The last time law enforcement officials saw Richard Merritt in person, he was in a Cobb County courtroom asking for time to “get his affairs in order” before starting a 15-year prison sentence for fraud charges. A judge granted his request and ordered him to return to custody on Feb. 1, the Cobb district attorney’s office said at the time.
A day after he was supposed to begin his prison stint, his mother was found dead at her DeKalb County home. Merritt had taken off, and immediately became the primary murder suspect.
It’s been about two months since the U.S. Marshals Service started a wide-reaching search for the 45-year-old, but authorities are struggling to pinpoint where he might be.
“There’s been absolutely no credible sightings of him since the night he disappeared,” said Inspector Frank Lempka with the U.S. Marshals.
Merritt could be in Oxford, England, or more tropical locations like the Caribbean or Mexico, since he has gone on vacations to those places before, Lempka said. Investigators have conducted interviews with his associates, family members and other people who knew him.
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“They just think he might go to those types of areas, but we don’t have anything specifically putting him there,” Lempka said. “We’ve talked to dozens of people at this point, but we’re just broadening our search of his possible network.”
Shirley Merritt was found stabbed to death at her home in the 1500 block of Planters Row in Tucker on the morning of Feb. 2, DeKalb police said. Merritt had also been living there while out on bond. At about 5:45 p.m. the day before, the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office received a call from the DA’s office saying Merritt had removed his ankle monitor, sheriff’s office spokesman Glenn Daniel said.
Right after he fled, the U.S. Marshals said, he was spotted on surveillance video at a gas station near Cartersville.
“That’s the last verified sighting of him,” Lempka said.
In a statement about a week after his disappearance, the U.S. Marshals said Merritt might have shaved his head or changed his appearance. Merritt “should be considered armed and dangerous,” the statement said. “Do not try to engage him. If you see Merritt, please contact law enforcement immediately.”
Federal authorities said Merritt may have been driving his mother’s vehicle, a 2009 silver Lexus RX350 with Georgia tag CBV6004.
He had pleaded guilty to settling civil lawsuits without telling his clients and keeping the money for himself. He used the money taken from clients, some elderly or filing medical malpractice claims, to buy a Porsche or go on vacation, investigators said. In addition to his 15 years in prison, he was sentenced to 15 years of probation and ordered to pay a restitution of $454,706.
Merritt surrendered his license to practice law in January 2018, according to records from the State Bar of Georgia. He was booked into jail soon after.
His lawyer in that case, Marietta-based David Willingham, said in a statement after his disappearance that “not once did he hint or suggest in any way that he would run from justice, much less show any signs that he was capable of such heinous violence towards of all people, his own mother.”
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Reached by phone Tuesday, Willingham declined to comment further.
Merritt’s mother signed her house over as his bond, Lempka said, meaning that she could have faced the consequences when he fled.
“They could have fought about that and it escalated into him killing her,” Lempka said, clarifying that “obviously nobody knows … what the real reason is” for Shirley Merritt’s death.
The marshals are offering a $5,000 reward for information that leads to Richard Merritt’s capture.
Anyone with information is asked to call DeKalb police at 770-724-7850 or the U.S. Marshals at 1-877-Wanted-2 (1-877-926-8332). Tips can also be emailed to email@example.com.
To remain anonymous and be eligible for rewards of up to $2,000, tipsters can contact Crime Stoppers Atlanta at 404-577-8477, text information to 274637 or visit the Crime Stoppers website.
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