Estimated read time: 18-19 minutes
MOUNT PLEASANT, Sanpete County — On a typical morning in the serene cemetery of rural Mt. Pleasant in Sanpete County, a walker or jogger can be found getting in their morning steps by taking laps on the roads that border and cut through the property, which hardly see any motor traffic.
Sitting unassumingly in the A plot of the cemetery is a small headstone that simply reads: "Monte R. Merz, 1911-1965." Next to that is an identical headstone where Merz's mother is buried and a sibling's is nearby. Merz's mother died three years after her son. For many years, Monte Merz's grandchildren in Utah were told that he died in car crash.
But what they just recently learned is that buried in the modest plot is a suspected serial killer and child molester.
And Merz did not perish in any crash. Rather, he died after shooting and killing his fifth wife in California in 1965 and then shooting himself moments later, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.
The murder-suicide was the final act of violence in a life filled with brutal crimes, according to the LAPD. In total, police now believe Merz killed two women, a teenage girl and a fetus in California from 1956 through 1965. And based on his behavioral patterns, Los Angeles police detective Rachel Evans said she believes those crimes may just be scratching the surface.
In 2017 — 52 years after his death — Merz was determined to be responsible for the 1960 stabbing death of a 15-year-old girl after a key witness stepped forward to call police after living many decades in fear.
And this year, thanks to the work of a detective who was new to the cold case unit and had never worked on a homicide case before — a woman who spent many hours traveling to Utah trying to piece together the investigation — police determined they have enough evidence to link Merz to the 1956 murder of a pregnant 18-year-old woman in Van Nuys, California.
It had been the oldest unsolved murder in the San Fernando Valley, an area with more than 1.75 million people.
An 'internal voice'
Evans, who previously was a deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office, has been with the LAPD for 13 years and became a detective 4½ years ago.
"I just felt like that's what I needed to do," she said about her decision to become a police officer. "I don't know, I just felt this is where I needed to be."
She is currently assigned to the homicide division at the Van Nuys Police Station and works on new — or what police call "fresh" — homicides. But in 2019, when she was first asked to join the robbery/homicide division, she was assigned to the cold case unit. Investigating murders, new or old, was not something Evans said she ever thought she'd be doing in her career.
"I have a real soft heart. I would think I can't handle the crime scenes. But as I got into it, I found out I was pretty good at it," she said.
Although Evans admits she was nervous going into the unit, which at the time included detectives who had been investigating homicides for two decades and weren't anxious to train a newcomer, she also went into her new job with a "never say no" attitude.
The rookie was greeted by the veteran detectives by being handed a large book that contained the case file for a 1956 murder.
"One of the guys literally handed me this book and said, 'Here, good luck with this.' And it was the oldest case in the valley and hadn't been solved. I sat at my desk like, 'What am I supposed to do with this?'" Evans recalled.
The case was the killing of Barbara Jean Jepson, a young pregnant woman who had been raped and stabbed to death in her home on Jan. 31, 1956. By the time the case landed on Evans' desk in 2019, hundreds of detectives had already combed through it over the past 60 years.
But Evans, who admits she is highly competitive, was determined to "prove herself" and show the veteran officers that she could solve the case.
"I'm not good at letting things go. I'm competitive. I want to get it. So here I was in this new unit — they didn't know who I was, I didn't know who they were. So they were kind of testing me to see what I could do. I like the challenge. 'I'm gonna figure this out.'
"But there were times I was very frustrated with the case because I couldn't find something and I would just keep having this feeling, 'Keep going. Keep going.' I'm like, 'What the heck?' I worked on something for seven hours to finally get one name. But that opened up all this stuff.
"So luckily, I listened to that internal voice that was like, 'Keep going.' And I did. And I was able to kind of uncover all of it."
It took her a week to read through the entire case file. Then she read it a second time and started taking notes. On her third reading of the file, "I started seeing, 'Hey, that's weird. Why didn't they talk to that person? Who's that person?' So I started looking people up. 'OK. Who's alive that I can still talk to?' So I started turning over rocks, not really knowing what my direction would be," she told KSL.com.
That's when Evans started to pick out interesting details about the case, "like no forced entry, and there was no force in the house, like she seemed like she knew this person. And that was my first key (that) she knows this guy. There was nothing wrong with the door jam. She let this person in. She obviously knew him.
"Here's what I realized when I went to the book: There was no forced entry, no struggle. It was very clean and the radio was blasting to try and muffle noise. They tested the radio for fingerprints; they didn't have DNA back then, and they didn't get anything," she recalled. "No jewelry was taken, nothing was out of place, no valuables."
As Evans reviewed the case, it wasn't long before she started focusing on one man.
"Immediately he was on my radar," she recalled.
That Utah man was 54-year-old Monte R. Merz.
The wives and daughters
Merz was born on May 24, 1911, in Mount Pleasant. In 1931, he married Cleo Ream and the couple had one son and one daughter. They were later divorced and Merz married another woman, Bernice, in the San Fernando Valley. Although it is unclear when Merz left Utah for California, a wedding announcement was found by Evans in the Ogden Standard-Examiner. That marriage also ended in divorce in 1945, with Bernice Merz citing "cruelty," Evans said.
Monte Merz was "an avid gambler, prolific child molester, violent to animals, a womanizer, (and) a raging alcoholic," Evans said her research uncovered.
By 1948, he had moved in with Fern Spiva in the San Fernando Valley and stayed with her for six years, making her his common-law wife. At the time Merz and Spiva began living together, Spiva had a 10-year-old daughter, Barbara, from a prior relationship.
"I believe he groomed and molested Barbara along the way because that was kind of his (modus operandi). He'd marry these young women that had these young girls, and then he would abuse those girls," Evans said.
In 1955, Barbara married Joe Jepson. That same year, Merz married another woman — his fourth wife — who already had two children, including a young daughter.
Then in 1956, Barbara Jepson was killed in her home. No one was ever arrested for the crime.
In 1960, in the nearby "Foothills" area, 15-year-old Mary Ann Perdrotta, who had a horse stable next to Merz's and who often rode horses with him, was stabbed nine times and killed.
Then, sometime between 1962 and 1963, Merz married his fifth wife, Ina. She had two sons and a daughter from a prior marriage.
In 1964, Monte Merz was arrested and accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl. Information about that case was hard for Evans to collect because the case file has since been destroyed. Although Merz is suspected of sexually abusing many girls, this was the only victim for which he was arrested. He died before his case went to trial.
It was during that same year that Merz showed up at a hospital with a gunshot wound. He claimed he was injured in an accidental shooting, but others believed he was intentionally shot by someone else, according to Evans. But who shot Merz and why was never determined.
By 1965, Evans said all of Merz's crimes were coming to a head. After his arrest for child sex abuse, Merz was given a polygraph test by police who asked him about both murders of Barbara Jepson and Mary Ann Perdrotta. At first, he denied even knowing Jepson.
"When first asked about Barbara Jepson, he said, 'I don't know.' But later they found out he was at her funeral and he lived with her mom," Evans said.
The polygraph test results concluded that Merz had "definite guilty knowledge" regarding the fate of the two murdered women, she said. Polygraph tests, however, are not admissible evidence in court. Still, Evans said the suspicion surrounding Merz was growing.
"I think it was building and I think he was getting caught up in stuff. He had a lot of victims, so little by little, a lot of suspicion was around him," Evans said. "People started saying something is wrong with him."
According to one of the original police reports, "The similarities in the types of the murders and the suspect's acquaintance with both victims plus his criminal activity with young girls would indicate that he's involved in these two murders. But due to the lack of evidence to substantiate these suspicions, these cases were not submitted for prosecution."
'He haunts me'
Then, on Aug. 15, 1965, while Merz was out of jail, and with numerous questions looming about what else he had been involved with, his wife Ina Merz found underwear from a young girl in a drawer in their house. She confronted Merz about whether he had also been abusing that girl. The confrontation was apparently the last straw as Merz proceeded to grab a gun from inside his house, Evans said.
Merz chased Ina Merz into the street, where he shot her multiple times and killed her, according to Evans. He then went back into the house and killed himself.
Then more than 50 years later — in 2017 — a former stepdaughter called police to tell them that on the day 15-year-old Perdrotta was murdered, she saw Merz come into the house with a bloody knife and blood on his hands and clothing. The stepdaughter was 10 at the time.
"She was afraid of him. And she waited until he was dead and the people she knew that were friends and family that she knew were dead, and then she called the robbery-homicide division in 2017 and told them about Mary Ann Perdrotta," Evans said.
"She says she has nightmares every night. She's scared to death of him. She said, 'I know he's dead, I know that.' But she's in her 60s and she's like, 'I'm still scared of this man. He haunts me.'"
Evans said Merz had inflicted abuse and fear on the girl by doing such things as stabbing her horse with a pitchfork. Evans noted the stepdaughter's fear in a search warrant affidavit filed in Utah while seeking answers in the Jepson murder.
"(She) stated the suspect (Merz) repeatedly (abused) and threatened her. According to (the stepdaughter), the suspect molested many young neighborhood girls. She stated if she ever told anyone, she would be killed by the suspect."
Victims kept 'in his pocket'
As Evans would soon learn, Merz had a pattern of never leaving his victims alone, even after he remarried or when his stepdaughters grew up and moved out of the house.
"He would never let them out of his life. He would never let them go," the detective said.
One victim told police that Merz "constantly kept them in his pocket. He would still molest them, rape them, until he died," Evans said.
And according to Evans' research, five women were seen at Merz's funeral wearing black and crying.
"So he was kind of a womanizer. He had all of these women that he connected with and kind of kept," she said. "There's a lot of stories around him of these young girls that were abused by him."
Until the day Spiva died — even though they were no longer married — Evans said Merz would still visit her. That's why she believes on the day that Jepson, Spiva's daughter, was murdered, Merz showed up at her residence and did not need to break into her house.
Barbara Jean Jepson
By the time she was 18, Barbara Jepson was married and 4 months pregnant. Her husband worked for the Air National Guard and the couple had an apartment in Van Nuys. On Jan. 31, 1956, Joe Jepson went to work early in the morning. Barbara Jepson was last seen shopping about 12:30 p.m. Police believe she was killed sometime between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Joe Jepson went to work and came home at the same time every day. Evans believes that everyone, including Merz, knew that.
On that day, Jepson found his wife's naked body on their bed with a knife still stuck in her chest. After the gruesome discovery, Jepson first covered up his wife with a blanket and then called police, Evans said.
Detectives who responded to the Jepson house that day found several items of evidence, such as a green Army jacket with blood and hair follicles in a garage. One witness told police that a person was seen leaving the area that day wearing a green jacket, according to Evans. Another talked about seeing a man with big hands and big knuckles, something the Merz family was known for, she said.
At the time, detectives believed Jepson's death might be tied to a series of rapes in the same area. Included in the Barbara Jepson case file is a bulletin police issued at that time notifying officers about three rapes that all happened within a month or two of Jepson's death. The bulletin, issued on March 15, 1956, included a sketch artist drawing of the rape suspect who was believed to always wear a plaid shirt, and noted that the "suspect may be the person who murdered Barbara Jean Jepson."
Evans said Merz was also known to always wear a plaid shirt. He was wearing one in his mug shot taken after his 1964 arrest. The rape victims had their hands bound during their attacks, the detective said, and Jepson's hands were bound when she was killed. But to this day, those three rapes remain unsolved.
Although detectives who worked the case in 1956 did an incredible job with the investigation, according to Evans, and tracked down every known rape suspect in the area to question them, DNA evidence wasn't something that was done at the time. Evans said most of the evidence from the crime scene only exists today in photographs. In the case file, there is a picture of a bloody rag found in a sink at the Jepson home. Evans said it is believed that Merz sliced his finger while attacking Barbara Jepson and then tried to clean it off. But the rag, likely soaked with Merz's blood, was not collected, she said. Neither were the pillowcases nor bedsheets.
Despite the lack of DNA evidence that still exists today from that crime scene, Evans attempted to use today's DNA technology to help solve the case.
After some extensive research, Evans was able to track down Merz's relatives still living in Utah in 2019, including his children. Evans gives big kudos to Draper police and Unified police for assisting her investigation. In September 2019, a search warrant for DNA was served on Merz's 87-year-old son.
According to the search warrant affidavit, "In 2016, DNA testing was completed on multiple items from the case, but there was not enough DNA to submit the findings into the CODIS system for a match. Moreover, it is likely the suspect's DNA has never been entered into the CODIS system." CODIS, or Combined DNA Index System, is a national database of DNA profiles collected from crime scenes that can be compared to other crime scenes across the country.
At the time DNA was collected from Merz's son, Evans said detectives were considering exhuming Merz's body but hoped that by collecting his son's DNA the case could be solved another way.
Merz's son died just two weeks after that DNA was collected, she said. Although it was ultimately determined that there wasn't enough DNA from the crime scene to compare with the DNA collected in Utah, Evans said now that police have it preserved, they will revisit the case about every five years to see if advances in DNA technology get to the point so that the old DNA can finally be tested and compared to familial DNA from Merz.
Despite the lack of conclusive DNA, the Los Angeles Police Department determined earlier this year that Evans, after years of work, had gathered enough evidence to "clear" the Barbara Jepson murder case. It's not the same standard that prosecutors would need in court to prove that a person is guilty, she said. But based on the totality of the evidence and circumstances, and after being put through the department's very strict review policy that includes several levels of administration, Evans said police can now say with 99% certainty that Merz was responsible for Jepson's death.
Clearing a husband
Although Barbara Jepson's husband, Joe, was cleared by police, Evans said he lived the rest of his life with a stigma surrounding him. Some members of the community questioned his innocence since he was the one who found his wife's body.
"There was always this worry, 'What if he did it?' Even though he was fully exonerated," Evans said.
Until she died, Joe Jepson's mother tried to solve the case in order to "clear" her son, even subscribing to True Detective magazine, despite her son telling her to just let it go.
"He'd be like, 'Leave it alone mom, leave it alone.' But she was like, 'No. I'm going to find out what happened,'" Evans said.
Jepson remarried and had two sons. Although the boys always believed their father was innocent, Evans said it was especially satisfying to be able to call them earlier this year and tell them that their father had conclusively been cleared.
"So when I called his sons and told them, 'Hey, I just wanted to let you know your dad was a good guy, he didn't do it.' They were like, 'Oh my gosh! Thank you!'"
Barbara Jepson's cousins — who were some of the first people Evans interviewed — all believed that Merz was responsible, even before the detective concluded her investigation, she said.
On the other side, Evans said Merz's grandchildren were upset when she told them that their grandfather was actually a killer and a child molester.
"His mother told everyone he and his wife died in a car accident, when in fact, he killed her and then killed himself," she said. "They were pretty upset. One of the granddaughters took all of his pictures down and out of the house and said, 'I don't want them hanging in the house.' When they found out that that's who he was, she just wanted nothing to do with him.
"Some of the family members cried. It's shocking to hear your family is not who you thought they were."
Evans said her investigation is also responsible for reconnecting another one of Merz's daughters with her mother. That daughter was 10 when Merz died. Soon after the murder-suicide in Van Nuys, the mother fled the state with her daughter. Evans found the daughter living in Nevada and has since put her in touch with other family members who lost track of her.
Crying from the dust for justice
To solve the Jepson case, Evans said she took a page from the detectives of the 1950s, "pounding the pavement" and turning over rocks looking for clues. But Evans also has her own gift for striking up conversations with people.
"People have a lot of info to share, so you sit back and listen to them," she said.
In addition to having to prove herself to the veteran homicide detectives, Evans admits she felt solving the case was something she had to do for Barbara Jepson's family so that they could finally have some peace about what happened. She admits that at times, she felt "guided" as she worked to solve the 6-decades-old cold case.
"I think people are crying from the dust for justice. Their families need it. I know it's not my family. But there's somebody who's still crying over this. This grandmother died wanting to know who killed her daughter-in-law. And you had a husband that died that people always had suspicion about. So for me, you get closure for these families to know that their dad was good or their mom was great. You know, you have some peace for them, because they've lived all these years with no peace.
"So for me, and others that I work with, we do this so the families can have rest. I can't bring them back. But the families can have rest."