked on the investigation of Mercer and others, testified Monday that the original list of possible suspects in the meth conspiracy had as many as 500 names.
"It seems that it is a culture and category of its own," he testified.
The subversive nature of the meth community causes users to flit from group to group, often because the paranoia created by use of the drug quickly can ostracize anyone under suspicion of being an informant, he said.
As users "smurf" - going from store to store to buy small quantities of necessary meth ingredients, especially cold medicine with pseudoephedrine - they also can bring those supplies to whoever is making meth when they need it, he said.
These factors expand the circles of meth users and broaden conspiracies that are much different from traditional drug-trafficking investigations, he said.
On a recording in which drug agents used an informant to gather evidence, Mercer spewed a minutes-long stream of profanities as he described how quickly he could make meth from the boxes of pseudoephedrine someone had brought to his garage.
"I did one the other night in 21 minutes, start to finish, did it and done," Mercer said in the recording played for the jury.
Contact staff writer Todd South at email@example.com or 423-757-6347.