Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — In 1998, Scott Joseph Merrill was convinced that God had told him to kill Charles Wayne Watterson — a man whom he had never met — as Watterson worked unsuspectingly on a remote dirt road in Emery County 12 miles south of Green River.
Today, Merrill says he no longer believes God was talking to him.
"I was utterly convinced that God was speaking to me. Now, I'm utterly convinced God was not speaking to me," he said last week.
Since that tragic day, Merrill, 53, believes his mental health is now in check and he would now like to be paroled after being incarcerated for nearly 25 years.
But Watterson's family doesn't believe Merrill has ever shown remorse for his crimes and they're not convinced he doesn't still have extreme ideologies that would prompt him to kill again should he be released from prison.
"I've read all the articles. I've read how you mercilessly murdered my grandfather and how at trial you went as far as to confirm in your demented mind you acted morally. You've never shown an ounce of remorse for the heinous crimes you committed, but rather you stand by what you did," said Madison Watterson, a granddaughter of Charles Watterson.
Merrill, who was charged with capital murder, pleaded no contest to the charge in 2000 and was sentenced to up to life in prison. On Nov. 22, Merrill went before the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole for the first time.
A monstrous act
On Oct. 29, 1998, Watterson, 62, was grading a remote dirt road when Merrill, of Spokane, who was hiding above the San Rafael River Road, said he received an order from God to "deliver justice." Watterson, who was two months away from retiring, was ambushed and shot nine times.
"I don't know if you have any idea what you did to so many people and how many people this impacts. I think probably one of the hardest things I had was the way it happened. It was such a cowardly act. He was shot two times from the front and seven times in the back. That's an incredibly cowardly act," Lonnie Watterson, one of Charles Watterson's sons, said in a recording of Merrill's parole hearing.
During Merrill's nearly one-hour hearing, three of Watterson's relatives addressed the board, each saying they fear what would happen if Merrill were to be released. Family members called Merrill a "monster" and likened what he did to a "terrorist act."
"Rotting in a jail cell for the rest of your sorry life" is what Merrill deserves, Madison Watterson said, addressing both the board and Merrill directly.
Lonnie Watterson said he has forgiven Merrill so he doesn't have to carry that heavy burden, "But there's a big difference between forgiveness and the safety of others," he said. "I don't know why there would be any chance for any consideration for parole."
Family members recounted how Watterson was well known and respected in Green River.
"You can go to Green River today and ask people if they knew Charles," his son, Ricky Watterson, told the board. "It doesn't matter who you talk to in Green River, he was admired and respected by all different people."
When asked if he wanted to respond to the family's comments, Merrill thanked and apologized to the family, and agreed with them.
"I'm grateful for the courage it must have taken to address me. ... Thank you for describing the impact of what I've done to you," he said. "I never sought to contact you because I realized what I had done had hurt you greatly. And I suspected that any contact from me would probably open the wound again and cause you to suffer and hurt you even more.
"I am horrified by what I've done. I agree what I've done is monstrous," he continued. "I express my profound remorse and (want to) make sure I express (that) I am so sorry for what I did. You deserve to hear that from me."
The board asked Merrill if he remembered what happened that day, to which he replied, "I think so."
"It happened really quickly, from what I remember. And I understand the skepticism that everyone else would feel toward my perception that God was speaking to me. I didn't know Mr. Watterson. I didn't even really see Mr. Watterson. What I perceived was that I was shooting at who I thought was Satan. That is not to in any way characterize Mr. Watterson, that's simply what I was perceiving. I only thought that I was defending myself. I know that sounds ridiculous now, but my beliefs and my perceptions at that time were very clouded, to say the least."
Merrill said he shot "as rapidly" as he believed he needed to stop the perceived threat.
When asked if he still believes what he did was justified, Merrill replied, "Absolutely not."
"How I feel is disgusted. I am ashamed and will always be ashamed at what I allowed my mind to tell me, at what I believed was real. There is no justification for what I did," he said.
Working on mental health
According to Merrill, he says his most recent psychological examinations confirm he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and is bipolar, and being prescribed Zoloft in 1998 likely contributed to throwing him into a "delusional state."
During the hearing, Merrill was also questioned about whether he believes he's been called to overthrow the government or any other organizations. The question appears to have been prompted by concerns from Watterson's family that Merrill has recently made blog posts with extreme ideas.
On the website Inmate Connection, Merrill has a post, dated 2012, that contains a rambling message in which he talks about God.
But the board also noted that in Merrill's most recent risk assessment scores, he ranks as "low" or "medium" in every category. He has had 61 drug tests during his time in prison and every one has been clean. His only discipline violation was in 2012.
Despite admittedly having a mental illness, Merrill said he has learned ways to manage it without taking medications. Because of the crime he committed, he says he will no longer allow himself to take prescription meds.
"I've learned to value my mental health," he said, calling it the most prized possession he has. "I cannot risk losing what I've worked so hard to get or harming anyone again.
"Prior to Zoloft, I didn't think God was talking to me. And after Zoloft, I no longer think God is talking to me," he continued, noting that in 1998 he was "so certain God was talking to me that I was willing to do anything that God would tell me to do."
But when that stopped, he said he wanted to understand why it happened in the first place.
"It took me a long time to understand why I believed what I believed, why I did what I did, what I could do to make sure I never did anything remotely like that, to harm anyone or even myself, but especially anyone else, ever again. And I didn't know how to answer that for a long time simply because of the nature of the mental illness I was living with and still live with," he said.
"I think this is the best my mental health has ever been in my life. But I also recognize that I have PTSD from my nearly eight years in the Marine Corps. I experienced trauma in the Marine Corps. And that's never going away. I don't know if the PTSD will ever go away, But I do know that I have to manage it. And I have to be aware of myself in my mind, always. And I also have bipolar disorder. And I have to manage that without medication also. It's not easy. But the incentive is so great. I don't want to ever go through what brought me here. I don't want to ever cause the harm, the pain, the suffering, that I have caused in taking Mr. Watterson's life, again. I have to maintain my mental health simply through the practices and techniques I've learned in here to do it without shortcuts, without medication," Merrill said.
In his final comments, Merrill told the board he ultimately has nothing and no one to blame for what happened other than himself.
"It was entirely my fault. I made poor choices. I don't blame the PTSD, I don't blame the military, I don't blame the experiences or trauma that I experienced in the Middle East during the Gulf War, Somalia. I don't blame my parents, my family. I don't blame anybody else or anything else other than myself. I blame myself. I made poor choices. I neglected my mental health. I neglected paying attention to myself."
The full five-member board will now vote whether to grant parole, a decision that could take more than a month.