Murderer who claimed self-defense in Lakebottom homicide used 3 knives, stabbed man 14 times

Siblings stand up for brother whose 'big heart' got him killed

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comMay 16, 2013 

The murder suspect who last year claimed he killed Lakebottom resident Michael Crowley in self-defense used three different knives to stab Crowley 14 times, a prosecutor said today.

That detail came to light this morning as Mark Merritt pleaded guilty to charges of murder and armed robbery. Judge John Allen sentenced Merritt to life in prison, with the possibility of parole in 30 years. If paroled, Merritt will spend the rest of his life on probation, Allen said.

Merritt has been on probation before. He had a felony record that without today’s plea agreement could have imprisoned him for life without parole, had he gone to trial and been found guilty.

Merritt’s claim of self-defense was not the only aspect of his story that outraged siblings speaking on behalf of Crowley, found dead in his bloody kitchen at 1515 18th Ave. on March 13, 2012.

The elaborate tale Merritt told investigators after his arrest was dissected today by Assistant District Attorney Don Kelly and Crowley’s sister, Kay Crowley Deslauriers.

One particular detail was like a mirror reflection of Merritt’s own conduct: Merritt had claimed that after Crowley took him in to help him get his life back on track after being released from jail in Atlanta, Crowley’s behavior became increasingly erratic and aggressive.

In fact it was Merritt whose conduct became alarmingly violent: Another benefactor already had been compelled to use force to expel Merritt from an Atlanta-area residence, before Crowley took him in. That witness told investigators he suspected Merritt was stealing from him.

Particularly galling to Crowley’s family was Merritt’s claim that Crowley called him a racial slur. “Michael had a big heart,” Deslauriers told the court, noting her brother often opened his home to African-Americans who were broke and needed a place to stay. “He never used racial slurs,” she said.

Police said Merritt told them he had paid Crowley $1,050 to stay in Crowley's home while Crowley helped him find an apartment, and wouldn’t return the money when Merritt asked for it.

Crowley never took money from the people he helped, his sister said. They never had any money: “They were penniless.”

She said his five siblings long feared for their brother’s safety, thinking his generosity extended too far in taking in criminals who would do him harm. For Deslauriers, that fear became reality about 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 13, 2012, when her cell phone rang while she was having lunch in downtown Columbus: Authorities in Cobb County, Ga., told her they’d found her brother’s beige Ford Explorer on a roadside in the Sandy Springs area. The keys were in the ignition; blood was in the back seat; and someone had tried to set the vehicle afire.

Cobb County investigators asked: Had she seen her brother lately? Not since the previous Sunday, she told them.

Would she go check on him? Yes. She immediately drove to 18th Avenue, found the door locked and summoned a locksmith, who could not get it open.

On the front porch, she saw blood. She called Columbus police, who forced the door open and found Crowley, 53, dead on the floor.

Homicide detectives began retracing events: A neighbor told them Crowley and Merritt were out in the driveway fighting the day before. Crowley was dragging Merritt away, telling him to “get the f--- out of my house,” the neighbor said. Merritt got loose and went back in. Crowley followed.

Police believe that altercation escalated into the fatal stabbing, after which Merritt took Crowley’s wallet and keys and left in the Explorer.

In Cobb County, he tried to get back into the home of a couple who had helped him before. He had blood on him, and was behaving strangely, they thought. They refused to let him in. Later they saw smoke coming from the Explorer parked out on the street. They called police, initiating the probe leading to the phone call Deslauriers got at lunch the next day.

Detectives found Merritt had a girlfriend he’d gone to for help. She had dressed the cut he’d sustained while stabbing Crowley, and bought him a bus ticket to Orlando, Fla., where on March 17, 2012, Merritt was persuaded to surrender to authorities, and then was extradited to Columbus.

Detectives here also learned Crowley and Merritt had known each other for years, and had a mutual friend jailed in Atlanta. Crowley had visited that friend, James Tatum, in the Atlanta jail, where Tatum asked him to take Merritt in. Crowley agreed, and brought Merritt home to Columbus with him.

Today Crowley’s three sisters and two brothers are without their fifth youngest sibling, and Crowley’s three grown children are without a father. The oldest is 30, a daughter who is mentally disabled. The siblings cannot bear to tell her what happened to her father, and hope she will never know.

She thinks he had a heart attack.

Here is Thursday's report on the case:

The case of an Atlanta-area suspect accused last year of fatally stabbing a man living across from Columbus' Lakebottom Park is set for a guilty plea Friday in Muscogee Superior Court.

But that does not mean Mark Merritt will accept any plea bargain offered him, attorneys cautioned.

Merritt is charged with murder, armed robbery and hijacking a motor vehicle in the death of Michael Joseph Crowley, 53, who was stabbed multiple times in the kitchen of 1515 18th Ave. on March 13, 2012.

His case had been set for trial May 28, but it is now listed on a guilty plea docket at 9 a.m. before Superior Court Judge John Allen.

His prosecution is assigned to Assistant District Attorney Don Kelly. Merritt's defense attorney is Stacey Jackson. Both said Merritt may decide not to plead guilty, an option defendants retain until the moment a judge asks how they plead.

The victim was found dead about 7 p.m. that Tuesday in March after his sister asked police to check on him.

She asked because authorities in Cobb County, Ga., had called her to report they'd found her brother's beige Ford Explorer on the roadside, where someone had tried to burn it.

Columbus officers meeting the sister at Crowley's home found blood on the front porch, the front screen door and the front door. Forcing their way in, they found Crowley on the kitchen floor, "stabbed more than 10 times from his neck to his knees," a detective said.

Investigators learned Crowley had a friend jailed in Atlanta, James Tatum. They said Tatum told them Crowley had visited him in jail and agreed to take Merritt, their mutual friend, to Columbus when Crowley went home.

After Crowley's homicide, Merritt had fled to Orlando, Fla., where he surrendered to authorities March 17, 2012, and was extradited to Columbus, police said.

During a preliminary hearing in Columbus Recorder's Court the following March 23, Detective Amanda Yates testified that Merritt told police he stabbed Crowley in self-defense.

She said Merritt told investigators he had paid Crowley $1,050 to stay in Crowley's home while Crowley helped him find an apartment. He told police Crowley's behavior had become increasingly erratic: After calling Merritt a racial slur, Crowley refused to return Merritt's money when Merritt asked for it.

Yates said the day Crowley was killed, a neighbor saw the two men tussling in the driveway outside Crowley's home, and heard Crowley tell Merritt to "get the f--- out of my house."

Later the fight escalated inside the house, where Crowley hit Merritt in the head and held him in a headlock, prompting Merritt to grab a knife and stab Crowley to defend himself, Yates said Merritt told police.

Yates testified that Merritt then took Crowley's car keys, wallet and Ford Explorer and drove to his girlfriend's house, telling her he'd just killed someone. The girlfriend dressed his wounds and bought him a bus ticket, Yates said.

Merritt took a bus to Orlando, where later he called his girlfriend to say he was staying in a mission and looking for a job, the detective said.

Investigators said Merritt was persuaded to turn himself in during a three-way call with his girlfriend and Columbus police. He was 29 years old when arrested.

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