A Missouri man has been charged with the murder of an 18-year-old girl he met online, one month after her body was discovered in a suitcase at an Illinois wildlife refuge, authorities said.
James A. Merritt, 32, was charged Monday with first-degree murder, armed criminal action, and tampering with physical evidence in connection with the grisly slaying of Haley Decker, who was reported missing on March 4, Illinois State Police said in a press release. On March 26, authorities found her body stuffed inside a suitcase at Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge, in rural Pulaski County, Illinois.
Merritt was charged initially on April 16 for trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation but was hit with additional charges by the New Madrid County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office after a search warrant was executed on his home. He is currently being held at the Mississippi County Detention Center without bond.
“She was a sweet girl that lived an unfortunate life that her family tried to keep her from,” Decker’s aunt, Shari McDaneld, told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “My heart is broken for my brother as he is a very loving father that only wants the best for all five of his girls.”
Decker, who had recently moved from Normal, Illinois, was “last seen in the Morehouse and Sikeston, Missouri, areas on January 25, 2020,” according to a probable cause affidavit obtained by The Daily Beast. She wasn’t officially reported missing to the Normal Police Department until March 4.
“It was believed she was in the southeast Missouri area working as a prostitute,” Missouri Highway Patrol investigator Christopher D. Hamlett said in the affidavit, adding that investigators learned that her cell phone had been connected to an IP address that “was used to post a prostitute advertisement on the website Skipthegames.com.”
Investigators tracked down Decker’s phone in Morehouse, which led them to Merritt’s home on April 15.
During an interview with police, the 32-year-old initially denied knowing the teenager, but ultimately admitted that he had met her online in January and picked her up in St. Louis to bring her back to his home, because he “had some change in his pocket.” He acknowledged “he knew Decker to be a prostitute and saw her advertisements,” the affidavit states.
Merritt admitted during the interview that he had taken Decker to multiple meet-ups with “Johns for the purpose of prostitution.” “He stated he would drop her at a predetermined public location and Decker would call him when the encounter was over and would tell him where to pick her up,” the documents say.
Merritt said that the arrangement continued until Jan. 25—when he left for work around 7:15 a.m. and never saw her again.
While the details of Decker’s murder remain unclear, authorities have determined the 18-year-old died after being struck on the head multiple times by a blunt object. Her body was then stuffed inside a suitcase and dumped at the wildlife refuge more than 45 minutes away from Merritt’s home.
The affidavit says that on April 16, the day after their interview with Merritt, authorities executed a search warrant at his home. During the search, investigators found “visible staining, consistent with blood staining was noted on a wall in the hallway of Merritt’s home.”
Investigators said they also found bloodstains inside Merritt’s gray 2007 Honda Pilot, and an area of carpeting inside the truck appeared to have been bleached. In addition to the blood, cell phone records indicated both Decker and Merritt were at the same location in the “morning and early afternoon hours of Jan. 25, 2020,” the affidavit states.
Those records also showed that Merritt traveled into southern Illinois on Jan. 25, as his phone pinged three cell towers that surround Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge.
Anthony Pyle, the teenager’s former boyfriend, told The Daily Beast on Thursday he is completely heartbroken over Decker’s “horrible” murder and hopes Merritt “gets what he deserves.” He added that while Merrit’s arrest “helps” his process of getting closure, “nothing will change what has happened and I feel like I’ll never be the same.”
“Haley was an incredibly amazing person and I love her with all my heart—always have and always will,” said Pyle, who stopped seeing Decker in January. “She means the world to me and I’ve basically had tears in my eye since I heard. Now knowing I’ll never see her again crushes me.”
It was not immediately clear if Merritt has a lawyer.