Ex-attorney Richard Merritt, who skipped out on his Feb. 1 sentencing for defrauding clients, is now suspected of killing his mother

By Jeff Truesdell
February 08, 2019 02:03 PM
U.S. Marshals Service

A disbarred Georgia attorney facing 30 years in prison after his conviction for crimes including theft and elder exploitation was left free for two weeks to get his affairs in order before his scheduled Feb. 1 sentencing.

But rather than face his fate behind bars, authorities allege he killed his mom, removed his court-ordered ankle monitor and took off running.

Richard V. Merritt, 44, “should be considered armed and dangerous,” according to the U.S. Marshals Service, which issued an alert Thursday seeking the public’s help to track him down.

They believe he may be fleeing in a 2009 silver Lexus RX350 missing from the Stone Mountain, Georgia, home of his mother, Shirley Vinson Merritt, 77, who was found “violently killed” on Saturday, said the marshals service in a statement.

Shirley Vinson Merritt
Courtesy The Merritt Family/H.M. Patterson & Son-Arlington Chapel

Merritt spent on “lavish vacations and a Porsche” using funds stolen between 2014 and 2017 from clients to whom he lied, saying he was pursuing their legal claims even after he’d settled their lawsuits by forging their signatures on settlement checks and pocketing the money himself, according to a statement from the office of Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds.

Merritt pleaded guilty January 18 in Cobb County Superior Court to multiple counts of theft, forgery and elder exploitation. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, with 15 years behind bars and the rest on probation, and ordered to pay $454,706 in restitution to his 17 victims.

Superior Court Judge Robert E. Flournoy III granted Merritt’s request for time to “get his affairs in order” before returning to custody, giving him until 5 p.m. Feb. 1 to turn himself in, according to the district attorney’s office. Law enforcement would keep track of his movement’s in the interim via an ankle monitor.

• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.

If Merritt failed to show up for his sentencing, the probation would be revoked and he’d be ordered to serve the full 30 years in lockup, the judge wrote.

‘A Professional Con Man’ and ‘Mendacious Scoundrel’

Merritt surrendered his bar license in January 2018. His attorney, David Willingham, said in a statement at the time Merritt was sentenced, “My client did not set out in his legal career with evil intentions or with a plan to become a thief, liar and deceiver,” reports Law.com. “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.”

Several of Merritt’s victims testified against him, with one saying he was “a professional con man” and another calling him “a mendacious scoundrel,” according to the district attorney’s office.

“The victims came to him for help, and he helped himself instead,” senior assistant district attorney Jason Marbutt said in a statement. “People ought to be able to trust their lawyer. When a lawyer lies, it has ripple effects on the entire system.”

Shirley Merritt, a widow whose obituary says she had “a lengthy career in patient and family services at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta,” was found stabbed to death around 9:30 a.m. Saturday in what police said appeared to be an isolated, domestic-related incident, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

After finding her son’s vehicle at the scene but hers missing, police identified her son as the suspect that same day and issued a murder warrant for his arrest.

Authorities say Merritt may have shaved his head or otherwise altered his appearance on the run, and ask anyone with information about his whereabouts to call a tip line at (770) 508-2500 or the U.S. Marshals Service at 1-877-926-8332, or email usms.wanted@usdoj.gov.