Disbarred attorney Richard Merritt, sought in the weekend slaying of his mother, remains on the run four days after he was supposed to turn himself in at the Cobb County, Georgia, jail to begin serving a 15-year prison sentence.
A DeKalb County Police Department spokesman said on Tuesday that Merritt, 44, is being pursued by the department’s Fugitive Squad.
Merritt’s mother, 77-year-old Shirley Merritt, was found dead of apparent stab wounds at her Stone Mountain home at about 9:30 a.m. Saturday when police responded to a call from Merritt’s cousin, who found her at the bottom of a basement staircase.
Merritt was supposed to report to the jail at 5 p.m. on Friday after pleading guilty on Jan. 22 to 34 felony counts including theft, forgery and exploitation of an elderly person.
Cobb Superior Court Judge Robert Flournoy III sentenced Merritt to serve 15 years in prison and another 15 on probation and to pay $454,706 in restitution. He was disbarred last year after admitting to stealing $75,000 in settlement funds meant for a client.
The police report said Merritt’s cousin, Michael Jefcoat, drove from Alabama to take Merritt to the jail when he learned Merritt had cut off his ankle monitor in Cartersville.
Jefcoat told the officer that he spoke to Shirley Merritt at about 8 a.m. Saturday and that she said, “everything was fine and that she was talking with Richard about turning himself in.”
When he arrived at Shirley Merritt’s house Saturday morning, Jefcoat let himself in using a key he got from Merritt’s ex-wife, who met him at the entrance to the neighborhood.
The report said the investigating officer found two plates on the dinner table and two steak knives missing from a kitchen knife block, matching the broken-off knife handle found near Shirley Merritt’s body.
There was no sign of struggle, the report said.
Police issued a lookout for Shirley Merritt’s brown 2009 Lexus RX 350 with Georgia tag number CBV6004.
Merritt ran his own firm in Smyrna handling personal injury and medical-malpractice cases prior to his indictment. He sued two attorneys in 2017 on behalf of spine surgeon and frequent medical expert James Chappuis. At the time, Merritt said he was vice president and general counsel of Chappuis’ Orthopaedic & Spine Surgery of Atlanta.
Merritt’s attorney, David Willingham of Marietta’s Willingham Law Firm, declined to comment on the recent developments. But when Merritt pleaded guilty, Willingham provided a statement saying Merritt’s problems stemmed at least in part from alcohol abuse.
“My client did not set out in his legal career with evil intentions or with a plan to become a thief, liar and deceiver,” Willingham said at the time.
“He developed into that person slowly over time and under the pressure, stress and anxiety associated with practicing law—as well as an addiction to alcohol.”
Lawyers who dealt with Merritt said his demeanor did not seem out of the ordinary, and one judge who knew him years ago when he was with the Fulton County solicitor’s office said she never would have foreseen his career implode so completely.
Fulton State Court Judge Diane Bessen said it is “astonishing how a bad story could get so much worse. He was one of my first solicitors back in 2002, and I always thought he was a fine young man and a diligent prosecutor.”
Bessen said she had heard rumors that Merritt was not attending to his clients prior to his indictment, “but as a judge, I am usually the last to find out.”
“It just is unfathomable that someone with a law-and-order bent could do such a 180,” Bessen said.