A Georgia lawyer who was disbarred and sentenced to 30 years in prison for stealing money from his clients is now wanted for murder, accused of stabbing his 77-year-old mother to death.
Richard Vinson Merritt, 44, of Smyrna, has been on the run for a week, authorities said. His mother, Shirley Vinson Merritt, was found stabbed to death Saturday in her Stone Mountain home, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Richard Merritt was supposed to turn himself in a day earlier at the Cobb County Jail to begin serving his prison sentence. Dekalb County police officials described Shirley Merritt's slaying as an isolated, domestic-related incident and named Richard Merritt as the primary suspect, the Journal-Constitution reported.
Shirley Merritt is survived by another son, five grandchildren and two sisters, her obituary said. She had a long career in patient and family services at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, to which her family requested donations in lieu of flowers at her funeral, which is scheduled for Tuesday.
Richard Merritt had been monitored via an ankle monitor since his Jan. 18 guilty plea in the case involving his clients, the U.S. Marshals Service said in a news release. He had been given two weeks following his plea to get his affairs in order.
According to the Cobb County District Attorney's Office, he had until 5 p.m. Feb. 1 to appear at the jail. Merritt failed to show up and, according to the U.S. Marshals Service, removed his ankle monitor.
A police report obtained by the Marietta Daily Journal said a cousin who drove to Stone Mountain from Alabama to take Richard Merritt to jail found Shirley Merritt's body at the bottom of her basement stairs next to what appeared to be the handle of a steak knife. She had several stab wounds in her side, the report said.
The cousin told detectives he spoke with Shirley Merritt about 90 minutes before finding her body and she said everything was fine, the Daily Journal reported. She told the man she was talking to her son about turning himself in.
Richard Merritt's vehicle was at his mother's house and Shirley Merritt's car, a silver 2009 Lexus RX350 SUV, was missing, the marshals said.
Merritt may still be driving the Lexus, which has Georgia tag number CBV6004, the news release said.
"He may have shaved his head or otherwise changed his appearance and should be considered armed and dangerous," the news release said. "Do not try to engage him. If you see Merritt, please contact law enforcement immediately."
Callers can reach the Southeast Regional Fugitive Task Force at 770-508-2500. Tip information may also be called in to the U.S. Marshals Service at 1-877-Wanted-2 (1-877-926-8332) or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Merritt pleaded guilty last month to theft, forgery and elder exploitation crimes for his actions against 17 former clients, officials with the Cobb County District Attorney's Office said. Merritt admitted that, between 2014 and 2017, he settled clients' civil lawsuits without their knowledge or consent.
Merritt then forged their signatures on the settlement checks and kept the money for himself, spending the money on "lavish vacations and a Porsche," District Attorney Vic Reynolds said in a news release.
The victims in the case included plaintiffs in medical malpractice lawsuits. Several of Merritt’s former clients testified at his plea and sentencing hearing about the effect his actions had on their lives and their finances.
One victim called him a "mendacious scoundrel," and another referred to him as a "professional con man," Reynolds said.
"The victims came to him for help, and he helped himself instead," Senior Assistant District Attorney Jason Marbutt said in the news release. "People ought to be able to trust their lawyer. When a lawyer lies, it has ripple effects on the entire system."
Merritt was sentenced to 30 years in a split sentence in which he was to serve 15 years behind bars and be on probation for 15 years. According to Reynolds, he was also ordered to pay $454,706 in restitution to his victims.
He voluntarily surrendered his Georgia law license in January 2018, shortly before his arrest.