Sunday school teachers stand accused in death of frail son


A poster of the Ten Commandments stands behind the mailbox outside the Harford County home of Samuel and Donna Merryman, and a hand-painted sign on the front of the house reads, "Pray and Trust in God."

The couple -- both Sunday school teachers -- are on home detention, freed from jail Monday on $50,000 property bonds after being charged with manslaughter, first-degree child abuse resulting in death, and reckless endangerment.

An autopsy report says their adopted 8-year-old Russian-born son, the youngest of seven children they were raising and home-schooling, died in January of starvation -- a finding disputed yesterday by Samuel Merryman's mother, who called the charges "totally false" and maintained that young Dennis Merryman's death was the result of one of his many ailments.

"I was here every day. I saw him eating, I know he was fed," said Olivia Merryman, grandmother of Dennis Merryman and the six other children. "He had cystic fibrosis, digestive problems, and he may have had other problems."

Family members said Dennis, who was adopted with his older brother and two older sisters from an orphanage in Prem, Russia, in 2000, died in January after playing outside in the snow.

"He came in, laid down and never got up," said George Merryman, Samuel Merryman's father.

At his death, Dennis weighed 37 pounds -- 2 pounds less than when he was examined by doctors in October 2000, according to charging documents. He was 3 feet, 5 1/2 inches tall.

"The child was very skinny and he appeared to be very frail" when medics arrived at the family's home Jan. 22, said Lt. James Eyler, a spokesman for the county sheriff's office. But he said there was no sign of physical abuse.

The autopsy, which he said was completed July 27, identified no underlying condition that could have caused the boy's death, according to charging documents.

The couple's other six children -- also including two of their own, and the oldest, a 14-year-old daughter from Donna Merryman's previous marriage -- are in the care of the county Department of Social Services, according to the Merrymans' attorney, Carl R. Schlaich.

Eyler said the couple were arrested on the Harford County District Court parking lot, after the sheriff's office learned they would be there for an arranged meeting with their children.

"Police arrested them in front of the children," Olivia Merryman said last night.

Olivia and George Merryman put up their Whiteford home, across Flintville Road from Samuel and Donna Merryman's 6-acre property, as bond.

Olivia Merryman said the family realized that an arrest might be imminent when they saw the death certificate in May. It listed the manner of death as homicide, she said.

Samuel and Donna loved children, Olivia Merryman said, recounting how her 37-year-old son grew up -- one of six children -- on his family's 40 acres along Flintville Road.

"They would have liked to have had a big family," Olivia Merryman said, adding that when Donna, 42, found out she could not have more children, the pair looked to adopt. Told they would be on a waiting list in the U.S., the couple went to Russia and adopted the four siblings, two girls and two boys.

Conditions of the Merryman children could not be ascertained from official sources yesterday, but Olivia Merryman said the adopted children all had health problems -- and Dennis had the worst. In Russia, he was found to have rickets, she said.

The Merrymans were surprised to discover other problems later -- one of the girls has severe vision problems, and all four had lead poisoning, she said, describing them as developmentally slow.

Samuel and Donna Merryman own Merryman Enterprises Inc., a home-improvement business they run out of their home, their attorney said.

Their property includes a multilevel brick home with cornflower-blue shutters and an above-ground pool.

The family attended Franklin Missionary Baptist Church every Sunday and Wednesday, where Samuel and Donna Merryman taught Sunday school, his mother said. And everyone in the family is a born-again Christian, she added.

Eyler said the investigation included interviews with friends and family members -- including the couple's children.

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