MOORHEAD - After pushing his 82-year-old mother out of a rocking chair, choking her and then shoving her down the basement stairs, Michael Ray Mertz had an item to attend to before calling 911.

Mertz, an unemployed 57-year-old, stepped over his mom - who he'd lived with for more than three years - and walked to his bedroom. He stepped over her again as he went out the back door.

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He went to the yard and buried 369 $100 bills, nearly $37,000 Moorhead police suspected he may have stolen from her but has since returned.

Just before the incident, Mertz's mom had accused her son of swindling her. He responded by throwing three $100 bills at her while saying he didn't need her money, Marlys Mertz later told police.

That's the story laid out in documents filed with the assault charges connected to the April 14 attack on the 82-year-old at her home at 312 11th St. N.

Now Mertz also faces a perjury charge, accused of not listing the cash among his assets when he applied and received a state-paid attorney to defend him in the assault that broke his mother's hip and ribs and dislocated her shoulder.

Mertz pleaded guilty to a third-degree assault charge on June 17, but a plea deal to sentence him to about seven months in jail to be followed by probation was rejected by Clay County District Judge Steven Cahill as too lenient, said Jenny Samarzja, the assistant Clay County attorney handling the case.

Samarzja said Marlys Mertz wanted her son to do more time in jail, but also wanted him to get counseling for substance abuse and domestic violence, which the probation would provide.

Yet the state's guideline sentence for Mertz was just one year and one day, so a balance was struck between jail time and probation, Samarzja said.

"We were between a rock and a hard place," she said of the sentencing options.

Steven Beitelspacher, the attorney appointed as public defender for Mertz, said he was disappointed Cahill rejected the deal, but had no further comment.

Mertz offered to do the whole 366-day sentence in prison, but Cahill also said that's too light, Samarzja said. Instead, prosecutors will seek an upward departure from the sentencing guidelines, she said.

Mertz could retract his guilty plea and ask for a trial, the prosecutor said. Or he could keep his guilty plea, and a sentencing jury would need to be assembled to determine whether his mom qualifies as a vulnerable adult, Samarzja said.

If Marlys Mertz is deemed vulnerable, Cahill would be able to sentence Mertz to more time than guidelines dictate - in theory, as much as the maximum five years.

Bruce Ringstrom, the attorney Mertz hired after he was no longer eligible for a public defender because of his backyard stash, didn't return a phone message.

A pretrial hearing on the assault case is scheduled for Aug. 23.

Beitelspacher said after a two-month investigation into the source of Mertz's cash cache, police returned the money back to him after the failed sentencing hearing on July 26.

Samarzja said the initial suspicion was that Mertz took the money from his mother. The woman talked to Mertz's sister about him taking money from her just before he pushed her down, court documents allege.

But ultimately, there was nothing to prove the money was stolen, Samarzja said. A search warrant filed in the case states there were no large or unusual debits in the mother's accounts.

Mertz told authorities he had saved up the cash for years, and testified it was his in a hearing in the assault case. Beitelspacher said he didn't know where the money came from.

The perjury charge was filed against Mertz on July 22 and he was scheduled to make an initial appearance this week, but the hearing was delayed to Aug. 19.

Mertz hasn't spent any of his money on bail, as he's still being held in the Clay County Jail on $20,000 cash or bond.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.