Sex trafficker stuffed murdered teen into luggage and discarded remains in wildlife preserve


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

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

A Missouri man will spend the rest of his life — and then some — behind bars for stuffing a young woman into a suitcase and discarding her remains in an Illinois wildlife refuge in 2020, a court recently ruled.

James A. Merritt, 35, hails from Morehouse, Missouri — a tiny town just miles away from the borders of several adjoining states. His victim, Haley Marie Decker, 18, hailed from Normal, Illinois — a medium-sized city that forms part of the Bloomington-Normal metropolitan area and nearly four hours due north of Morehouse.

In January, he was convicted on one count each of murder in the second degree, armed criminal action, tampering with physical evidence, and trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, according to the Illinois State Police.

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

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

The sad discovery was made by a man walking with his child, according to The pair saw blonde hair coming out of the luggage and called police. Law enforcement determined she had been repeatedly struck in the head with a blunt object.

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

Digital evidence connected the young woman to Merritt.

Investigators eventually obtained Decker’s cellular phone and data from the device. An arrest warrant was served at Merritt’s residence which “led to evidence that proved Decker had once lived with Merritt,” state police said. The investigation also determined that Decker had been a sex worker at the time of her death.

The defendant would, in an interview with police, admit to meeting his victim online and then 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 suggested Merritt and Decker had been in the same place and then traveled to the wildlife refuge on Jan. 25, 2020.

Police also found blood in Merritt’s residence and what appeared to be 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 resulted in a successful investigation and conviction.”

Jurors deliberated 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 resulted in his case being tried by New Madrid County Prosecuting Attorney Andrew Lawson.

“I am extremely pleased with the jury’s verdicts in this case,” Lawson said after the verdict, according to the Democrat.

Decker is tragically remembered by her own words and by her distraught-but-knowing family.

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

Soon after her parents divorced, the trouble started with outbursts, talking back to adults, and sneaking around; eventually resulting in a psychiatric diagnosis, forced psychiatric help, increased drug use, juvenile detention, a baby at the age of 16, foster homes, group homes, and a terminal number of treatment facilities.

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

Then came the grim 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 first messages, written on a piece of ruled paper torn from a spiral notebook, tracked the trajectory of her too-brief 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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