Missouri Man Sentenced to Life After Teen’s Body Found in Suitcase at Illinois Wildlife Refuge

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ULLIN, IL – A Missouri man, James A. Merritt, 35, of Morehouse, has been sentenced to life in prison in connection to the 2020 death of Haley Decker, an 18-year-old from Normal, Illinois. 

The Illinois State Police (ISP) Division of Criminal Investigation Zone 7 announced the conviction following a collaborative investigation with the Missouri Highway Patrol and other agencies.

Merritt was found guilty on multiple charges, including Second Degree Murder, which led to a life sentence. Additional convictions include Armed Criminal Action, for which he received a 20-year sentence; Tampering with Physical Evidence, resulting in a 4-year sentence; and Trafficking for the Purpose of Sexual Exploitation, earning him a 5-year sentence plus a $25,000 fine.

According to Illinois State Police an investigation first began after Decker’s body was discovered concealed inside a suitcase in the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Pulaski County, Illinois, in March 2020. Advanced forensic techniques and digital evidence connected Decker to Merritt’s Missouri residence. This multi-agency operation underscored the vital role of inter-state law enforcement cooperation in solving crimes that cross state lines.

Merritt’s conviction on January 26, 2024, followed by his sentencing on March 13, 2024, closes a pivotal chapter in the tragic case of Haley Decker’s death, offering some measure of justice to her family and the community.

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