Thanksgiving massacre suspect held without bond, isolated in mental health unit

January 4th, 2010 by

www.palmbeachpost.com – While a manhunt swirled around him, Florida’s most wanted fugitive lived like a hermit in a tiny Florida Keys hotel, eating Snickers bars and canned beans and clicking around on the Internet. He left his room so rarely that the owners sometimes wondered if he was still alive.

For a full month authorities say Paul Michael Merhige hunkered down in Room 14 at the Edgewater Lodge on Long Key, steps from the Gulf of Mexico, while a fake name and an expired license plate cloaked his past.

But on Saturday night a phone tip brought U.S. Marshals crashing into his room, ending his weeks on the lam and sending him back to Palm Beach County to face charges of murdering four relatives in Jupiter on Thanksgiving Day.

Dazed-looking and barefoot, Merhige was booked into the Palm Beach County Jail early Sunday morning and ordered to be held without bond at a court hearing hours later.

The 35-year-old, who has a reported history of mental health issues and suicide attempts, was being kept in isolation in the jail’s mental health unit.

His arrest capped a furious manhunt that extended across the country and lasted 38 days, ending only after Merhige was recognized Saturday night on TV by the owner of the Edgewater Lodge. The owner’s call to investigators came hours before a new episode of ‘America’s Most Wanted’ featuring his case was preparing to air.

“My husband asked me, ‘Isn’t that the guy staying up in 14?’” said Melinda Pfaff, co-owner of the Edgewater Lodge on Long Key. “I looked and said, ‘Yes, it is. Let’s call America’s Most Wanted.’”

At about 10 p.m. U.S. Marshals shattered a sliding glass door and stormed into Merhige’s room. An official involved in the operation said Mehrige was apprehended after running into the bathroom and being stunned with a Taser stun gun.

The Miami man had been living in Room 14 since Dec. 2, calling himself John Baca and paying in cash.

His room was stocked for a long stay — packed with cans of beans, jars of peanut butter, bread, an empty box of Snickers bars and a half eaten pack of Fig Newtons. In the refrigerator, he had stored away canned fruit and bottled water.

Also in his room were a bottle of “color retention conditioner,” gas tanks and an unused pair of sunglasses.

With his photos all over the TV and newspapers, Merhige laid low, telling the hotel owners he would clean his room himself but insisting he needed Internet access. Reportedly suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, he washed his clothes often in the hotel’s laundry room, virtually the only time he was seen.

“He never came out of his room,” Paul Pfaff said. “I didn’t know if the guy was alive.”

Since the Pfaff’s didn’t have many other guests in early December they were glad to have him — until Saturday night.

Paul Pfaff had been watching the Fox channel around 6:30 or 7 p.m., when the news came on and he saw a report on Merhige, including a photograph of the fugitive.

Pfaff recognized the photo as the man who was staying right above them on the second floor.

Authorities regularly received tips regarding Merhige’s whereabouts, and most of them prove to be unfounded. But this one stood out.

Not only did Pfaff claim to have seen Merhige, he described seeing his blue Toyota Camry in the parking lot — hidden under a car cover — and read out the car’s license plate number.

When investigators ran it, it came back as an expired tag — for a Lexus that Merhige’s father used to own.

“With that information it was like ‘boom,’ that was it,” Deputy U.S. Marshal Barry Golden said.

A team of about 30 deputy marshals and members of the U.S. Marshals Florida Regional Fugitive Task Force stealthily surrounded the hotel, mindful that Merhige was reported to have a high-powered sniper rifle.

They smashed his room’s sliding glass door and set off a loud device in his room to stun and distract him, said Manny Puri, a supervising inspector for the U.S. Marshals Office. Then they stormed in.

When they burst into his upstairs room, he was alone, using his computer.

Merhige ran into the bathroom and stuck out his hands, crying “Please don’t shoot me!” and begging for them not to hurt him, Puri said.

When he ignored orders to walk out of the bathroom and surrender they stunned him with a Taser stun gun.

In court this morning Merhige stood silently in jail blues and glasses, his hands cuffed in front of him. The court room was heavily guarded by a dozen sheriff’s deputies, including members from the SWAT team.

He murmured a question to a public defender representing him in the hearing but otherwise did not speak. County Court Judge Reginald Corlew ordered him held without bond on four charges of first-degree murder and two charges of attempted first-degree murder.

An arraignment hearing was set for Merhige for Feb. 1 and the county Public Defender’s office was appointed to represent him.

On a court form he signed today, Merhige claimed he had no income besides $900 a month in federal benefits. (His mother told The Palm Beach Post in November that he had never worked and that his parents supported him financially.)

Merhige, who nursed a long-brewing grudge against his family for more than a decade, is accused of slaying his cousin’s daughter, Makayla Sitton, 6; her grandmother Raymonde Joseph, 76; and his twin sisters, Lisa Knight and Carla Merhige, 33.

His capture brings an element of closure for those who survived the Thanksgiving Day shooting. Family members had been under police guard since that night for fear that he might return to slay more relatives.

“I’m elated that the monster is in the cage,” Jim Sitton, Makayla’s father, said Saturday night. “We don’t have to worry about him killing my wife or coming back for my father-in-law.

“It doesn’t bring my daughter back,” he added, “but at least this chapter is over.”

Sitton allowed himself one guilty pleasure Saturday night. Moments before Merhige was apprehended, Sitton was tipped off by Jupiter’s police chief that U.S. Marshals believed they had him in their sights.

Later, the chief called with confirmation. The hotel owner had identified Merhige in a photo and confirmed he was driving the blue Toyota. An arrest would be imminent.

The news came minutes before ‘America’s Most Wanted’ was scheduled to air an in-depth report on Merhige, including an interview with the Sittons.

“I enjoyed the irony,” Sitton said. “I knew Paul would be watching, but I knew something he didn’t: As we watched, he was being surrounded.”


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