An argument over $40 worth of drugs led to the death of a Taneytown man in West Virginia, according to a police officer’s testimony in court Tuesday.
Westminster resident Monroe Merrell, 23, faces charges of first-degree murder and kidnapping in the March 18 death of Jonathan Riddle. Riddle’s body was found on fire and stabbed in Rippon, West Virginia by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, according to charging documents. Merrell is one of three Carroll County residents facing murder charges in this case.
After hearing testimony from the investigating officer, Magistrate Judge Arthena Roper ruled probable cause was found and moved Merrell’s case to circuit court. Merrell has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is being held without bond.
Merrell appeared in court via video conference. He wore an orange shirt and had a shaved head. Merrell did not audibly comment during the preliminary hearing.
The testimony of Sgt. Steve Holz, of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, on Tuesday largely referenced information he said was provided to him by cooperating individuals who are familiar with the case.
These CIs, who have not been named publicly, told Holz that Merrell restrained Riddle at David Sanford Jr.‘s Westminster residence while Sanford stabbed him twice in the stomach with a paring knife he retrieved from the kitchen, Holz said. The dispute started after someone accused Riddle of stealing crystal meth that may have belonged to Merrell, according to Holz.
Riddle had come to the residence on occasion to do drugs with Westminster resident Heather Grogg, who police say was shot to death in West Virginia April 6, Holz said.
Before her death, Grogg told Holz she was a live-in nanny for Sanford and his girlfriend Emily Day. Holz said she told him Riddle came to the apartment, but did not confirm a fight occurred. Holz said he believes Grogg lied to him because she was scared.
Merrell was at the residence when Riddle was accused of taking approximately $40 worth of crystal meth from Grogg, Holz testified. Riddle sent messages to his mother shortly after midnight on March 18 asking for money, suggesting he would be killed if he did not pay, Holz said. His mother replied saying she did not have the money, according to Holz.
At Sanford’s residence, Riddle ran for the door but was caught by Merrell, who wrestled him into submission before he was stabbed, Holz testified. A group of people, who had just returned from a Pagans motorcycle club party in West Virginia, then punched and kicked Riddle, Holz said.
While Holz said he doesn’t believe Merrell is a member of the Pagans, he said he may be part of another motorcycle club. Holz said the party they were coming from had been held at the home of Falling Waters resident April Braner, who has been charged in connection with the deaths of Grogg and Taneytown resident Danielle Tyler.
After the altercation at Sanford’s apartment, Riddle was bound and driven to West Virginia, where he was found dead, according to Holz. An autopsy found Riddle suffered 11 stab wounds and blunt force trauma, Holz said.
Holz said some tools, which he believed were Riddle’s, and a shoe print, were found by the body. The print was collected, but Holz doesn’t think they will find a match among the defendants because one of the CI’s told him everyone involved burned their shoes. A partially burned latex glove was found on Riddle’s body, Holz said, and Merrell was known to carry such gloves with him for when he did tattooing. Holz testified those involved in Riddle’s death wore gloves to prevent DNA being spread.
A cooperating individual said Merrell traveled with the group by car to West Virginia, where he uttered, “I iced him,” to mean he killed Riddle, Holz testified.
Merrell was connected to the case when police learned one of the two vehicles driven to West Virginia was being borrowed at the time by a teenage relative of Merrell’s, Holz said. A stationary license reader on U.S. Rt. 340 captured photos of two vehicles from Carroll County, spaced about two seconds apart, entering West Virginia early in the morning March 18, Holz said. One vehicle belonged to Riddle’s wife, Diana, but Holz said this was the primary vehicle Riddle drove. The other vehicle was in possession of Merrell’s teenage relative, Holz said.
Diana was present for the hearing Tuesday but declined to comment on the proceedings.
Merrell’s defense attorney, Michael Santa Barbara, asked Holz about the content of the license reader photos. Holz said the photos depict the rear of the vehicles, including the license plates, but do not show who was inside the vehicles.
Riddle’s car was found torched in a field near U.S. 340 outside of Brunswick, Maryland, Holz said. No evidence was obtained from that car, but police did seize the vehicle that Merrell’s relative had possession of at the time of Riddle’s murder.
The vehicle was found in the 1000 block of Stone Road in Westminster on March 20, according to charging documents. Holz identified the address as the Merrell family residence. Holz said in court he and Maryland State Police visited the home to speak to Merrell’s relative, and encountered Merrell coming out of a wooded area near the house. The vehicle was parked in front of the residence, he said. Holz recalled identifying himself as being from the Sheriff’s Office in West Virginia and shaking Merrell’s hand.
“He appeared very nervous right from the get-go,” Holz said, saying he had wide eyes and a pulsing artery showing in his neck.
Santa Barbara questioned the police’s decision to seize the vehicle from the property. Holz said they had probable cause and took the vehicle before getting a search warrant because they were concerned potential evidence could be tampered with if the vehicle was left there. Holz noted the parents of the juvenile gave police the vehicle’s keys. A muddy smear in the vehicle was later found to contain blood, Holz testified, though he is waiting on a report to identify whose blood it was.
In Santa Barbara’s closing argument, he questioned Holz’s testimony, which he said did not provide evidence that Merrell fatally stabbed Riddle or transported him to West Virginia. Santa Barbara suggested the cooperating individuals could be guilty themselves and trying to pin the blame on others. He also questioned whether it had been proven that Riddle died in West Virginia and not Maryland, where the altercation started. Santa Barbara asked for the case to be dismissed.
Matt Harvey, prosecuting attorney for the state, noted case law states a significant part of the alleged crime has to occur in the area for Jefferson County, West Virginia to have jurisdiction over the case, not all of it. Harvey questioned why Riddle would have been stabbed in Rippon if he died before they arrived.
“I’m a little surprised at the evidence that exists,” Santa Barbara said after the hearing. “I think there’s some questions.”
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Harvey said he felt the judge made the right decision.