MOREHOUSE, Mo. (KFVS) - A man is facing a murder charge in connection to the death of an 18 year old found dead in rural Pulaski County, Illinois.
James A. Merritt, 32, of Morehouse, was arrested and charged initially on April 16 for trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
After a search warrant was executed on April 16 at his home on Marshall Street in Morehouse, the New Madrid County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office formally charged Merritt on April 20 with first-degree murder, armed criminal action and tampering with physical evidence.
He remains in custody at the Mississippi County Detention Center with no bond.
According to the Missouri state Highway Patrol, Haley Decker, 18, of Normal, Ill., was reported missing on March 4 to the Normal, Ill. Police Department.
Court documents state that based on social media posts, it was believed she was last in the Morehouse and Sikeston areas on January 25.
Investigators say they were able to track her phone to a physical location in Morehouse, Mo.
She was found dead on March 26 in the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge in rural Pulaski County, Ill.
According to court documents, her body was hidden inside a large suitcase. The cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma to the head.
On April 15, authorities went to a home on Marshall Street in Morehouse and talked to a man, identified as James Andrew Merritt.
During a formal interview, Merritt admitted to meeting Decker online and meeting her in St. Louis.
According to court documents, he told investigators he drove to St. Louis to bring her back to the Morehouse area because he “had some change in his pocket.”
Merritt told investigators his last contact with Decker was on January 25 after he said he caught her doing drugs and told her she had to leave.
According to Merritt, he last saw her when he left for work around 7:15 a.m. on Jan. 25. He said when he returned home around 9:30 a.m., Decker had left.
According to court documents, during a search of his home on April 16, investigators found stains on the wall in the hallway that tested positive for blood.
They said carpeting in Merritt’s Honda Pilot appeared to have been bleached and also tested positive for the presence of blood.
Investigators said they were able to get cell phone records for both Merritt and Decker’s phones. They said the mapping information showed both devices were in the same location for the morning of and early afternoon hours of Jan. 25.
Court documents state mapping information showed Merritt’s device traveling into southern Illinois and where it then used data from three cell towers surrounding the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge.
“We believe he was using Haley, doing human trafficking with her," said Sgt. Clark Parrott with the Missouri State Highway Patrol. "However, as I said our investigation through this is kind of like peeling an onion, the more we learn the more we want to close.”
He said when a case crosses state lines, it’s important for authorities to work together.
“That’s what is so unique about working in southeast, Missouri is when cases like this come up all of the agencies come together and kind of check who they work for at the door and what they are going for and it’s closure for the family and resolution of the case,” he said.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol was assisted by the Normal, Ill. Police Department, New Madrid County Sheriff’s Office, Sikeston Department of Public Safety and Cape Girardeau and Morehouse Police Departments, Illinois State Police and FBI.