Paul Michael Merhige

This case turned out to be very interesting.  For one, unlike so many I come across it seems, there was an abundance of information and articles available. For two, for me while this case started out being about a mass murder it became more about not just mental illness but the responsibility of people who have taken on the role of caregiver or in my opinion in this case enabler.

I have written more than a few blogs on cases in which mental illness is, or at least is claimed, to be a factor.  I have had to deal with the mental health community relating to a family member and I rarely pass up a chance to express my distaste at how family members who are legitimately attempting to get help for someone are dismissed.  I have also stated before that while I do not allow mental illness to be an excuse for a horrific crime and the perpetrator deserves punishment, I often believe those who refused to give help when asked should also be held accountable.  This case however, I feel has the other side of it.  In fact, I am uncertain that mental illness was a legitimate claim here or if it was not simply an excuse given to "justify" actions and maybe garner sympathy. While obviously I am not a mental health professional, again I have experience dealing with the mentally ill, the mental health community and while some may not find legitimate I do believe that the research of cases I do here combined with previous legal studies can allow me a little better insight from all angles of this case.

With that said, let us start with the crime since this is a true crime blog and we will go from there.

On November 26, 2009 at the home of Jim and Muriel Sitton, Jupiter Florida, family members had gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. Among the guests that had joined Jim, Muriel and their six year old daughter, Makayla were Muriel's parents (Antoine and Raymonde Joseph), her aunt and uncle, Michael and Carole Merhige and their three adult children, including their son Paul. There were apparently somewhere between sixteen and seventeen related family members attending. Paul Merhige was apparently a bit of an odd duck and through scores and scores of research I was unable to discover for sure just why.  Some claimed (especially after this day) that he suffered from mental illness. Some claimed that was an excuse used later to justify his actions  and that he was nothing more than a lazy, thirty-five year old man who was still being supported financially by his parents because he would not (some of course said could not) hold down a job. There had been turmoil in the immediate family over the years between Paul and his twin sisters, Carla and Lisa but at least some family members had not seen him in nearly a decade.  The day seemed to go on normally.  However, I should point out that there are some reports that Paul did not engage in eating or any singing festivities after and there are other reports that seemed to say that he appeared to be fine and enjoying himself. Sometime around 9:30 that evening as the night was winding down and Makayla was put to sleep in her bed Paul went outside for what some say was twenty to thirty minutes.  When he returned he had a gun and began firing at family members.  By the time he was done both his sisters, Lisa was pregnant, were dead, so was his aunt, Raymonde Joseph, as well as her six year old granddaughter Makayla Sitton.  Paul had purposely gone into her room while she was sleeping and shot her a total of three times (once in the head, once in the arm and once in the back).  Patrick Knight, Lisa's husband, was also critically injured while another relative, Clifford Gebara was also wounded.  Paul attempted to shoot Antoine Joseph also but the gun apparently jammed.  It was reported that as he was shooting he commented, either to his father personally or to the people in general, "I have waited 20 years to do this."  

According to Jim Sitton things happened very quickly and as Paul finished and the guests were scattering to escape he then got into his car and sped away.  He was a fugitive for the next forty days. Before he was captured a few things emerged.  First and foremost there was an abundance of immediate talk of his mental stability but again through my research I found very little as far as what was, or was not legitimate claims, and just for what he may have been taking medication. It was also soon discovered that in the few days prior to the shooting that he had obtained four guns to which he had apparently packed in his vehicle.  Again, through research I am uncertain as to how this was done.  I cannot say that he bought them, stole them, or simply obtained them in another way.  I am going to go out on a limb and say that it would seem odd to believe that he bought them because I found none of the usual articles questioning how someone supposedly mentally ill was able to obtain guns, but I could surely be incorrect in thinking that.  It was also learned that he also obtained $12,000 and had stashed it in his car for his escape.  Once again reports were simply that he had the money and I could find nothing about how he obtained it, how he had access to it, or how it was determined later that he had it in his escape.  He was captured after someone saw a promo for an upcoming episode of America's Most Wanted.  He had been living in hotel in the Florida Keys during that time.  The owners recognized his picture and went outside to compare the license plate number given by the program. Paul had hidden them, at least partially by a tarp but it does not seem that anyone cared to bother checking it.  

Prior to his capture there were calls, especially from Jim Sitton and America's Most Wanted host, John Walsh that the prosecutors seek the death penalty in this case.  A few weeks after his capture the district attorney's office announced they were doing just that.  However, in October of 2011, just a few months shy of his upcoming trial it was announced that prosecutors and defense attorneys had made a deal.  Jim Sitton went on to claim at the hearing that the deal had been made hastily and that his family had only learned of the deal in the two days prior. He continued to beg the judge not to accept the plea bargain still fully feeling that the death penalty should have been sought.  Apparently at least his wife, Muriel and his father in law, Antoine Joseph both felt the same way.  The judge appeared sympathetic to the Sitton's plight but explained that there was little that he could do but give the maximum sentence allowed by law which was 7 consecutive life sentences. Patrick Knight, Lisa's husband, testified at the sentencing that he saw Paul as nothing more than a "fat loser who was jealous and angry at his sisters and did nothing but stayed on the computer all day."  Paul's parents of course spoke in court also stating that they agreed with the plea deal and how much they missed their daughters, but also it seems still pressing the mental illness issue but again, there did not seem to be too much in detail although I will address what we do know in just a bit. I will state here however, that as much as the parents had financially supported him throughout his life they did not provide the funds to provide a defense attorney for their son and he was represented by a public defender.

Outside the courtroom the Sitton's and Muriel's father, Antoine Joseph, expressed their anger at the plea deal and claimed that the prosecutors reasons behind making the deal were political in nature.  The prosecutor on the other hand claimed that the majority of the victim relatives were fine with the plea deal.  I am unsure this is quite a fair statement.  It seems that Michael and Carole Merhige obviously were fine with the deal, and although he apparently did not care for his brother in law before or after the situation, Patrick Knight expressed being ok with it (although by the sounds of it he would have also been fine with the death penalty).  So as far as immediate family of victims it really came down to three to three unless that is you count Clifford Gebara who had also been wounded.  Not to say that he, or even the rest of the family members at the home who did survive were not traumatized by the events but in my opinion it was the immediate family members of those who were murdered that counted the most and that really was split down the middle.  

Just before the conclusion of the criminal side of this case, a new twist emerged. Antoine Joseph, combined with his daughter and son in law, Murial and Jim Sitton filed a civil case against Michael and Carole Merhige.  Patrick Knight also filed one against them.  Eventually it seems as if these cases were combined together.  They charged that Michael and Carole not only took it upon themselves to invite Paul to the Thanksgiving dinner but that they knew that he was not taking his medication that they at least apparently had indicated controlled his impulses.  The suit claimed that by these actions Michael and Carole had "created a foreseeable zone of risk."  The suit went on to claim that Michael and Carol Merhige knew that Paul held hostility towards family members, specifically his sisters, and had expressed this anger many times in the past.  One report I found stated that there were emails included in this that were sent from Carole (although the name of the recipient was not released) indicating that she expected Paul to go to the dinner and had made several comments about fearing there would be trouble.  The Circuit Court dismissed the case and it was appealed.  The Appeals Court ruled that the Circuit Court was correct in dismissing the case, stated the parents could not be found negligent for their son's actions.  The court all but stated that if they were to rule against the parents that family members would live in fear of being sued for taking the mentally ill places. It went on to say "families should be encouraged to include a troubled family member in the family circle."  This is something I have a major issue with but I will address it at the end.  I wanted to state here what happened as it was the conclusion of the court proceedings and went along with the criminal proceedings.

So, was Paul mentally ill? And if so, just what was he diagnosed with and what treatment was he receiving?   For those answers you have to look at his history. It seems that everything appears to be normal.  He was a rather good student athlete at his preparatory high school.  He graduated 3rd in his class and intended apparently to go on to college to become a doctor.   He went on to the University of Miami.  To be honest I had to do a search to see just how good of a medical program the University of Miami was as I found this an odd choice for Paul.  According to what I found that at least currently (2015) it is ranked as having the 45th best medical program, at least as far as research goes.  I cannot tell you what it's ranking was when Paul attended which would have probably been around 1992 or 1993.  Regardless I found this choice as a bit odd.  Here was a young man who went to a private high school and went on to graduate 3rd in his class.  This indicates that not only was he intelligent but his family was more wealthy than the average Joe considering it is very likely that his two sisters also graduated from the school.  And yet he then went on to a State University and not a higher end school.  He did apparently graduate from the University of Miami but to be honest, I am unsure what he did get a degree in.  According to his mother, when he was 19 and attending college he had a "nervous breakdown" and was never the same.  There were reports that at some point and time, although nothing was very specific that Paul had shot himself (the point of origin seemed to be at odd) due to depression but as with everything else involving his care there was nothing really to go on that I could find. The next that we hear or know anything is around 1998 or 1999 when Paul filed for a restraining order against his sister Carla. He stated that she had threatened him and that his family did not understand or support him with his issues and that at the time he was being tested for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). A few weeks later he dropped the request. There is really no other documentation, or even anything else really discussed it seems until 2006 when this time Carla filed for a restraining order against Paul.  She stated that he was refusing to take his medication for his "mental illness" but was not specific and claimed he threatened to kill her on a very regular basis.  Just as he had done several years before, Carla dropped the request after a few weeks.  

So then we jump to 2009 and the aftermath of the shooting. It seems that it was after this that more was said.  I found what was basically a list of the things it was claimed he "suffered" from but I have to admit that while I was reading the list I literally laughed out loud to the point that my husband came into the room to ask me what was so funny.  It seems the list was all but created by at least Carole Merhige, if not also her husband.  Probably the most significant things that are mentioned in the list are OCD and depression.  However, OCD, while considered to be a mental disorder, and can often take control of your life does not make you violent. As far as depression, it can make you obviously despondent and it is possible to cause violent outbursts.  So out those two I would rely more on the depression than OCD. However, the "ailment" that he "suffered" from that made me laugh so hard was a 'receding hairline.'  I think the point that was being made was that he had stressed and been obsessed with the issue of his receding hairline since high school and that the OCD made this worse. However, that is either not how she stated it, or how the journalist worded it.  Even still, while OCD can be chronic at times there had to have been more than this in my opinion to cause the shooting if we are going to claim mental illness. After his escape there was talk that authorities should keep an eye out somewhere in Michigan for him as he had sought treatment "from a doctor" there in recent months but again, absolutely nothing specific.  The doctor's name was never released it seem to even see what they specialized in to even gander at what that treatment was for. After the shooting Michael was interviewed by the police and admitted that Paul held a grudge against at least his parents thinking that they did not do enough to care for him.  Two more ailments came up in my research.  The first indicated that he may have suffered from Mono at some point, I was first led to believe that this may have occurred during his time at the University, around the time his mother indicated he had the nervous breakdown, but I was later led to believe this may have occurred much later. It should be noted that this was only mentioned in passing and only in at the most two of the dozens and dozens of articles and websites that I looked at concerning him and this case and I did not get an indication that this was anything either of the parents had indicated he "suffered" from.  The first time I saw it mentioned it said that Paul had held a grudge against his brother in law, Patrick Knight because he had refused to treat him when he had Mono.  This was stated to indicated whatever issue it was that Paul had with Patrick and a motive for his shooting.  Although I cannot confirm Patrick's age I got the impression that he was likely around the same age as Paul, who was 35, and Lisa, who was 33. And obviously the indication was that he was a doctor so this leads me to believe that his claim of having Mono must have occurred within the last several preceding years as opposed to college years as Patrick would not likely have been a doctor as of yet. Along with this claim of at some point having Mono, on a comment forum someone indicated that they knew Paul personally for several years (they had ended their friendship around 2007 after an argument according to the poster) and that because of the Mono Paul suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or CFS.  I did a quick search on this and it indicates that sufferers go long periods of time without adequate sleep to the point in which it limits their "ability to carry out ordinary daily tasks."  Well, I think that we can dismiss this as something he was suffering from in 2009 at least.  

So what do I think based on the information received about his mental illness? While obviously I am not a doctor, nor have I personally seen Paul, aside from pictures, I am going to "call BS" on a lot of it.  Now, when he had the supposed nervous breakdown in college it is a prime time for mental illness to appear. And he very well may have had a hard time, as many teenagers do, transitioning into college.  I question if Michael and Carole did not see some signs of possibly something earlier since he went to a state college but again there is no indication that they did.  Then again, I get the very distinct impression that Michael and Carole either saw what they wanted to see or was a family in which polished the outside of the apple for appearances while the inside was rotting.  I think their wealth and attitude played a large role in the shaping of not just their children, but this case and quite possibly in the care that they gave.  Again, I should express that this is simply my opinion on research, knowledge and experience and I could be very far off.  However, I think the fact that their own relatives were willing to sue them after this tragedy speaks volumes, but I will address that in a bit.  There are three main things that stick out to me about Paul before the crime that tell me that if Paul did in fact suffer from a mental illness, which I do doubt, it was not as debilitating as his parents want the public to believe.  There were even more things after.  First, I find it difficult to believe that he suffered so greatly from mental illness but had the ability to drive a car.  We have to realize too that according to Michael and Carole, Paul could not hold down a job because of his issues so this would indicate that they provided said car to him.  If his mental illness was so chronic how would he have the ability to drive?  I have two family members who do suffer from mental illness and while if they are not on their medication they surely cannot drive but when they are on it they have no business driving.  People who take anti-psychics and drugs for mental illness have a very distinct look.  It is in their eyes.  Now, I admit I saw this look on Paul but only in pictures taken in court, where it was admitted he was on these types of medication.  At any rate, it is not like he apparently ever had the money to buy his own car, maintain upkeep, or afford insurance and plates so someone was providing for him and by all accounts from the family it was his parents. I find it very difficult to believe them when they claim how mentally ill he was when they are providing him with things that could potentially put the public at large.  Then there is the issue of the $12,000 that he had in his car when he arrived at the Sitton home.  Again, all indications are that this money likely came from the parents. How did he get it?  Was he on their account and able to access it himself?  Why did they allow this if he was so mentally ill?  If he did not have access to it did they give it to him and why?  Another big thing that jumps out at me when it comes to the claims of mental illness there was no indication made that he received any sort of disability for this and that the only financial assistance he got came directly from his parents.  I would think if he was receiving any sort of social security disability that would have been indicated in the many, many things I read.  I also think that if he was receiving this there would not be as many questions surrounding the issue of if he had a mental illness at all.  

As most of us know, whether we agree with it or not, the general legal standard for someone who attempts an insanity (i.e. Mental) plea rests on whether the person knew what they did was wrong at the time for the most part.  I am one of those people that does not necessarily believe that should be used for the standard for everyone but it is a good jumping off spot.  In this case the prosecutors first off claimed premeditation. The guns, the clothing and the money obtained with in the last few days show an effort of planning.  He was quote during the rampage as saying "I have been waiting 20 years to do this" and that can be considered when discussing premeditation. The prosecutors could have easily shown that Paul knew what he was doing was wrong because he had planned an escape. Adding to this, while on the run he attempted to have his license plates hidden presumably so that police would not be able to run them and find him.  He was not Andrea Yates who drowned her children and then called her husband and 9-1-1.  He shot and ran.

Generally that would be the end of this blog as I've discussed the crime, the motive and some of the history but this case is not like other crimes.  As I said earlier some of the relatives sued Michael and Carole Merhige in civil court and while the courts dismissed those claims I want to address that here.  I am always leery when it comes to cases in which the determination of which can have a large affect on other people and any future cases.  Obviously every case that we come across, whether it is criminal or civil is unique in it's own way based on the circumstances.  This case is no different in that aspect.  And while a part of me understands the ruling of the court in not holding the Merhige's responsible due to the lasting effect it could have on people and future cases I also wish that they would have been held responsible.  It was obvious that while Paul may or may not have had a mental illness, there were issues within the family.  There is documentation that there was hostility over the years at least between Paul and one of his sisters.  The Sittons claim that Paul was not invited to their home for the dinner (although they never say that he was specifically not invited either) and did not know that he was coming until they heard Michael Merhige on the phone giving Paul directions to the home. Some can say that they had the right then to refuse to allow him to come if anyone had an issue with him, but let's be honest with ourselves, how many of us would have done that to a family member, especially on a holiday?  In addition to this while obviously the other family members knew at the very least Paul had some issues, Michael and Carole knew that Paul was not taking his medication, something not everyone likely knew, which could have given them more motive to speak up.  Adding to this were the emails that were in the filings from Carole to an unknown source stating that Paul was intending to attend Thanksgiving dinner and her fears, although they may have been offhanded remarks, of something bad happening.  In fairness, it is highly unlikely that even Michael or Carole would have imagined that he would come into the home shooting and that not only would they lose their two daughters, but other family members as well.  There is another thing that I would like to know about this situation that could have also helped me to determine just how Michael and Carole were handling Paul prior to the dinner and just how culpable they could be in the situation. I could never determine if Paul lived with his parents or if he lived on his own (presumably being paid for by his parents).  This could tell us many things.  If he was living on his own and just being supervised by his parents, at the very least financially, then it gives less credence to the mental illness. Granted, it is not impossible that he lived alone and still suffered from mental illness but it would not have been at a level in which he could not function.  Also, if he could not hold a job and his parents were supporting him, why would they not have him living with them?  It would have saved them money obviously.  Were they fearful of him living in their home for a reason? And if they were fearful of him living with them, why would they then invite him to be at this family dinner.  To be fair, he could have very well been living with them (I simply could not determine) but strangely drove separately to the home. Regardless, I do think that Michael and Carole were culpable in some manner in this, whether it not getting him proper care that he may have needed, ignoring issues he may have had until they could not ignore them anymore or maybe he had no issues at all and they were simply enablers.  I am sorry that they lost their other children and it is horrible that they were faced not only with the court actions involving their son, but the civil actions also, but in my opinion they were responsible in some manner for his actions.  I highly doubt that the family members that sued them have much, if anything to do with them now, so maybe between losing their daughters, and with that any chance of having a grandchild, and the relationship with most of the rest of their family was punishment enough.

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