SOUTH BEND — The strange case of drug-and-gun-dealing amusement park owner, erstwhile fugitive and Scientology rehab patient Robert “Tony” Anthony Merrill, 53, is almost over.
On Friday, Feb. 8, visiting Superior Court Judge James Dixon denied Merrill’s request to delay sentencing for a third time, and sentenced him to 72 months in a state prison.
Following spring 2017 raids on his home and his downtown Long Beach amusement complex, Merrill was arrested on numerous drug-related charges. Prosecutor Mark McClain added additional charges after investigators linked him to a stolen-gun-peddling ring, ultimately charging him with 49 felonies. Merrill skipped bail and fled to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where United States marshals eventually captured him. In April 2018, Merrill pleaded guilty to 10 felony charges, including residential burglary, drug possession, running a drug house, bail jumping, trafficking in stolen property and rendering criminal assistance.
Merrill’s parents bailed him out again and sent him to a Church of Scientology-run rehab in the California desert, where he spent much of the last few months sitting in a sauna for hours each day.
His case was further complicated when his attorney was elected Grays Harbor County Superior Court Judge and a Pacific County Deputy Prosecutor who had handled much of his case was appointed Pacific County Superior Court Judge.
Now, only one of Merrill’s numerous accomplices, Jeffrey Walton, is still awaiting sentencing.
‘Lucky to be alive’
At the conclusion of his hearing, Merrill read a statement to the court. He thanked his loved ones and lawyers and a corrections officer and acknowledged the police who busted him were “doing their job,” according to a press release from McClain. Merrill said he felt hopeful that he would be able to turn his life around, and planned to make the most of his time in prison by participating in college, job-training and volunteer programs. Finally, Merrill said some of his closest friends died as a result of their addictions, so he felt lucky to be alive.
McClain was also relieved to see the case nearing its long-awaited conclusion.
“I was thankful that the judge denied yet another continuance in this matter, as we had objected to these delays,” McClain said in the press release. “But in the end, having Mr. Merrill off the streets and in prison has made our community safer.”
The price of justice
According to court documents, the effort to bring Merrill back from Mexico cost thousands of dollars. In late January, McClain asked the court to use Merrill’s forfeited $250,000 bond to reimburse the county for almost $18,000. Expenses included $1,187.75 for the time Pacific County Sheriff’s Office Detective Ryan Tully spent trying to find Merrill, $13,976 for the cost of incarcerating a crucial witness who was a known flight-risk, $2,486.40 for the time McClain spent consulting with law enforcement and handling legal proceedings related to the search, and the costs of transporting Merrill from Lewis County to Pacific County when he was returned to the state.
McClain said that amount only included expenses that could be readily quantified. The real cost to the county, he said, was likely much higher. His estimate did not include costs to the other state and federal agencies in the U.S. and Mexico that helped with the investigation. Forfeitures of that size are pretty rare — most defendants return to court and don’t lose their bonds.
A minor windfall
That amount might seem like a major windfall, but Pacific County doesn’t get to keep all of it. Under state law, the county treasurer can reimburse the county for expenses related to the case. After that, 32 percent of the remaining money goes to the state treasurer, so the county’s gain would be a little under $158,000.
McClain said some of that money was used to buy a new specialized case-management system for his office.
“We are in the process of implementing the program now with a go-live date of the end of May,” McClain said.