Tuesday, May 6, 2003

FBI helps Butler Co. pin down fugitive

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Joseph W. Merriman probably won't be racking up any frequent-flier miles for a while.Butler County authorities, who had been trying to find Merriman for almost five years, say federal agents intercepted the globetrotting construction-business consultant before he could return to Cincinnati from a trip to Cairo, Egypt - with stops in Germany, Mexico and Atlanta.

Merriman, 36, formerly of West Chester Township, is being held in the Butler County Jail awaiting a Friday court hearing on an allegation that he violated probation from an aggravated assault conviction. He also could face federal fraud-related charges, officials said Monday.

"Time has a way of sneaking up on everybody - and when necessary, so do we," said Butler County Sheriff Harold Don Gabbard.

The events leading to Merriman's arrest began early this year, said Detective Monte Mayer, sheriff's spokesman.

Sheriff's investigators learned that Merriman had assumed the identity of a child who died in 1972 at age 3, and he had used that name to obtain a passport, Mayer said.

FBI agents discovered Merriman's Cairo-to-Cincinnati itinerary and enlisted the U.S. Customs Service to snare him when he arrived in Georgia last month, Mayer said. Merriman was transferred to the Butler County jail on April 20.

James L. Turgal Jr., spokesman for the FBI's Cincinnati office, said he couldn't comment on the pending federal investigation Monday but confirmed Merriman had managed to continue living in Southwest Ohio while authorities were looking for him. "Apparently he was very good at what he was doing," he said.

Judge H.J. Bressler had signed a warrant for Merriman's arrest on May 26, 1998, following allegations that Merriman violated probation. A Butler child-support record indicates an attempt to find Merriman had failed 10 days earlier because he had moved and left no address.

Merriman had been released from prison in December 1994 on shock probation after serving about five months on an aggravated vehicular assault conviction.

The original sheriff's incident report was not immediately available Monday, but Butler court records show Merriman had been ordered to pay $11,546 in restitution to Paula L. Wheeler for that offense.

Attempts to locate Wheeler, or records that would show whether that money was paid, were unsuccessful Monday.

E-mail jmorse@enquirer.com

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