Double-murder case comes to an end
- Published: September 27, 2018
“You are never getting out of prison,” Judge Michael Buckwalter told a frequently smiling Dustin Merrick last week during the 27-year-old’s sentencing for the double murder that rocked the village early last year.
Merrick and his brother Bret, now 25, have been in the Greene County Jail since their arrest five days after the Jan. 15, 2017, shooting deaths of local residents William “Skip” Brown and Sherri Mendenhall.
Brown, 44, and Mendenhall, 63, lived in neighboring apartments on property owned by the Brown family in the 4000 block of East Enon Road, Miami Township.
Both brothers had been charged with two counts of aggravated murder and faced the death penalty in the early morning killings at the property, where Skip Brown also maintained an art gallery featuring photographs by his great-grandfather Axel Bahnsen.
Having pleaded not guilty in their initial arraignments last year at the Xenia Municipal Courthouse, the brothers changed their pleas Wednesday, Sept. 12, as part of individual deals that allowed both to avoid the possibility of capital punishment.
The plea agreements came during the second week of jury selection in elder brother Dustin Merrick’s trial, for which opening arguments were expected this week.
Bret Merrick’s case was scheduled to go to trial next month.
Because the plea deals mean neither trial will take place, the public may never learn what was in the brothers’ minds when they went to the East Enon Road property in the early morning hours of Jan. 15, 2017, and left the two occupants shot to death.
Skip Brown was known to both young men, while Sherri Mendenhall was not.
The brothers’ mother was married to Skip’s brother at the time of the shootings, and Dustin had worked for a time with Skip in his local roofing business. While Dustin told investigators that he quit the job in fall 2016 because Skip wouldn’t let him change his schedule to spend more time with his girlfriend and her baby, it is widely believed that Dustin was fired.
What is known about the killings is from Bret’s statement to investigators, obtained by the News through a public records request.
In the statement, which the defense had attempted to disqualify, Bret said he had been visiting his older brother’s home in Xenia, when Dustin suggested they go for a drive, bringing along several weapons. As they neared Yellow Springs, Bret said he learned that Dustin intended to rob his step-uncle and former employer, Skip Brown.
They parked in an area behind the former barn where the victims’ apartments and art gallery were housed, and climbed up the side of the structure to the second-floor entrance of Skip’s apartment.
Bret said that Dustin kicked in the door, and while Bret stood watch, Dustin went into the master bedroom, where Skip, who was in bed, was shot multiple times.
The noise prompted Mendenhall to come over and check on what was happening. With her appearance at the door, Bret said he fired a warning shot in her direction, and she ran. The brothers followed, first going to her adjoining apartment, before seeing her in the driveway outside. Dustin fired at her, apparently delivering the mortal shot.
Authorities learned of the homicides the following afternoon when a jogger saw a woman, later identified as Mendenhall, lying in the driveway.
The shooting deaths shocked the community and left two families grieving the violent loss of their loved ones.
Family members spoke about the extent of that loss in victim impact statements delivered during the Merricks’ sentencing hearings Sept. 12.
Speaking for the Brown family, Skip’s father, Larry, spoke of the “pain and distress that time may never heal.”
Giving similar statements at each of the brothers’ sentencing, Larry Brown told Dustin that Skip had tried to teach him a trade that could have given him a better life, but Dustin threw it away.
“I hope you wake up every day with the knowledge of what you did,” Larry said.
The father said Skip’s death had repercussions beyond their family.
“Reading the stories on the cards at his viewing, we were amazed at the number of people Skip had had an influence on,” Larry said, breaking down. “His death is a huge loss for Yellow Springs, Greene County and the surrounding area.”
Three of Sherri Mendenhall’s four sons, as well as her brother, Kenneth Mendenhall, also gave emotional statements.
They noted that their mother and sister had just retired a year before her murder, and she was looking forward to traveling and spending time with her eight grandchildren.
They also described her as a strong, vibrant woman who left an abusive marriage and raised her four sons on her own.
The impact of her murder was great and multi-faceted, they said, affecting their health, jobs, relationships and view of the world. Their children also had a changed sense of safety and trust, they said.
“Regardless of the sentence today, our sentence is a lifetime,” Sherri’s youngest son, Gabriel Mendenhall, said.
Eldest son, John Skinner, described his reaction after learning of her shooting death.
“I felt angry, distraught, shocked, bitter,” he said.
“Now,” he continued, “the overwhelming feeling is sadness. It’s sad to see so many lives in three families that have been destroyed by the senseless actions of that night.”
In addition to members of the Brown and Mendenhall families, about a dozen members and friends of the Merrick family attended the Sept. 12 hearings.
Each brother was given a chance to make a statement as well.
Dustin, who continued to smile throughout his hearing, and showed no reaction to the victim statements, made only a cryptic remark that those in attendance had difficulty deciphering. According to several media reports, however, he said, “All my pauses indicate dot dot dot.”
Younger brother Bret exhibited more remorse.
“I would just like to give my condolences to the [families]. I am truly sorry, and I wish this never happened,” he said.
During victim statements, he turned a lowered head toward the speakers sitting behind him, and nodded slightly.
Appearing separately Wednesday morning in Judge 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. During the separate sentencing hearing early Wednesday afternoon, 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.
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 sentences would be served concurrently, he asked Merrick if he understood he was “never getting out of prison.”
“Yes,” Merrick said.