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The money he loaned wasn’t getting paid back, so he turned to Plan B — murder for hire

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Sleeping upstairs in their home, a man and his wife were awakened by the sound of smoke detectors.

A fire had started in the basement. They were able to escape unharmed from their burning residence with the family cat.

But they soon received a text. The fire was no accident, they were told, according to court documents. And if they didn’t pay off their debts, messages outlined by prosecutors said, they would be killed.

“[W]hen you die, I hope you can pay everyone off you owe money to . . . ” a text to the man who escaped the fire read, according to court documents. “I’ll record you dying slow and send it to you kids on Facebook.”

The fire and menacing texts were part of an ongoing series of threatening messages and plots organized by a Maryland man trying to collect money from a Baltimore County restaurant owner and his business partner over a $1 million debt, prosecutors say. When the texts and vandalism weren’t enough to get his money back, prosecutors said, Clement Robert Mercaldo Jr. hired someone to kill for him.

Mercaldo, 62, of Timonium, Md., pleaded guilty earlier this month to federal murder-for-hire and extortion charges for the plot.

Mercaldo had loaned the restaurant owner more than $1 million between 2008 and 2017. No longer able to pay, the victim stopped sending monthly installments in early 2019, prosecutors said.

Deciding to “collect the debt through a variety of extortionate means,” Mercaldo contacted a Maryland man “for assistance in the plot,” according to the plea documents.

“The defendant then went to great lengths to conceal his role from investigators and tried to subvert justice by falsely claiming that he was a victim, too,” acting U.S. attorney Jonathan F. Lenzner said in a news release announcing Mercaldo’s guilty plea.

An attorney for Mercaldo declined to comment.

Mercaldo is scheduled to be sentenced in September. The man who prosecutors say agreed to work for Mercaldo, Stepfen Gerard Gaither, has been charged with murder for hire, extortion and other counts.

Gaither’s attorney said he is scheduled to be arraigned on Aug. 31 but would not comment further.

When Mercaldo first reached out to Gaither in March 2019, Mercaldo was looking for someone to text the man who owed him money with threats and to destroy his property, Mercaldo admitted in plea papers.

Gaither agreed to do the work, prosecutors allege.

The plea documents claim Gaither, 29 at the time, conducted surveillance of the victim’s home the same month and used an anonymous texting application to send threatening texts to the man with the debt before smashing the car windows of the victim.

Mercaldo admitted as part of his plea that he tried to distance himself from the threats arranging to be in Florida during the car vandalismor make it appear as if he were receiving threats as well.

Two days before being brought in by a Baltimore County Police Department detective on April 12, 2019, in relation to the destruction of property at the victim’s home, Mercaldo requested Gaither send him a message from the same number he used on the victim “falsely purporting to be from a person from Delaware who was trying to collect money and threatening Mercaldo’s son,” according to the plea documents.

Remodeling contractor hired a hit man to kill homeowner. The hit man was a cop (with a video camera).

In the police interview, Mercaldo then made the false claim that he had been receiving threatening messages too, showing the false texts, which “included a screenshot of Mercaldo’s son playing lacrosse at his high school,” according to the plea documents.

Mercaldo falsely said someone else provided him with the loan for the victim and he was paying this person in cash every month, Mercaldo admitted. He also told police his car window had been smashed when it had actually been damaged by a rock.

Plea papers don’t indicate what happened after Mercaldo spoke to police but say that between April 2019 and July 2019, Mercaldo upped the cash for Gaither to set fire to the victim’s home.

On Aug. 4, 2019, Gaither allegedly broke a window in the victim’s basement and “ignited a flammable liquid,” according to the plea documents.

The fire caused more than $300,000 in damage.

After the fire, the threatening texts continued to the victim who escaped the blaze and began being sent to the victim’s business partner, prosecutors said. The messages showed they “were being followed” and “threatened to harm the victims and their families,” Mercaldo admitted in plea documents.

In text messages sent in October 2019, Gaither allegedly said to Mercaldo, “He wasn’t paying then that’s wat made him have a bbq,” in reference to the fire.

Mercaldo replied, “Exactly!!”

Later that month, according to text messages in the plea document, Mercaldo said he believed the victim’s business partner “seems most frightened by the texts!!!!!”

“Can you mention his kids plz?” Mercaldo texted Gaither.

“Yea i can,” Gaither allegedly responded.

A Louisiana man hired hit men to kill a woman accusing him of rape, police said. Instead, they allegedly killed his sister.

The business partner paid Gaither in cash a short time after receiving a threatening message, but Gaither kept the money for himself and told Mercaldo the payment never came, court documents allege.

On Oct. 29, 2019, according to the plea documents, Mercaldo and Gaither began talking about “plan b” — plotting the “murder of one or both of the victims.”

Mercaldo sent texts the following weeks talking about how he hoped Gaither would “whack” one of the victims and “Nail em plz!!”

“How much $ ? Plan b is to do away correct?” Mercaldo texted Gaither on Dec. 31, 2019, according to Mercaldo’s plea.

Court documents don’t lay out a price the men agreed to, but the next month Gaither conducted surveillance at the victims’ businesses and homes, prosecutors said.

He allegedly sent Mercaldo images and videos narrating his surveillance, in which one of the videos “included his discussion of how he planned to follow and attack” the restaurant owner.

In two videos, Gaither allegedly held two handguns while in his car during his surveillance.

“Next opportunity i get Iam taken,” Gaither allegedly told Mercaldo on Jan. 9, 2020, according to the plea documents.

Mercaldo responded with a thumbs-up emoji.

The communication between Mercaldo and Gaither continued as late as May 30, 2020, with Mercaldo providing Gaither with a new address for one of the victims and the name of a victim’s sister in March 2020, Mercaldo admitted in his plea papers.

But Plan B was stymied.

Mercaldo was arrested on June 23, 2020. During his interview with police on June 24, 2020, Mercaldo told investigators another lie about being threatened by a person “who attacked him with a baseball bat in Ocean City, Maryland,” he admitted.

Mercaldo said the man came after him in February 2020 over money the victim owed but was trying to obtain through Mercaldo.

“I think it’s a Black man, that’s all I really know,” Mercaldo told police, according to the plea documents.

The man with the baseball bat who “attacked” him?

Mercaldo said it was Gaither.