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
I was doing some research on crime in the Puyallup area when I cam across your articles. After reading your articles I thought I might suggest a short eBook I wrote. It was motivated by the element you describe as “The need for control” in religious leaders. Or in any leader for that matter. Of course we all know that true leaders need NO control, for their influence is communicated by their life. Others might be compelled to follow a GOOD leader. However there are those who seek to control their families, their employees and any other circle they are a part of. If you are interested, the short eBook I mentioned is on Amazon.com They have apps for Kindle to view eBooks on any device, i.e. Kindle, iPhone, computers, etc. Abdicating The Throne speaks about relinquishing the position of sovereign controller for the sake of growth and development of others..
Abdicating The Throne
The last thing a pastor would ever want to admit; was how he acted as supreme ruler over his immediate local kingdom, he might frequently refer to as, “My Church”. It may stem from upbringing or just the way he manages his own household. The kind of leader I am talking about, reads 1 Timothy 3:5 and sees himself as commander in chief of the home; and takes on the approach of a military officer commanding the troops. Sitting at the helm he has the final say in all matters. His words might come across like, “Wife and kids, you don’t have to think; just ask me and I will tell you.” However these approaches rarely produce any kind of respect, but rather fear. At the very least, it produces a family who will not think for themselves. They will become overly dependent on others to make their decisions for them. This dominating leader likes it when his followers become totally reliant.
It’s obvious that you did a great deal of investigation for this story; however, the facts were not what I would expect to find in a news article. Your story lowered my respect for “The Mountain News.”
I’m a little confused, Eldora. What did I write that disappointed you?
This is a very tragic and unexpected action from a person from any church, or any corporation, or any club, or any business, or any government office etc. Why one must know all the gory details escapes me. Did you talk with and discover the many faithful, beautiful believers in Christ that are attendees at the church???? I know some, have talked with them had some in my home, they are not the types written about by Mr. Schoonover. Obviously he seeks out the one in a million that transgresses their position as church leaders. Like Eldora, I am disappointed.
I have written extensively in other Mountain News articles of my interactions and interviews with members of the NTCC, especially its leadership. In the main, I would characterize the latters’ conversations with me as deceitful, self-serving, and unworthy of a leader in a faith community. Further, I think some of the actions of NTCC leaders are boarderline criminal, such as their postion on the betrothal of young teen-aged girls to men in their twenties, or the lack of warning to their church members when a known sexual predator returns to the fold. Like Eldora, I too, am disappointed.
On a related note: Former NTCC pastor Dave Armer wrote me this week and said that in addition to attending Kelly Merz’ trial, he is also praying for him. That statement has inspired me to do the same, and I have found it a humbling and transformative experience. I trust it will aid Mr. Merz as he goes forward on his journey in life. I know it has in mine.
that in addition to atdetning Kelly Merz’ trial, he is also praying for him. That statement has inspired me to do the same, and I have found it a humbling and transformative experience. I trust it will aid Mr. Merz as he goes forward on his journey in life. I know it has in mine.
The following commentary comes from Don and Ange Tumioli. Ms. Tumioli is one of the ex- members of the NTCC quoted in the above article. Apparently, their computer and the Mountain News have an interface glitch, so they sent me their comments in an email and I am posting them below.
We commented on your latest story on Kelly Merz, but our comment did not show up. Possibly went into spam filter? Anyway this is the gist of what we said:
We think that you did a very good job of covering this story. We have read many accounts from other news outlets and most of them have given inaccurate details of this tragedy. You actually went to the scene and interviewed people. Folks have the right to know the who, what, where, when, how and WHY and you did the most comprehensive job of conveying this to your readers. My biggest beef with the media is that they do not give you enough information to make sense of the stories they report. Viewers, listeners and readers have the right to know all the details and a responsible reporter will include all of the details. You were the only source that gave a detailed account of Kelly Merz past that gave insight into the controlling church that he was part of. No disrespect to those who have a difference in opinion, but responsible reporting includes getting all of the details right.
We appreciate the Mountain News for having the courage and the candor to give us all of the facts. Keep on the firing line Bruce and we appreciate all that you do for the community that reads your news.
Don and Ange
iam kelly brother and think not all was told
Hi Kieth, can you be more specific? We also believe that there is more to this story and what Kelly went through in the ntcc. Most of the people that know intimate details of what Kelly experienced in the ntcc are still in this cult and won’t talk for fear of reprisal. If you have any knowledge please feel free to share.
Sorry for misspelling your first name Keith. I got sloppy typing too fast and didn’t check my work.
I had an interview with Keith over the weekend and I will be posting his thoughts on his brother and the incident in the near future. -Bruce
Religion is worse for society than Sexually Transmitted Diseases; It ROTS YOUR BRAIN –
People informed me awhile ago this article had been written but I was not able to read it at the time. I still have bad dreams of Kelly being around my oldest son and it deeply bothers me now that I know what he has done. I wish I never would have lived in those apartments. As for New Testament Christian Church… my desire to distance myself from this organization grew stronger the day I sat in the founders class, Rev Davis, and he had Cherlyn Merz stand up and promoted her real estate business and told the class of about 60 that if we want to buy a home, we should buy one from her.