A Monkton mother fights to free her son

April 17, 1994|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Writer

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Sara Merrill's youngest son, the Baltimore boy she remembers with the sunny, winning smile, sits in the county jail here hoping for life as he once knew it.

He is thin-lipped and weary from the struggle to prove his innocence in a brutal crime he says he didn't commit. She is his lifeline, a soft-spoken woman from Monkton with the smarts and savvy to know that "nobody would listen to a mother" so she hired the best legal minds money could buy and drafted Episcopal church leaders to wage the fight on her son's behalf.

The first strategic battle in her war has been won: Thomas Read Merrill, a 29-year-old ex-Marine educated at private prep schools and Washington College on Maryland's Eastern Shore, will get a new trial, perhaps in May. Convicted of a double murder, he faced a life- without-parole sentence until a California court threw out his convictions last fall amid allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and incompetent counsel.

This is a case with a series of strange twists: The sole surviving victim of the crime believes Tom Merrill got "railroaded" in his first trial. A prosecution witness tells Mr. Merrill's new lawyers he was asked to keep quiet about evidence that favored the Marine's innocence. The judge in the case who thought "justice was done" overturns Mr. Merrill's conviction and grants him a new trial. Every twist only strengthened Sara Merrill's resolve.

"He was -- still is -- the first thing I think about when I wake and the last thing I think about when I fall asleep at night," the mother says. "What you learn when you deal with my mother is soft doesn't mean weak . . . " says the son. "If I had to fight this by myself from the inside, I don't know where I'd be."

*

The last three years of Tom Merrill's life are chronicled in thousands of court documents that fill cardboard boxes and laundry baskets in his mother's house, a yellow colonial tucked on a hillside deep in the Monkton woods. Mrs. Merrill and her husband George, a psychiatrist and Episcopal minister, had retired to the country "for some peace and quiet" when they received a call from California in November 1990.

Their son Tom had been charged with the murders March 14, 1989, of two people at a precious metals dealership in Newport Beach. It was a robbery gone awry -- a crime to which Tom's roommate and fellow Marine, Eric Wick, had confessed and was awaiting trial.

Foggy, except for his innocence

By the time he was charged -- 18 months after the crime -- Mr. Merrill struggled to recall his whereabouts that day. He knew he was on duty the morning of the crime but could not detail his whereabouts that afternoon. What he was certain of was that he had committed no crime.

The shootings occurred at the Newport Beach Coin Exchange in a placid suburban shopping area several miles from the Tustin Marine base where Tom and Eric were stationed. When police arrived shortly after 5:30 p.m., they found the store's owner, William D. King, shot four times but alive.

Mr. King's wife, Renee, and his best friend, Clyde Oatts, were dead inside the store. Three witnesses who had come upon the robbery told police they had seen a man -- through the store's plate glass windows -- holding a shotgun before they heard shots ring out.

A police officer questioned Mr. King, while he waited for an ambulance. Bleeding profusely from the head, Mr. King gave "labored" answers: there were two suspects, one white and one black. When a detective asked Mr. King if he knew who shot him, he said "no." While en route to the hospital, Mr. King was questioned again by a police officer. He knew he had been shot. He thought he was dying. As the ambulance pulled into the hospital, Mr. King mentioned the name "Tom."

"Who is Tom?" the police officer asked. Mr. King didn't reply. When questioned again, Mr. King answered, "Tom shot me." Asked if he was black or white, Mr. King replied, "black."

Meanwhile, police collected several pieces of evidence from the store that eventually led them to Eric Wick, the fair-skinned, 22-year-old son of an FBI agent. They found a receipt for $45,000 worth of Australian coins in the name of "Eric Watt" and with the telephone number of a Tustin Marine barracks on it. A tire warranty in the name of Mr. Wick's father was found on the counter. Fingerprints and a palm print in the store matched those of Eric Wick.

Murder weapon found

Three months after the robbery, in June 1989, Naval investigators arrested Mr. Wick at his parents' home in Reno, Nev. The murder weapon, a 9mm Sig Sauer pistol, was found in Mr. Wick's Chevy Nova.

Also recovered from the car were three Australian platinum coins and several other guns. In his confession, Mr. Wick told police he committed the crime alone but "didn't plan on killing anyone," according to court records. He said he "did the shooting" because the store owner, Mr. King, "pulled a shotgun out and I had to defend myself," the records show.

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