Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who came down from the mountain head-first, is back on his feet and ready to move on.
Released from federal prison in January in a last-minute commutation by President Trump, Kilpatrick is living in the Atlanta area, changing careers to the ministry, and engaged to be married to a Detroit woman. He says he's done with politics.
"I know that's what I'm supposed to be doing," he said of his religious path, which will include attending theological seminary school at Columbia University in the fall. "I can't imagine doing anything else for the rest of my life."
Speaking publicly for the first time since his release in a lengthy phone interview with Deadline Detroit, the conversation ranged from Jesus to his many regrets, his family and his enduring love for Detroit.
Kilpatrick, mayor from 2002-08, was convicted of 24 federal felony counts and sentenced in 2013 to 28 years in prison. Trump commuted his sentence to time served, nearly eight years.
In September 2020, he said he suffered a cardiac arrest that hospitalized him for seven days. Today, he says "I'm healthy. It's been a miraculous turnaround."
Kilpatrick’s 28-year sentence was one of the longest ever given for public corruption. The U.S. Attorney’s Office sentencing memo was brutal: “He rigged bids and took bribes. [Kilpatrick] did it all in a city where poverty, crime and lack of basic services made it one of the most vulnerable metropolitan areas in the nation. The scale of his corruption was astonishing. The impact on the region was devastating."
Kilpatrick, who turned 51 today, says he prefers not to dwell on the past. He denies being involved in bid rigging, but admits to some wrongdoing without getting specific. "I'm really in a position now where I just hope that people see the fruit of my repentance from that."
He credits many individuals, including politicians and religious leaders, for helping him get released, but says it was businessman Pete Karmanos Jr., a friend, who really opened people's eyes to his cause and influenced people in Washington. (Karmanos is an investor in Deadline Detroit.)
As part of his comeback, Kilpatrick will preach at two Detroit churches this Sunday. The first one at 8:30 a.m. will be pre-recorded.
"So it's going to be my hometown debut," he says. "This is the first time that I've done anything public since getting out of prison."
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. You can listen to the recorded version here.
DD: You're talking about being a minister?
KK: In 2014, I had an experience in prison through volunteers who came every week. There was a guy named Bruce Smith, he was from Yukon, Okla. He asked me a question: Did I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? And I told him I did not.
I was really depressed during that period of time, and angry, and he took the time to talk to me about it. And through that experience of talking with him, I know that I truly received the gift of freedom of liberty and salvation in Jesus Christ.
Where was that, what prison?
That was in the back of a prison chapel in El Reno, Oklahoma. And we're sitting in this back pew, and he and I were just sitting there talking. There was no lightning or thunder. I didn't kiss the feet of Jesus, but there was a definite change in my heart and in my mindset.
How long had you been in prison when you had that conversation?
I guess about 14 or 15 months.
What were you feeling back then?
Condemned. Guilt-ridden. Angry. Depressed. Feelings of being a failure as a dad, my primary responsibility of being a husband and a father, that I let my family down. We all know the dramatic and traumatic statistics of Black men and the household and the lack thereof, the lack of involvement of so many Black fathers in their children's lives.
And so I became something that I absolutely despise and never experienced. I had both of my grandfathers, my father. Not only were they involved in my life, they were at every graduation. Every game. My grandfathers were at my college graduations. My law school graduation. So I never had that experience. And so, to be that person, it was the most profoundly horrible thing that I've ever experienced. I just couldn't rid myself of the shame and the guilt of that.
I wasn't mad at Detroit. I wasn't mad at the people that testified against me. I wasn't mad at the process. I was mad at me, and that was the perfect place that I had to be for the kind of experience that I had with the spirit of God.
There was this compelling spiritual energy that what he was speaking was true. He was just a guy, a volunteer. And my spirit was humble enough to receive it. When I went back to my unit that day, I was just different and I wanted to be different.
I took that commitment that I made that day very seriously. For the last three or four years, everybody was asking me about the Bible or "Can you write a letter to my girl? Can you talk to my mother on the phone? Can you pray for him?"
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A new calling
Were you preaching to a group of people or at individual sessions?
Both. My room became a place where if you wanted to talk to somebody (you came). When I got there, I was one of the oldest guys there. I went from being the young guy to the old guy in prison.
You know, guys had come to me and said, “I'm gonna kill somebody today” or “I'm not a homosexual, but I'm going to have sex with a boy today. I'm gonna get him, I'm gonna rape him." I was blown away. But It was never anything shocking after a while.
Was the preaching mostly one-on-one?
Preaching is an address (to a group). Counseling is different, being an ear to somebody. I worked in every prison chapel except the last one at Oakdale. I taught classes, I taught public speaking, cognitive and employability skills, Bible studies.
The chaplain in El Reno made me the worship leader at church services. I would get up there and sing and lead the worship, and then I started preaching the message.
Do you have a church now?
No. I don't know if I'm being led to have a church yet, but I'm definitely preaching. I'm preaching this weekend in Detroit at historic Little Rock Church, Rev. Holly is the pastor over there on Woodward. It's going to be Sunday. I'll be in the city to preach that message. I'm also over at the 8:30 service at Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church of God and Little Rock at 10:30. (The 8:30 service will be pre-recorded)
Are you excited? Nervous?
At this point you don't have a church, but you are being invited to speak. Is the goal to have a church?
Good question. I think it's dangerous for people to just say, "Hey I'm going to open up a church." I think that's what the problem is with the state of the, quote, unquote, church of today. People are so turned off by it. I really think it's a calling. If I'm led to do that, and he opens the way for me at a particular church, I think that's the way we should go.
Did you want to come back to Detroit?
No. I had no plans to come back to Detroit, except to say hi to my family, eat a couple pieces of food and pie, and leave. But, you know, I just love the people in the city of Detroit. I mean, no matter how much I try to say, I'm not going back to Detroit, that's my hometown. I talked to Mike Duggan recently and I told him how well I thought he was doing. I thought the city looked good. I didn't want to be in the city and there'd be whispers about politics. So I'm going to say this now, I'm not running for anything. I believe I've been put in a completely different lane.
I rode down Woodward. I think it looks good. But it wasn't the look of the city that really got me. It was the people. I went to a couple of stores just to buy some water. There's nothing like the energy and spirit of a Detroiter.
Were people excited to see you?
Everyone. Even the people that said, "I didn't like you but I'm glad you're out. I'm glad you're back out with your family." When I was in prison, the letters and cards that I received from Detroit was exponentially more than everywhere. I received letters from everywhere. People that I never knew or even heard of me sent letters, Iowa, Idaho.
What were they saying?
I heard about your case or I saw a television show about you and I just want you to know that our family is praying for you.
A new love
Is there a date for your wedding?
No. But we're not going to take a million years to do it. We're going to figure this thing out.
So do you have a plan to live here in Detroit or Atlanta?
Staying in Atlanta for a while. I lost a lot of time with my family.
What was going on when you were twice ready to go and the release was rescinded both times by Attorney General William Barr?
The attorney general's office was just dead set about me not getting out. They were blocking my release.
Were you confident from the beginning you weren't going to do 28 years?
In my third year there, I received a very strong feeling I wouldn't be there for 28 years. And my first couple years, I was prepared to sit down and do it. I would write appeals and I was doing things and after the first couple got knocked down, I knew I had a problem.
When you're in isolation, you really are in isolation. It's hard to get any information.
On (January) 20th, in the middle of the night, one of the orderlies came around my cell right before 10 p.m.: "Listen man, they just had you on television. They said you might get a commutation from Trump. They said he's going to announce it at midnight." So at 12 o'clock I hadn't heard anything. So, when the (corrections officer) came by I asked him to check for me and he said, "Man, I'm not checking anything. There's no way."
And I just told him to look, and he came back and told me, "I can't believe it, man, it's all over, and he says your newspapers have already reported it."
What was your reaction?
When he told me it was done, at about 1:30 in the morning, I dropped to my knees, I thanked God and I promised him that I would stay faithful to him. And I went to sleep.
I left that prison before 10 a.m. I was on a plane and I was sitting in my sister's living room (in the Atlanta area) by 5 in the evening.
Do you still say, oh my gosh, it's amazing I'm out?
Every single day is a miracle day for me. Everybody around me, they laugh at it now -- when it's raining outside (I say) "Let me go outside and get wet."
How are your sons?
My twins are 25 and my little guy is 19. And they’re men, all of them and they're overcomers. I'm so proud of them. Jonas is still in school. He's an incredible student. He just got a 4.0. Jalil is doing some coaching, football. Jelani is trying to figure out what he's going to do in terms of teaching or is he going to go back and get a masters.
Were they able to see you while you were in prison?
Yeah, all the way until Covid.
And what did they say to you? I'm sure you said you were sorry.
You know, they went from being very angry at me to us developing a closer relationship.
This is what I counsel men on. Regardless of what you think about why you're in prison, if you believe you were railroaded, if you believe they got the wrong guy or you believe they over-sentenced you, it breeds a feeling and an attitude of abandonment. For Jonas, at 11 years old, I abandoned him in the most precious time of his life. So many men are so angry in prison. And that anger is typically directed outward. But most of them are just mad at themselves.
I know men who don't want visits from their kids. They (say), "I'll see them when I get out." They don't want to face the failure. For me it was the opposite. If I got to be here, this is where we're going to have to have our conversations. These are the means: the computer and the phone.
At some point while you were in prison they changed?
My sons saw the change in me. They not only came around, they started asking questions about Jesus Christ and the authentic manhood of Christ. Our conversations deepened into relationships. How they related to women and understanding the mistakes I made and what they saw with their own eyes and their mom and how I devastated her by being dishonest and manipulative.
Were they angry about your relationship with your wife, now your ex-wife?
Yeah, that's their mom. That relationship between mother and son is a special relationship.
How's your dad?
We just had his 80th birthday party. He's out there dancing more than everybody else. He walks three miles a day. He's doing very well.
Was that hard to see, your father going off to to prison?
That was another thing that hurt me terribly. He was floored about me. I was floored about him.
Regrets, he has a few
You haven't really spoken about your case, except through your filings. Do you agree that you did something wrong or do you still feel you didn't do anything wrong?
I never took the position that I didn't do anything wrong. I most definitely did things wrong. I did things wrong with trusting the wrong people and making stupid, ignorant decisions. I did the wrong thing in terms of office, just not taking it serious enough, the position that I held and that the people of the city of Detroit gave me. There's no excuse for it.
You were accused of bribery and bid-rigging. Were those fair allegations?
Before I answer that, I believe that 99 percent of the people in the city of Detroit or surrounding areas, they don't even know what I was charged with. What I was charged with, even in my filings, even in my conversations, I would disagree with. So you ask, have I ever bid-rigged? Not only had I not done those things, I don't even know how a person would do that.
I made some terrible decisions and yes, I did some things that I should have never done, and it had an incredibly horrible effect on me, my family, my children, and the city of Detroit and the citizens of Detroit. I'm really in a position now where I just hope that people see the fruit of my repentance from that. As far as the details of it, what I did or didn't do, it takes away from the fruit of repentance.
What I want to do is the same thing the candidates for mayor now want to happen, what families that are moving to Detroit want. They want to move forward and I don't want to be a part of any political discussion in Detroit because I'm not interested in being in the politics of Detroit.
Were you too immature to have that position?
You know, I don't believe anybody can be described as being quote, unquote immature and in a successful position because they can be very immature in one area and absolutely brilliant in another. Yes, there were some areas (where) I was immature. I didn't understand how big the mayor's chair was. (But, as) measured by an understanding of the appropriations process in Washington and Lansing, or understanding how to write policy, understanding how to work with the philanthropic communities, get the grants? I was very immature in some areas and very knowledgeable in others.
Were you surprised you were convicted?
I didn’t walk into that courtroom with any notion of being innocent til proven guilty. I think I was convicted a long time before that.
Were you blown away by the 28-year sentence?
I had the most time on the floor (at Fort Dix, N.J. prison). Everyone was blown away and they were talking to me about how this was their fourth offense, second offense.
How instrumental was the column I wrote saying the 28-year sentence was ridiculous, and how instrumental was Peter Karmanos in getting you out?
This might sound crazy, but two years in, I never read a Detroit paper or any kind of media from Detroit. I didn't even know that Duggan had won mayor until I got to Louisiana (around 2018). A guy from Detroit came in, he said, “It's a white guy that's mayor, I think his name is Doogan.” (And) I said Mike Duggan from DMC?
You don't believe anybody's thinking about you. My sister sent the (2018) column. And I said, "Who is this guy? You know I don't want to see this article." She said, "No, you've got to read this. He's talking about the 28 years."
When I read the article, I said, "Wow, somebody gets it.” Then I heard Pete was out there. I'm tremendously thankful to that man. He's always been that guy. That same old, Brightmoor tough guy.
Do you think he helped turn some people on your release?
Oh yeah, I know he did. I believe when Pete came out I think it helped jump-start a lot of other people to say, hey, this is wrong. Pete was a major catalyst for the Kushners and the Trump administration.
You mentioned the Deadline Detroit column circulated.
Absolutely. My family took that article and sent it to everyone they knew in D.C. Your article made it to the Oval Office. That article was used in a packet of things people started to send out on my behalf. They told me they were already sending it to key people in the administration. I knew it was going to make a difference.
Have you heard from Bobby Ferguson?
Oh yeah. Bobby's doing great. We were friends way before the administration. Our children are friends. They remain friends, all while we were in prison. They support one another. He's in really good shape. He's actually got me motivated. He's lost an incredible amount of weight.
And Carlita, your ex-wife, are you able to have a decent rapport?
Yeah. We stopped having regular communications years ago. The divorce was after a long season of separation. But there's no bad blood. I got out, I talked to her a couple of times. She has her life and I have mine. I told her if she ever gets married again she can bring her funny-looking husband over to the house and we can have dinner.
When you got out was there a meal you had to have?
My sister kept asking me, what do you want? And I named so many different things. On the first day that I got out, I had everything from catfish to crab legs, lamb chops to pizza.
I've been watching these commercials, Popeye's commercials. They're lining up for the (chicken) sandwich. I even had those sandwiches.