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Justin Merriman’s Life a Pattern of Drugs, Violence

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since age 17, murder defendant Justin Merriman has spent most of his life behind bars. Now, the decision of a Ventura County jury could send him to prison for life.

Or worse.

Last week, jurors began deliberating whether Merriman, a 28-year-old skinhead gang member, raped and slit the throat of a 20-year-old community college student eight years ago.

Defense lawyers conceded in closing arguments that Merriman killed Katrina Montgomery after a party, but they suggested it was a sudden, unplanned attack. They asked for a finding of second-degree murder.

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Citing testimony from two Sylmar gang members who said they saw the defendant rape Montgomery, prosecutors say the killing was premeditated, first-degree murder.

If jurors agree, Merriman could face a death sentence.

As jurors continue their deliberations this week, they also must decide whether Merriman is guilty of 19 additional criminal counts, including rape, resisting arrest, conspiracy and witness intimidation.

Those crimes allegedly occurred in the years since Montgomery’s death, and are part of a pattern of violent behavior that authorities say has characterized Merriman’s life.

A thin man with short brown hair, a bushy mustache and the pale skin of a longtime jail inmate, Merriman has a lengthy criminal record for assault and drug charges.

He has never held a job.

Prosecutors contend that Merriman is downright evil--a sexual predator and violent gang member who cares only about himself.

Defense attorneys say their client is a rash, immature man who has been addled by drugs and prison culture most of his adult life.

“Mr. Merriman probably never met a drug he didn’t like,” said attorney Willard Wiksell during the trial. “But he’s not evil.”

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Born Carson Justin Robison in Ojai in July 1972, Merriman was the first of two children of Carson and Beverlee Sue Robison.

The marriage didn’t last.

County court records show that the couple separated when Justin was 9 months old. And prosecutors later went after the father for failing to pay child support.

His mother later married construction company owner Earl Dean Merriman, who adopted her two children. They lived in a three-bedroom house in Casitas Springs, attended local schools and a Baptist church in Oak View.

But there were troubles at home.

In 1982, Dean Merriman filed for divorce, accusing his wife of taking $57,000 from his business. The case was later dismissed.

In 1987, Beverlee Sue Merriman filed for divorce and sought a restraining order against her husband.

“He has threatened to kill us,” she wrote in a court declaration. “On at least one occasion during the past few months he grabbed and attempted to choke me.”

She further alleged that her husband threatened to burn down the house and use his company’s bulldozers to destroy their belongings.

Attempts to contact Dean Merriman last week were unsuccessful.

It was during the summer of 1987 that Justin Merriman, then 15, began hanging out with a group of teenage boys who would later form a skinhead gang. Numbering about 10, they were loyal “brothers” who backed each other in fights and gave each other nicknames. Because he muttered, Justin earned the moniker “Mumbles.”

In later years, the group would earn a reputation among those in law enforcement as violent street brawlers who carried out racially motivated attacks. Many of the founding members eventually went to state prison on assault charges.

Not long after joining the gang, Justin Merriman landed in juvenile hall for vandalizing and breaking windows at a Jewish temple, according to court testimony.

Beverlee Sue Merriman made reference to her son’s troubles in a declaration filed in her divorce case in 1988: “The probation officer insisted that he go live with his father.”

For several years, the couple received marriage counseling and their son participated in 22 sessions during an eight-month period when he was 16.

“The main purpose of this counseling was to help Justin to deal more appropriately with his anger, develop a healthier relationship with his parents and to support him while in juvenile hall,” wrote psychologist Tom Prinz in a letter filed during the divorce.

The case was dismissed in January 1990. But four months later, Beverlee Sue Merriman filed for divorce again, stating in a declaration that she’d given up hope of reconciliation. She described her husband’s behavior as violent, erratic and fueled by alcohol abuse.

By this time, Justin Merriman was incarcerated in a juvenile detention facility in Chino. He would later be moved to Paso Robles, where, court records show, he assaulted a guard and earned his first felony conviction. He was 18.

Merriman spent two years in state prison. It was during this time that he and Montgomery corresponded through letters and phone calls, and she came to visit once. The two had met years earlier when Montgomery was living in Ventura.

Merriman was released on parole in March 1992 and moved back to his mother’s condominium in Ventura.

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By all accounts, he had trouble living outside prison walls. He went back to partying with his gang friends, which his mother testified caused her great concern. His parole was revoked three times for various offenses, landing him back in state prison for monthlong stretches in 1993, 1995 and 1996.

Merriman was discharged from prison in February 1996. Six months later, he was picked up by Ventura police for being under the influence of drugs. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to six months in jail.

Merriman would be arrested four more times on drug offenses, most involving methamphetamine. On one occasion, Beverlee Sue Merriman called the police, fearing her son had overdosed. Eventually, she told him to move out.

On Jan. 30, 1998, deputies attempted to stop Merriman while he was riding a bike on Ventura Avenue. He allegedly pulled a gun, ran away and barricaded himself inside a home on a nearby street.

After a lengthy standoff, Merriman came out fighting and was subdued by six officers, according to court testimony. Drug tests showed he was under the influence of methamphetamine.

While in jail, Merriman was indicted on murder, rape and related charges in connection with Montgomery’s death. He has been in County Jail for three years.


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