by Bruce A. Smith
Kelly Merz, 51, has been convicted of First Degree Murder in the shooting death of his roommate, Cori Lewis, on September 11, 20011, the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office announced this week.
Merz, a former lay pastor at the New Testament Christian Church in Graham, was also convicted of one count of Sexually Violating Human Remains. Chief Criminal Deputy Phil Sorenson told the Mountain News that Merz received this second conviction for kissing the genitals of the deceased woman’s body.
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist described these convictions as “swift justice” and characterized the incident as a “disturbing case.” He also praised the “quick police work and vigorous prosecution” provided by Mr. Sorenson and Deputy Prosecutor Alicia Burton.
During the trial, Merz admitted to killing Ms Lewis, 33, but claimed he was “not in his right mind at the time,” according to the Prosecutor’s announcement. Numerous reports from neighbors and associates of Cori Lewis have suggested that Mr. Merz was a meth user and was using the drug when he killed Cori; however, these allegations were strongly refuted by Mr. Sorenson.
“Drugs were not a factor in the shooting,” Sorenson told the Mountain News.
Court testimony described the case further:
On September 12, 2011 – the day after the shooting – Kelly Merz’ ex-wife, Cherlyn Merz walked into the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department South Hill precinct and reported that Kelly had just called her and confessed to killing his roommate, Cori Lewis.
Sheriff’s deputies quickly arrested Mr. Merz and began their investigation.
According to Cori’s ex-husband, Bill Lewis, she had moved in with Kelly in mid-summer after completing a stint at a drug rehabilitation center near Auburn. Further, Mr. Lewis says that Cori has been clean and sober for at least seven months at the time of her death.
After his arrest, Merz told police that he had shot the victim during an argument and then buried her body. He led investigators to a wooded area off of 86th Ave in Graham, just south of 224th St, where the victim’s naked body was found in a very shallow grave. The autopsy determined that she died from a single gunshot wound to the head.
In August 2011, Cori and a friend began renting a bedroom in Merz’ two-bedroom apartment in a complex on 158th St in South Hill that was owned by his ex-wife, Cherlyn Merz. This building was part of a larger set of rental holdings owned by Ms. Merz, with many of the occupants being current members of the NTCC.
Kelly Merz and his wife, Cherlyn, had been members of the NTCC for many years, and had been ardent church workers, serving at servicemen’s homes in North Carolina and Kentucky. In addition, they had moved to Graham to allow Kelly to attend the Bible Seminary at the NTCC campus.
Even though they left the church about ten years ago, they remained in the area. The Merz’ also divorced about 2004, and Mr. Merz continued to live in their apartment on 158th and he became a kind of caretaker of the sprawling complex controlled by his now ex-wife.
According to officials, tensions quickly ensued after Cori and her friend moved in with Merz last summer. When Cori received a notice of eviction from Merz in September, she confronted him.
Their argument turned violent and he tried unsuccessfully to break her neck. Intent on killing Cori, he pinned her to the floor, pulled a .380 handgun from his back pocket, placed the muzzle to her head and fired once.
Deputy Prosecutor Sorenson denied that Kelly and Cori had a sex-for-rent bartering arrangement as has been speculated by Mr. Lewis and others.
As for the burial, Merz described in detail to detectives how he took the victim’s body to a forested trail area in Puyallup and dumped her body. As he was preparing to dig a grave, a local man approached him. After noticing Merz’ nervous behavior and seeing obvious scratches on his face and arms, the man called police.
Merz left the area after being contacted by a sheriff’s deputy. Apparently, neither the man nor the deputy could see the victim’s body, which lay fifteen feet off the trail. A short time later, Merz returned to the site and retrieved the victim’s body. He then drove to the secluded area in Graham and dug the shallow grave where the body was ultimately found. First, though, Merz stripped the clothes from the victim’s body and kissed her genital area before covering the body with dirt.
Despite Merz’ assertions of psychological impairment at the time of the shooting, the trial offered a substantial amount of evidence that refuted those claims, such as his calculated efforts to conceal the crime, and dumping bloody clothes in trash bins at various businesses in Spanaway. These elements persuaded the jury that Merz was fully aware of his actions during and after the murder.
Friends and associates of Kelly, particularly his former colleagues in the NTCC, are shocked at these events.
“I just can’t imagine him killing Cori Lewis,” said Diana Taylor, a former NTCC member who knew the Merz’ for nearly thirty years.
Ms Taylor had been the Merz’ pastor when they attended a NTCC church in the Fort Bragg area during the 1980s. Taylor further described Kelly as a passive and calm man, always comfortable at following his wife’s bidding.
Additional comments from other former embers of the NTCC probe deeper, more disturbing sources of the violence.
“Everyone who knew him had the impression something was off with him (Kelly); he was socially awkward and I just thought he was immature, too,” said former NTCC member Nicole Brown in an email to the Mountain News following the news of Cori’s death.
Neighbors in the 158th St area also describe Kelly as “off,” although they generally described him as a “nice guy.”
“But you could tell something wasn’t quite right with him,” said one neighbor.
Some ex-NTCC members feel that an accumulation of stress, including major rebukes from the NTCC, may have propelled Kelly Merz down a path of violence.
Many, such as Ange Tumioli and Dave Armer, cite the initial resistance by the NTCC to the marriage of Kelly and Cherlyn, who are white and black respectively, as the first of several shock waves to Kelly’s well-being.
Pastor Armer is succinct: “I was Kelly Merz’ first pastor, at Ft Campbell, KY, in about 1984. I was forbidden by RW Davis (founder and leader of the NTCC) to perform their marriage.”
Many feel, such as Armer, that the church was protecting itself from outside criticism by not allowing a bi-racial couple to marry.
Further, Kelly’s status as a lay pastor was revoke by the NTCC in around 2000 under circumstances that remain unexplained.
Ms. Brown also speculates that Kelly may have suffered by being unable to match his ex-wife entrepreneurial zeal and obvious abilities to generate income. Whereas Cherlyn owned millions of dollars worth of real estate, Kelly cut grass and worked at Dominos.
Nicole is quite specific in her examination of the dynamics that might have brought Kelly to murder, and her befuddlement:
“I just want to point out that NTCC isn’t a supportive atmosphere where a couple could get counseling to stay together…What I absolutely don’t understand is how he [Kelly] endured the ups and downs of a 20-year marriage in an organization like NTCC, went through a divorce amicably, stayed friends with Cherlyn, and yet became so enraged at a room mate (room mate?) that he felt it necessary to shoot her in the head and bury her in the woods. I just shake my head.”
Others provide additional information that attempts to illumine Kelly’s motives and mental status. Neighbors and at least one Dominos employee have alleged that Kelly had recently groped young women at work. Also, a young woman in the 158th St neighborhood described Kelly as painfully awkward as he tried to flirt or impress the girls of the neighborhood with his fancy BMW.
Further, Bill Lewis charges that Kelly had a sexual disorder and states that Cori frequently complained to him about Kelly’s pornography usage and how he “creeped her out.”
Although divorced, Bill and Cori had frequent contact – raising a young son jointly – and Bill even gave Cori $150 the night before the murder to help her move out of Kelly’s apartment.
Further, Bill says that Cori had called her mother shortly before the murder to finalize the arrangements of moving in with her, and that the last time he had talked with Cori was on Sunday afternoon, less than twelve hours before she died. In fact, Bill says that Cori was asking him to talk with Kelly and try to get him to be less threatening.
When asked to describe his view of Cori Lewis, Deputy Prosecutor Sorenson replied: “I would characterize her as working to turn her life around, but she got caught up in a situation that she couldn’t get out of – her situation with Kelly Merz.”
Kelly Merz will be back in court on April 20 for sentencing. He faces 26-33 years in prison for his two conivctions, and would be considered a sex offender if and when released from prison, thus requiring him to register with local authorities.
© 2012 Bruce A. Smith