Somewhere along the way, Kevin Merrill began to believe his own deceptions. He began to see the means by which he amassed fabulous wealth, exotic cars and lavish houses as something more than a house of cards.
“Mr. Merrill started believing his own lies,” his defense attorney told the courtroom Thursday.
That house of cards crashed down as a federal judge sentenced the Towson financier to 22 years in prison for cheating investors, friends and even family members out of millions of dollars to afford a lifestyle like the rich and famous.
“The level of obscene greed is absolutely astonishing,” U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett told him. “How much is enough?”
Merrill, 54, had spent six years swindling investors from as far away as Singapore. He fleeced them for an estimated $189 million before FBI agents arrested him last year at his elegant, six-bedroom home in Ruxton. Agents found half-a-million dollars in cash inside.
“You were on your way to becoming the next Bernie Madoff,” the judge told him. “Another 11 years, and you would have been.”
The sentencing hearing Thursday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore brought to an end the stunning downfall of the college dropout turned millionaire, a man from a middle-class family who orchestrated one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in Maryland history, and who hung a $32,000 painting over his mantle of the mustached Monopoly character Rich Uncle Pennybags standing in a swirl of dollars bills.
Federal prosecutors asked the judge to hand down a sentence of 32 years in federal prison. His defense attorneys asked for 10 years. Merrill — a thin, balding man in a gray prison jumpsuit and slippers — was crying by the time he spoke.
“Your honor, I ask for your mercy and compassion,” he said. “People trusted me ... I’ll carry that anguish and guilt with me forever.”
Bennett also ordered him to pay back the $189 million in lost money — likely an impossible task, the judge noted.
In the late 1990s, before his fraud began, Merrill lived in a modest home in Bel Air and sold medical supplies. He began buying and selling consumer debt portfolios, bundles of debt on student loans, credit cards and car loans. He had met and befriended an accountant from Texas and Nevada, Jay Ledford. By 2013, the two partners had enticed people to invest in their consumer debt company. They crafted an elaborate scam — using money from one investor to repay another. Meanwhile, they were skimming millions off for themselves.
Federal prosecutors calculated that in 2013, they took in nearly $4.9 million and paid out $4.2 million. By 2017, they took in $155 million and paid out $89 million.
Their methods became more sophisticated as their investors grew in wealth. Soon, they were arranging deals with hedge funds for millions of dollars. Ledford learned to concoct documents and dupe them. He crafted fake quarterly reports to show earnings and sell the ruse. Merrill nicknamed his crafty partner the “Keebler elf.”
“They would Keebler up some fake documents,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joyce McDonald told the judge.
Prosecutors charged Ledford, 54, with wire fraud, identity theft and money laundering. He pleaded guilty and is scheduled for sentencing in three weeks.
Merrill, meanwhile, coveted the status symbol of the black American Express card, prosecutors told the court. He adopted for his nickname the card’s image: “Centurion."
Prosecutors submitted transcripts of his text messages:
“Both meetings went over [time]. [Hedge Fund representative] was blown away by the Centurion,” Merrill texted.
“Greatness bro!” Ledford replied.
Merrill’s public defender, Elizabeth Oyer, told the judge Ledford lost $26 million while gambling at casinos, squandering the savings of many investors. Merrill spent his riches on toys.
He owned a fleet of about 20 exotic sports cars — Rolls Royce, Bugatti, Lamborghini. He collected rare comics, issues like Superman No. 6, Avengers No. 3 and Batman No. 5. Appraisers said the comic book collection could be worth $200,000. He accumulated $150,000 in fine wine. Prosecutors say he put down a $444,000 deposit on a handmade Richard Mille watch. They say he spent nearly $946,000 on a Louis Vuitton wardrobe and shoes.
A tip from an investor sparked the FBI investigation. When Merrill learned of it, he drove to the FBI offices voluntarily to sell them, too.
“You had the audacity — the audacity! — to go in and talk to the FBI, and think you are going to talk your way out of it,” Bennett told him.
Once arrested and awaiting trial, Merrill coached his young wife to to empty cash from a safe in his Florida home. Amanda Merrill, 30, pleaded guilty Wednesday to a federal conspiracy charge. She is scheduled for sentencing in January; prosecutors asked for her to receive one year of house arrest.
“Few Ponzi schemers draw innocent spouses into it,” Bennett told him. “You dragged your wife into it and, to me, I find that just extraordinary.”
Merrill pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy and wire fraud. His wife, parents and in-laws sat behind him during the sentencing hearing. He has two young children at home with his wife. His mother-in-law, Gloria Mahlstedt, told the judge his 2-year-old boy keeps asking: “Where’s daddy?”
“How do you reply?” she asked the judge. “Please, your honor, if there is any compassion for children, let it be in this case.”
Merrill’s mother, Valerie, stood and apologized to the victims in the courtroom. Federal authorities identified more than 200 victims: investment groups, retirees, small-business owners and doctors. Officials have set about selling his treasures to repay them.
“My heart goes out to you. I am so very sorry," his mother told the courtroom.
She read from his remorseful letters from prison. Merrill sat and cried as she spoke.
“I was consumed with the next deal,” he wrote. “I lost track.”
Four of his investors told the judge of their financial ruin. A 74-year-old retiree in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, spoke of losing $2 million. A 36-year-old from South Carolina said he and his wife lost $50,000, a majority of their savings. Merrill’s longtime friend, David Price, said he took out home equity loans to invest $70,000 and lost it all.
John Paradise, of New Jersey, told the court he invested $250,000, his savings and his wife’s inheritance. The money was intended to send his three daughters to college. He told the court of his crushing anxiety and worry.
“I was a basket case yesterday — a basket case! My daughter couldn’t make it to school and know what I had for her? Nothing!” he said. "You stole from me! You lied to me!”
Merrill bowed his head. Paradise looked right at him.
“My heart, my soul, my conscience is clear,” Paradise said. “I’m going to flush this out ... You’re not going to steal that part of me.”