Grand jury returns indictments in murder, home invasion cases

  • RICHARDSON

  • MERRILL

The Hilo grand jury, sidelined for about three months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, went back to work last week and returned a pair of indictments in unrelated high-profile Puna cases — a murder and a home invasion.

Robert Merrill, a 61-year-old Keaau man, was indicted Wednesday on a single count of second-degree murder for allegedly killing his 82-year-old mother, Betty Jean Merrill, on May 1 in Hawaiian Paradise Park.

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A bench warrant issued with the indictment maintains Merrill’s bail at $1 million.

Merrill made the call to 911 that brought first responders to the 15th Avenue home the two shared, according to court documents filed by police.

The reporting party identified himself as Robert Merrill and told a dispatcher that his 82-year-old mother was dead inside the house, documents state.

Merrill, who is charged with second-degree murder, also allegedly told the dispatcher, “I killed her. I had a reason.”

The body of Betty Jean Merrill was supine on the floor of her bedroom and her face was beaten beyond recognition, according to documents. A blood-stained object resembling a Native American stone ax was found on a kitchen counter in the home, according to documents.

When the first responders encountered Robert Merrill at the house, he allegedly had fresh blood on his hands, blood spots in his hair and blood stains on the front of his shorts.

Police allege that while Merrill was being booked at the Hilo station, he said, “I already accepted it. Just take me where I need to go.”

During Merrill’s initial court appearance May 4, Deputy Prosecutor Joseph Lee told Hilo District Judge Kanani Laubach the elderly woman’s injuries were “some of the most vicious, atrocious and cruel that we have seen in a considerable time period.”

Merrill has been scheduled for a preliminary hearing on four different dates. On May 6, he refused to leave his cell. On June 2 and June 10, Merrill was hospitalized at Hilo Medical Center, according to his court-appointed attorney, Brian De Lima.

The hearing was rescheduled, but the indictment moves Merrill’s case upstairs to Hilo Circuit Court for arraignment and plea, rendering the District Court hearing unnecessary.

Merrill remains in custody at Hawaii Community Correctional Center.

In an unrelated case, the grand jury also returned a six-count indictment against Phillip Jon Richardson, a 34-year-old Pahoa man charged with first-degree burglary, two counts of second-degree robbery and fourth-degree theft, plus third-degree property damage.

A bench warrant issued with the indictment sets Richardson’s bail at $500,000 — a much higher bail than was earlier set for the charges.

Richardson is accused of entering a Hawaiian Beaches home Nov. 30, assaulting a 56-year-old woman resident, stealing her cordless phone, then taking a swing at the woman’s husband and missing — before leaving with the phone.

According to the complaint, Richardson later tried to take a motor vehicle from a 70-year-old man by force, damaged the vehicle in an amount exceeding $500 and took the man’s car keys.

Richardson’s $76,000 bail was reduced Dec. 2 to $50,000 by Hilo District Judge Kimberly Taniyama, despite the objection of prosecutors, who also ordered Richardson to undergo a mental examination by three doctors and stay away from the victims.

His bail was reduced from $50,000 to $25,000 on May 12 by Hilo District Judge Jeffrey Hawk, again despite the objection of prosecutors. Richardson’s bail was posted May 21 by Aloha Bail Bonds.

That prompted a letter expressing alarm over Richardson’s release on May 22 from Prosecutor Mitch Roth to Daniel Foley, a retired appeals judge appointed by the state Supreme Court as a special master to oversee an orderly population reduction in the state’s correctional facilities to prevent a coronavirus outbreak inside the lockups.

In the letter, Roth described Richardson as dangerous. He wrote that a mental examiner found Richardson’s “dangerousness was not the result of a mental disorder, but rather a longstanding criminal disposition and substance abuse problems that the defendant has not shown he can control when unsupervised.”

Richardson was arrested and charged June 27 for unauthorized control of a stolen vehicle while out on bail, apparently prompting the $500,000 bail on the indictment warrant.

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He remains in custody at HCCC.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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