In a move that allows them to avoid the death penalty, the two defendants accused in the homicides of local residents William “Skip” Brown and Sherri Mendenhall accepted individual plea deals Wednesday, Sept. 12.
Brothers Dustin Merrick, 27, and Bret Merrick, 25, of Xenia, had each faced charges of aggravated murder, with death penalty stipulations, in the Jan. 15, 2017, shooting deaths of Brown, 44, and Mendenhall, 63. The victims lived in neighboring apartments on a property owned by the Brown family in the the 4000 block of East Enon Road, Miami Township.
Appearing separately Wednesday morning in Judge Michael Buckwalter’s court, each brother pleaded guilty to an agreed upon charge, waiving their rights to a jury trial.
With the judge noting that Bret Merrick had not shot either of the victims, the younger brother entered a guilty plea to two counts of involuntary manslaughter, with a maximum possible sentence of 25 years, including three years for firearms use. In a separate sentencing hearing early Wednesday afternoon, Judge Buckwalter imposed the anticipated sentence of 25 years and remanded the younger brother to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.
In Dustin Merrick’s case, the elder brother pleaded guilty to nine counts: two for aggravated murder, two for murder, two for aggravated burglary, one for felonious assault, one for tampering with evidence and one for obstructing justice. Judge Buckwalter said the combined penalty for all counts was two life sentences without parole, plus an additional 31 years for other counts. Ruling that the two life sentences, plus 31 years, would be served concurrently, he told Merrick: “You are never getting out of prison.”
The deal came the second week of jury selection in Dustin Merrick’s criminal trial, in which opening arguments were expected next week. Bret Merrick’s trial had been scheduled for October in Judge Stephen Wolaver’s court. Recent filings with the Clerk of Courts office show that younger brother Bret Merrick’s case was moved Sept. 6 from Wolaver’s to Buckwalter’s courtroom, where Dustin Merrick’s case was to be tried.
Members of the Brown, Mendenhall and Merrick families were in attendance for Wednesday’s hearings.
Larry Brown, father of Skip Brown, said earlier in the week that a representative of the victim’s advocate office had informed the family that the brothers would have a new plea hearing, with sentencing to follow, on Wednesday in Buckwalter’s court.
According to Brown’s understanding, “the defense proposed a plea [deal] last week, and the prosecutor’s office had some requirements that had to be worked out.”
The brothers have connections to the Brown family. The young men’s mother was married to Skip Brown’s brother, David Brown, at the time of the shootings, and Dustin Merrick had previously worked with Skip at his Yellow Springs-based roofing business.
Concerning the possibility of the death sentence, Larry Brown said he had been “okay with it.”
“But nothing will bring Skip back,” he added.
For Larry Brown, the plea deals mean that “the boys are finally accepting responsibility.”