TV report led to Thanksgiving killings arrest

Suspect was at Fla. Keys motel

At left is the motel room Paul Merhige used. At left is the motel room Paul Merhige used. (John Lantigua/ The Palm Beach Post)
By Jennifer Kay
Associated Press / January 4, 2010

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MIAMI - A secretive motel guest in the Florida Keys checked in under a fake name, paid in cash, stockpiled canned food, and insisted on cleaning his room. He even covered his car - all an attempt, authorities said, to elude police after he was accused of gunning down four relatives at Thanksgiving dinner.

But Paul Merhige’s cover was blown when the motel owners recognized him in a preview for the television show “America’s Most Wanted’’ on Saturday night.

Merhige, 35, was arrested late Saturday at the motel and ordered held without bail at the Palm Beach County jail on four counts of murder.

He is accused of gunning down his twin sisters, a 79-year-old aunt, and a 6-year-old cousin at a home where 16 relatives had gathered for the holiday in Jupiter, about 90 miles north of Miami.

Motel owner Melinda Pfaff said yesterday that she and her husband, Paul, rarely saw Merhige during his four-week stay at their Edgewater Lodge on Long Key. He had checked in Dec. 2, a few days after the shootings, using the name “John Baca’’ and a false address.

His request for privacy didn’t seem odd on an island chain known for its eccentric residents, she said.

“He said he would wash all his own sheets and towels. He said I didn’t need to go in there,’’ she said. “That’s happened before.’’

Merhige’s arrest ended a monthlong search that included billboards and fliers with his image. Police at one point thought he may have fled to Michigan, where he had been treated by a psychiatrist.

Melinda Pfaff, 53, said none of the fliers made it to the Keys. “People know nobody’s going to look for them down here,’’ she said.

The Palm Beach Post reported that Merhige remained silent at his first court appearance yesterday. He was appointed a public defender and an arraignment is set for Feb. 1.

“I’m elated that the monster is in the cage,’’ Jim Sitton, the father of the 6-year-old victim Makayla Sitton, told The Palm Beach Post.

Merhige appeared to be planning a long stay at the small, oceanfront motel. He had stocked his room with snacks and bottled water, and paid in advance. On Dec. 21, he extended his stay well into the new year.

But Paul Pfaff became worried when he realized Friday that he hadn’t seen the guest for several days.

“He opened the door and my husband said, ‘Are you OK? I haven’t seen you,’ ’’ Melinda Pfaff said. “He said he was fine and he was enjoying his rest.’’

Paul Pfaff was watching television Saturday night when he saw the “America’s Most Wanted’’ preview and realized Merhige was his guest. Melinda Pfaff then double-checked the show’s website, which also had surveillance video.

“I had seen the way he walked, the way he shifted his eyes, the smile. It wasn’t just a picture recognition - it was, yes, I see that it is him,’’ she said.

The couple called the tip line and federal marshals and local deputies soon broke through the sliding door glass to his motel room, authorities said.

Authorities have said Merhige carefully planned the killings. Merhige sat through three hours of dinner and sing-a-longs around the piano before the shootings. There were no arguments, warnings, or red flags before the rampage, said Sitton.

Merhige’s father told police on the day of the shootings that his son had a history of mental illness, had recently stopped taking his medication, and had shot himself in the chest 15 years earlier, according to an arrest report released yesterday and posted online by the Post.

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