A federal judge handed down a stern sentence Friday to the wife of Towson Ponzi schemer Kevin Merrill by ordering her to serve six consecutive weekends in the Howard County jail.
U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett took the uncommon step of exceeding the sentence of probation recommended by both federal prosecutors and defense attorneys. Bennett told the young wife, Amanda Merrill, that he felt compelled to send a message.
“There has to be a jolt, not just to you but to the public,” he told her. “There will be six consecutive weekends where you face the humiliation and the public receives the message.”
Amanda Merrill hung her head and cried. She had pleaded with him to consider her two young children.
“Think of my innocent children and the victims they will become if I am away from them,” she said.
Amanda Merrill pleaded guilty in federal court last October to a single count of conspiracy to obstruct justice, admitting she flew to her husband’s $11 million vacation home on Florida’s Gulf Coast to empty his safe before FBI agents reached it.
She tried to conceal their plan, speaking in code on the phone to her jailed husband. The agents were listening.
“I really liked your idea about south, I think that’s — I think that’s really a good play. I mean if you have help,” Kevin Merrill told his wife from jail in Baltimore.
Federal prosecutors provided the courts with a transcript of the call, noting the couple referred to her trip as “lunch” and his mansion the “restaurant.” He coached her to open the safe.
"So if you hit, if you hit, um, the zero first, does it beep at all, or is it just quiet?” he asked.
“It beeps,” she said.
“Okay, try that and then the ‘C,’ go that direction then, try it that way." She said it wasn’t working. “F---” he said.
Kevin Merrill is serving 22 years in federal prison for cheating investors, friends and even family members out of millions of dollars to afford a lifestyle like the rich and famous. During a sentencing hearing last year, the judge admonished Merrill, calling his greed “obscene."
Merrill spent six years swindling investors from as far away as Singapore. He fleeced them for an estimated $189 million before FBI agents arrested him at his elegant, six-bedroom home in Ruxton. Agents found half-a-million dollars in cash inside. Federal prosecutors say Merrill orchestrated one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in Maryland history.
Along the way, he amassed fabulous wealth. He owned a fleet of exotic sports cars — Rolls Royce, Bugatti, Lamborghini. His collection of rare comic books was valued at an estimated $200,000; his fine wine collection, $150,000. Prosecutors valued his Louis Vuitton wardrobe at nearly $1 million.
His wife, federal prosecutors say, came from modest means but soon embraced the extravagances. They wrote the judge saying she amassed a purse collection worth a quarter-million dollars, including dozens of designer handbags — even a $26,000 Hermes crocodile purse.
“Each purse cost the same as a car; some cost the same as used cars, and some, the same as new cars,” prosecutors wrote.
Investigators, however, found no evidence that Amanda Merrill knew of her husband’s fraud.
“Merrill often lied to the defendant [his wife] including on occasions after his arrest,” they wrote.
In fact, her crimes began only after her husband was locked up.
Government lawyers with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed restraining orders to bar her from his assets after he was arrested in late 2018. But Amanda Merrill cashed in the points on his American Express credit card to buy $26,000 in gift cards.
When the credit card company declined $9,000 in charges she made at Nordstrom, she placed a three-way call with American Express and her jailed husband, prosecutors wrote. They submitted a transcript of the call to the judge.
The operator asked if the Merrills were on a three-way call.
“I’m driving right now; is this something my wife can handle?” Merrill asked.
With her husband locked up, Amanda Merrill ran up charges on his credit cards, prosecutors say. She tried to open a new credit card in his name. As part of her plea agreement, prosecutors decided not to charge her with bank fraud.
In court Friday, they described her actions as a mad scramble to gather treasures as her husband’s empire crumbled.
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“She was conned by Mr. Merrill, and I think she found it very difficult that the merry-go-round had stopped,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joyce McDonald told the judge.
Amanda Merrill’s defense attorney argued she acted not from greed but worry for her children.
Defense attorney Addy Schmitt put forth a psychiatrist who testified that Amanda Merrill’s judgement was clouded by postpartum depression. She gave birth six weeks before her husband’s arrest. Suddenly, she was a single mother and jobless.
“Was she thinking clearly? No. And was that sort of understandable given all the circumstances? I think it is," Schmitt said. “Looking at her history, this was absolutely aberrant behavior, your honor.”
The judge was unpersuaded. Bennett also sentenced her to six months of house arrest.
She won’t spend those months in one of her husband’s mansions. The lavish homes have been sold.
Nearly destitute, Amanda Merrill moved back in with her parents.