A math teacher at Belmont High School in Los Angeles has been arrested in connection with an 11-year-old slaying in Mission Viejo, one of many “cold cases” that an Orange County Sheriff’s Department squad had begun to examine anew.
Mark Glen Morales, 33, of Burbank was being held Thursday on suspicion of slaying Steven Hall Merritt following a college house party in Mission Viejo on Feb. 26, 1989, Sheriff’s Department officials said.
Detectives quizzed Morales three times the week the 21-year-old Merritt was shot to death, but the suspect fled the country soon afterward, officials said. Morales, however, made a crucial mistake about four years ago when he returned to the country, officials said.
Picking up the case 1 1/2 years ago, a two-man sheriff’s detective unit devoted to unsolved homicides interviewed about 50 people, persuading some previously reluctant witnesses to give them crucial details linking Morales to the slaying.
“People at the time did not tell the truth,” Sheriff’s Det. Brian Heaney said. “But with the passage of time, the burden of knowledge weighs on them.”
Morales’ family could not be reached for comment Thursday. Belmont High officials described Morales as an outgoing and popular teacher who passed rigorous background checks before being hired in August 1999.
His arrest “came as a shock,” Los Angeles Unified School District Assistant Supt. Dan Isaacs said. “The personnel division is monitoring the situation. If he’s charged, we’ll take appropriate action. Right now, it’s a police matter.”
Morales, who had earned a partial teaching credential and taught math to ninth-graders at Belmont near downtown Los Angeles, had made strides to get his life on track in the years since the shooting, authorities said.
“He was leading a relatively normal life,” Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona said. “He married three months ago.”
Merritt’s killing followed a party Morales threw at a Mission Viejo home that belonged to his parents, detectives said. More than 100 friends of Morales attended, officials said, with most of the revelers dancing to salsa music and dressed well in shirts and ties.
Merritt and a group of his friends crashed the party late that night and immediately stood out from the crowd. Coming straight from watching a boxing fight on television, the half-dozen friends wore jeans and T-shirts.
The evening quickly turned hostile, detectives said, when one of Merritt’s friends made fun of the music Morales was playing and asked that rock music be played instead. They left after an hour except for Merritt, who was flirting with a friend of Morales’.
Detectives alleged that Morales became increasingly disturbed at the behavior of the gate-crashers and soon turned violent. When Merritt eventually left the party in the upscale neighborhood around 3 a.m., he began walking to a nearby intersection where a friend had agreed to pick him up.
Morales allegedly got into a black car and began following Merritt with his vehicle’s lights turned off. As they reached Cordova Park, Morales confronted Merritt and somehow got him into his car, detectives said. The two allegedly drove about a mile away, got out and scuffled. Merritt was shot and killed.
Merritt’s family eventually offered a $10,000 reward for information about the killing, but it made little difference. They expressed relief Thursday that an arrest finally had been made. “I’m still shocked,” said Ann Erickson, Merritt’s mother, who lives in Lake Forest. “I’ve been praying for this for 11 years.”
Erickson would sometimes drive to the scene of the shooting to reminisce about her son, a 1985 graduate of El Toro High School who dreamed of becoming a photographer. “He was a wonderful, wonderful boy.”
Years after the killing, Heaney and his partner, investigator Larry Pool, reopened the case and began looking hard at Morales. They painstakingly reviewed telephone records and documents from Saddleback College, where many of the revelers at Morales’ party were students.
The two men found new witnesses, and persuaded others to finally talk about the events that evening, including some who had attended the party, officials said.
“It was no single piece of evidence that led to the arrest but a large jigsaw puzzle,” Carona said, citing the use of both forensic evidence and witnesses. “It was just good, old-fashioned, hard-nosed police work by two investigators who said, ‘We’re not giving up.’ ”
As they closed in during recent weeks, detectives said they worried that Morales might flee again if he learned of their work, and decided to strike. About 10 p.m. Wednesday, nearly three dozen deputies from Los Angeles and Orange counties took him into custody as he left a Sherman Oaks Kinko’s with his wife, Patricia.
Belmont High Principal Ignacio Garcia said Morales, who began teaching math in October, was working on a temporary teacher’s license and attending college to become a full-fledged teacher. When he was hired, the school did a thorough background check on him, including a fingerprint check, Garcia said.
“We are very struck by the news, and surprised,” Garcia said, adding that a family member of Morales called in Thursday morning, saying Morales was unable to teach because he was ill. “We didn’t know he had been arrested.”
Garcia described Morales as an outgoing and popular teacher.
“Beyond experiencing the regular growing pains of a new teacher, there was nothing exceptional about him,” Garcia said. “He was a good classroom manager . . . interested in doing a good job.”
Morales was being held on suspicion of murder at the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana.
Staff writer Louis Sahagun and correspondent Sylvia Pagan Westphal in Los Angeles contributed to this report.