Robert W. Merkle Jr., a former federal prosecutor who successfully prosecuted Colombian drug baron Carlos Lehder and battled corrupt public servants, has died. He was 58.
Merkle died Monday night at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, Fla., after a brief illness, said his son Robert Merkle III. The family did not disclose the cause of death.
While serving from 1982 to 1988 as chief prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Middle District of Florida, headquartered in Tampa, Merkle won the conviction of Lehder after a 7 1/2-month trial. Later he obtained one of two indictments against Panamanian dictator Manuel A. Noriega, who remains imprisoned in Florida for drug-related crimes.
The flamboyant prosecutor also obtained indictments against three sitting Florida representatives, two judges, three prosecutors, and dozens of bankers, attorneys and postal workers.
“Bob was one of those rare individuals who was truly larger than life,” said John Fitzgibbons, who worked under him in the U.S. attorney’s office for four years. “In the courtroom, he was as good a trial lawyer as there was in America. As a boss, he was probably the most complex, difficult and demanding boss you could imagine.”
Critics acknowledged Merkle’s legal skills but questioned his methods. Florida Gov. Bob Martinez once tried to get Merkle fired for calling Martinez a liar.
Newspapers campaigned for the prosecutor’s ouster. Defense attorneys decried what they viewed as abusive, bullying tactics. They compared them to McCarthyism and called for U.S. Justice Department investigations, which always cleared Merkle of any inappropriate behavior.
Merkle quit the post in 1988 to run for the U.S. Senate and was beaten in the Republican primary by Connie Mack. The former prosecutor had since been in private practice.
Born in Washington, D.C., and raised mostly in Greenville, S.C., Merkle earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Notre Dame. He moved to Florida in 1977 to work in a state attorney’s office. He joined the U.S. attorney’s office in 1981 and was appointed chief the next year.
Survivors include his wife, Angela, and nine children.