While very little information is known about Cori Lewis, the woman whose body was found last Monday buried in a shallow grave in Graham, more is known about her assailant, Kelly Merz and much of it is disturbing.
According to many friends of Mr. Merz, he was a long-time member of the New Testament Christian Church, the religious congregation whose headquarters are located on the Orting-Kapowsin Highway in Graham. Further, Merz had been a lay pastor at the NTCC, and had moved to Graham to attend the church’s Bible Seminary.
By all accounts he was a quiet man, and unknown to have angry or violent outbursts.
So, how could such a man shoot and kill Ms. Lewis?
Adding to the mystery, Mr. Merz murdered Lewis in their apartment on 158th St in South Hill, and the apartment building is owned by Mr. Merz’ ex-wife, Cherlyn Merz. In addition Ms. Merz also owns the three adjacent four-plex rental units, and according to tenants and neighbors who spoke with the Mountain News, these apartments are mostly occupied by members of the NTCC congregation.
Cherlyn Merz had also been a member of the NTCC for many years. However, both Cherlyn and Kelly Merz seem to have left this faith community several years ago, reportedly around the time of their divorce in 2004, with Mr. Merz leaving first.
However, it appears that Cori Lewis was not a member of the NTCC, and was only renting a room in Mr. Merz’ apartment.
Further, prior to the divorce, Kelly Merz was dismissed from his position as a lay pastor at the NTCC and his credentials were revoked, according to former members of the church.
Seeking answers to how Kelly Merz abandoned his spiritual training and sought answers with a gun amidst the residences of a religious community, the Mountain News approached Cherlyn Merz but was angrily rebuffed.
Nevertheless, NTCC co-pastor Phil Kinson told the Mountain News in a phone conversation that the incident, “was a shock – it came out of the blue.”
Pastor Kinson also confirmed that Kelly Merz had been absent from the church for several years.
“I’ve had no communication with Kelly for a long time,” Kinson said.
Kinson also said that he had no knowledge of how or why Mr. Merz had been removed from his pastoral duties.
“I don’t know about the dismissal,” he said. “It was before I came here (to Graham).
When pressed to share more details on the relationship between the NTCC and the Merzes, or to offer an explanation on how Mr. Merz became a murderer, Pastor Kinson simply said, “I have no idea.”
After a pause, Kinson added, “Have a nice day, sir,” and hung up.
In addition, phone calls to the office of the NTCC and co-pastor Mike Kekel have not been returned.
Looking more closely at the situation on 158th St, here is what the Mountain News has been able to learn:
Cherlyn Merz owns the four, “four-plex” units on this block, and their combined assessed value is about $1.2 million. In addition, she owns a rental duplex in Spanaway, another unit in Lakewood, and lives in a two-story home in an upscale neighborhood in Graham.
Cherlyn Merz is certainly not a suspect in this homicide, but the circumstances of the divorce, coupled with Kelly’s dismissal from the ministry may have had an accumulative effect that pushed Mr. Merz over the edge.
When married, Kelly and Cherlyn seemed to have shared equally in their financial good fortune, and former NTCC member and Merz tenant Nicole Brown says that Kelly owned a BMW sports car when she lived in their building, and Ms Merz is still driving hers.
But that may have changed after the divorce, as Ms. Merz moved to her single-family house while her ex-husband stayed in the small two-bedroom apartment where they had lived for most of their married life. It is not known if, or to what degree, Kelly Merz shared in the bounty of this multi-million dollar real estate empire in the divorce settlement, but many describe Cherlyn as the “go-getter” and Kelly as a “passive, nice guy.”
Further, when they divorced Cherlyn’s career as a real estate agent blossomed and NTCC founder RW Davis is identified by the aforementioned Nicole Brown as saying during a bible study class that NTCC students who felt they could buy a house should do so through Mrs. Merz.
In turn, it is widely reported by former NTCC members that Mrs. Merz paid 10% in tithes back to the church, which would presumably include her real estate commissions.
In addition, the steady stream of biblical students into the seminary on the Graham campus was believed to be mutually beneficial to Cherlyn and the NTCC as she received a constant supply of trustworthy tenants and the church reportedly received their cash flow of tithes.
However, in the wake of the divorce life seemed to take a downturn for Kelly Merz. Long-time neighbors on 158th St, such as Tom Courts, describe Kelly nowadays as a kind of caretaker or employee for Cherlyn, performing duties such as mowing the lawns of the four-plexes and fixing the tenants’ broken appliances.
Also, one neighbor said that Mr. Merz had been working recently as a delivery driver for Dominos Pizza.
More unsettling, Kelly Merz is widely described as having cognitive or emotional impairments.
“I wouldn’t call him retarded, but Kelly was slow in his own way. He was ‘special,’” said Trivlyn Bristol, who is a tenant of Ms. Merz.
“Kelly had mental problems and was disturbed in some way. But he seemed harmless, too,” Mr. Courts said.
“He was mild-mannered, but not all there,” voiced another neighbor. “You could tell something was not right with him.
“Kelly stuttered and was child-like,” added Ms. Bristol, “and he could be compulsive.”
These characterizations of Kelly Merz directly challenge the description Cherlyn Merz gave to the Pierce County Sheriff’s deputies last Monday. She is quoted in court documents as telling investigators that her ex-husband “had no medical or mental health issues to her knowledge, and had no problems with drugs or alcohol.”
When long-time friends and fellow members of the NTCC were asked about Mr. Merz’ psychological well-being in the past, most said he was quiet and often socially awkward but that he had no obvious psychological difficulties. These individuals also stated that the Merz’ marriage appeared to be a happy one initially, and that they both were very active in the NTCC. Ms Merz, in particular is described as being “very faithful” to the tenets of the church.
However, some associates say that Kelly and Cherlyn were dramatic opposites emotionally. While he was taciturn, Cherlyn was outgoing and dynamic, smart and aggressive.
“She knew what she wanted and went after it,” said Diana Taylor, a long-time friend of the couple.
Others, such as Angela Riggio Tumioli, an outspoken ex-member of NTCC, said that the interracial nature of the Merz relationship put added burdens onto the marriage, which were exacerbated by a veiled racism within the NTCC community. She further claims that founder Davis preached against interracial marriages, saying they “hinder the work of the Lord.”
Nevertheless, Kelly and Cherlyn Merz stayed married for twenty years, and obviously had a continuing relationship of some significance afterwards.
However, many in the 158th St neighborhood wonder what happened when Cori Lewis moved into the second bedroom of Kelly Merz’ apartment about six months ago.
Several neighbors, such as Mr. Courts and Ms. Bristol, say that Cori “partied heavily,” and that the music was loud, long and disruptive.
Further, Ms. Bristol says that Ms. Lewis invited another female to share her small 8×10 bedroom, making the social friction within the apartment even more acute. Bristol told the Mountain News that Kelly had to obtain an eviction notice to remove the second woman, and that he also wanted to get rid of Cori Lewis at the same time but was unable to because of personal reasons.
“He told me that he wanted to evict Cori, too, but he said that ‘she kind of flirted with me and I can’t say no,’” Ms. Bristol shared.
Nevertheless, last Sunday night Kelly Merz killed Cori Lewis.
Mr. Courts says he heard the gun shot in the “7, 8 or 9 pm” time frame, but Ms Bristol said she was not home at the time and that her son never heard a thing even though his bedroom is directly above the one in which Ms Lewis died.
© 2011 The Mountain News – WA