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Home Crime ‘She didn’t want to die’: Person who forced people into having sex with others put a young woman's dead body into a suitcase and left it in a wildlife area

‘She didn’t want to die’: Person who forced people into having sex with others put a young woman's dead body into a suitcase and left it in a wildlife area

“I will be loyal and have a lot of spirit,” Haley Decker once wrote when she was five years old and the world looked brighter.

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James Merritt, on the left, and Haley Decker, on the right

Left: James Merritt (from Illinois State Police); Right: Haley Decker (from Missing In Illinois).

A Missouri person will spend the rest of his life — and more — in prison for putting a young woman into a suitcase and leaving her body in an Illinois animal sanctuary in 2020, a court recently decided.

James A. Merritt, 35, comes from Morehouse, Missouri — a small town near several nearby states. His victim, Haley Marie Decker, 18, was from Normal, Illinois — a medium-sized city in the Bloomington-Normal metropolitan area that is nearly four hours north of Morehouse.

In January, he was found guilty of murder in the second degree, using a weapon to commit a crime, getting rid of physical evidence, and trading people for sex, according to the Illinois State Police.

Earlier this month, Circuit Judge Joshua Underwood sentenced Merritt to life in prison plus an extra 29 years and a $25,000 fine.

On March 26, 2020, Decker’s body was discovered in the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge in a rural part of Pulaski County, Illinois, police said. The teenager was reported missing 22 days earlier.

A man walking with his child found the sad discovery. They saw blonde hair sticking out of the suitcase and called the police. MissingInIllinois.orgreported the incident. Law enforcement determined she had been repeatedly hit in the head with a blunt object.

Investigators looked at recent missing persons reports and quickly became convinced they had found Decker. After her fingerprints were taken, investigators’ suspicions were confirmed.

Digital evidence linked the young woman to Merritt.

Investigators eventually got Decker’s cell phone and data from the device. An arrest warrant was served at Merritt’s home, which “led to evidence that proved Decker had once lived with Merritt,” state police said. The investigation also found that Decker had been a sex worker when she died.

The defendant admitted to meeting his victim online and taking her to various small towns in the Show-Me State for her to have sex with other men in exchange for money, according to the Standard Democrat. Phone records also indicated that Merritt and Decker had been in the same place and then gone to the wildlife refuge on Jan. 25, 2020.

Police also found blood in Merritt’s home and what looked like cleaned-up blood in his vehicle.

“The investigative efforts of the ISP agents and forensic scientists involved in this investigation are to be commended,” ISP Zone 7 Commander Capt. Nicholas Dill said in a press release. “I’d also like to express our appreciation to the Missouri Highway Patrol for their collaboration in this investigation. The cooperation between the state law enforcement agencies on both sides of the river led to a successful investigation and conviction.”

Jurors thought for 90 minutes before finding the defendant guilty on each charge he faced. While Merritt was convicted by a Pemiscot County jury, a change of venue meant his case was tried by New Madrid County Prosecuting Attorney Andrew Lawson.

Lawson said he was very happy with the jury’s decision in this case, according to the Democrat.

Decker is sadly remembered by her own words and by her deeply upset family.

“I adored her so much and I feel so guilty,” her father, Sam Decker told The Register-Mail. “I know she didn’t want to die.”

After her parents divorced, she began to have issues with outbursts, talking back to adults, and sneaking around; which eventually led to a psychiatric diagnosis, forced psychiatric help, increased drug use, juvenile detention, becoming a mother at 16, foster homes, group homes, and multiple treatment facilities.

She even once managed to escape capture by a sex ring in Chicago, but the patterns in her life were repeating.

Then came the sad discovery in the mushroom field. A woman who had often gone without a word to her family for long periods was now lost to them, and the world, forever.

“I couldn’t process that at first,” her aunt, Jenny Randall, told Peoria-based CBS affiliate WMBD. “I just said: ‘Dad what do you mean her body? People don’t say her body if the person is still alive.’ I basically fell to the ground and started crying. It was very upsetting because I felt that I could’ve done more.”

In late 2019, Haley Decker posted on Facebook about being in an abusive relationship, her father said. On Jan. 25, 2020, she sent a friend a Snapchat picture tagged with Morehouse, Missouri, as the location. That was the last message she would ever send.

One of her early messages, written on a piece of ruled paper torn from a spiral notebook, tracked the path of her too-short life.

“I will be loyal and have a lot of spirit,” Haley Decker once wrote when she was 5 years old and the world looked brighter.

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