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 own room. He even covered his car – all an attempt, authorities said, to elude police after he was accused of gunning down four relatives at a Thanksgiving holiday 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.
Melinda Pfaff told The Associated Press on Sunday 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 was booked early Sunday at the Palm Beach County jail without bond on four charges of murder. He was 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 on Nov. 26 in Jupiter, an affluent community about 90 miles (145 kilometres) north of Miami.
Merhige’s arrest late Saturday ended a monthlong manhunt that included billboards and flyers 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 flyers or billboards 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 Sunday. He was appointed a public defender, and an arraignment is set for Feb. 1.
An after-hours recording at the Palm Beach County public defender’s office would not accept a telephone message.
“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. “… It doesn’t bring my daughter back, but at least this chapter is over.”
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 in cash. On Dec. 21, he extended his stay well into the new year.
But Melinda Pfaff said her husband 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. “The room looked neat, not disarrayed or anything. 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 Web site, 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 U.S. Marshals and local deputies soon busted 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, a relative who was there during the shootings.
Sitton has said Merhige was heard after the shootings saying that he had waited 20 years to kill the relatives.