Two months after the man who helped murder her daughter was released from prison, Bonnie Heilander said she now worries he may return to Coeur d’Alene and come after her.
Cody Merritt, 23, was released from the Idaho State Correctional Institute near Boise on Jan. 2 after completing a five-year sentence for his role in the 2000 rape, murder and decapitation of 14-year-old Carissa Benway.
Kootenai County District Court last month denied Heilander’s request for a protection order against Merritt.
“I can’t even get a protection order against him because I haven’t had sex with him, and I’m not related to him. He only killed my daughter,” said Heilander.
Merritt was sentenced to five years in prison for being an accessory to Benway’s murder. The plea deal was given in exchange for testimony against his father, David “Coon” Merritt, who was convicted of killing the runaway girl after tying her up and raping her during a Fourth of July weekend camping trip.
David Merritt died of natural causes in prison late last year while serving a life sentence. He was 53.
Cody Merritt, who was just 16 years old at the time of the killing, told detectives and prosecutors that he knew his father planned to kill Benway, and he participated in the murder to earn a black rose tattoo. He confessed to watching the killing and helping cover up the crime.
Heilander’s concern extends to her other daughter, who she said she fears could also become a target.
She showed her daughter a recent photo of Merritt so she would “get away” if she ever saw him.
Heilander herself knows what Merritt looks like since she attended parole hearings and visited him in prison in the hope that he would use his time incarcerated to straighten out his life.
“He never did anything,” she said.
A parole review board denied Merritt early release in 2004 in part because he hadn’t sought out mental counseling or other help in prison.
Now Merritt’s release comes without conditions or mandated supervision because he served his full sentence. He can go where he pleases.
Heilander said she’s heard rumors that he wants to return to Coeur d’Alene, and that’s why she filed her petition for a protection order.
Judge Penny Friedlander, who ruled for the dismissal of the request for a protection order, said she can’t comment on the petition because it’s sealed.
The dismissal order checks off the reason: “The Petition does not allege facts, which, if true, would entitle the Petitioner to a Protection Order,” with the handwritten note “no relationship as required between Petitioner (also on behalf of) and Respondent.”
Idaho state law mandates that someone filing for a protection order have been in a domestic relationship with the person he or she is filing against. That could be a relationship by blood or adoption, a current or past marriage, a past or present romantic relationship or a child together. The law also includes those who live or have lived together.
This isn’t the first time the law has let her down, said Heilander, who last year settled a civil suit against the city of Coeur d’Alene for $30,000.
She sued the city, saying the police ignored her reports that her daughter had run away and was with David Merritt. Had police investigated, said Heilander, they might have saved her daughter’s life.
It’s unclear where Cody Merritt is living at this time, although Heilander and Kootenai County sheriff’s Sgt. Brad Maskell believe he’s now residing near his mother, Aubry Merritt, in Castle Rock, Wash.
A phone number listed in Aubry Merritt’s name has been disconnected, and she and Cody Merritt could not be located for comment.
Merritt picked her son up when he was released from prison, said Maskell, who worked on the Benway case and has followed Merritt’s progress through the judicial and correction system since.
He said the case is one of the worst he’s ever worked.
“I have a lot of concern about how he’s doing and whether or not he’s going to be able to make a successful reentry into society,” Maskell said of Merritt.
But, said Maskell, Merritt served his sentence.
“He deserves a chance to get his life going again. Under the law he has a right to do that.”