KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- Nearly three years after the first reported molestation of a child in the Kaiserslautern Military Community, an airman formerly assigned to Ramstein Air Base has been convicted of committing numerous sexual and kidnapping offenses against four young victims.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael L. Merritt was sentenced to 50 years' imprisonment Tuesday by a military judge at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., according to Air Force officials in Europe and Wyoming.
His length of confinement, however, will be capped at 25 years, due to the terms of a pretrial agreement, according to joint news releases issued by U.S. Air Forces in Europe and F.E. Warren. Air Force officials said there was no other limitation on the sentence.
Merritt's punishment also included reduction to airman basic, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and a dishonorable discharge.
In exchange for the pretrial agreement, Merritt, during a judge-only general court-martial, pleaded guilty to charges involving four children over a period of 10 years, from 2003 to 2013. Those charges included aggravated sexual assault, sexual abuse, sodomy, assault consummated by a battery, kidnapping and attempted kidnapping, the Air Force said.
Merritt was a facility manager for the 319th Missile Squadron at F.E. Warren. He served there in a support role and did not have direct contact with the base's nuclear operations mission, officials said. The pretrial agreement saved four young child victims from having to testify and recount Merritt's abuse in a litigated trial, according to the F.E. Warren news release.
Most of the charges against Merritt stemmed from offenses he committed while he was at Ramstein, an assignment that began in October 2006 and ended in August 2013, when he made a permanent-change-of-station move to F.E. Warren, officials said.
The releases said the offenses occurred on bases in Germany and the U.S. But officials would not say where he was stationed before Germany, citing the ongoing investigation.
An investigation in Germany was launched after a child came forward in January 2012 to say a man had pulled her into his car and molested her in the Ramstein housing area, according to the USAFE news release. Air Force officials said in 2012 that the incident occurred in August 2011.
Several children in Ramstein and Vogelweh housing areas came forward within that year to report kidnapping attempts and molestations, according to the USAFE news release.
The perpetrator lured children in broad daylight inside the gated military communities while reportedly wearing clothing that resembled a military uniform.
Base officials stepped up security patrols, held town hall meetings to spread the word, and tightened child supervision rules, raising the age limit that children could be left unsupervised.
"We are grateful that the families of the KMC area finally have closure on this," Lt. Gen. Tom Jones, USAFE and Air Forces Africa vice commander and KMC commander, was quoted as saying in the news release. "This predator caused a lot of pain and suffering in our community, and we hope this conviction provides healing and a sense of security for all those affected."
Merritt for months eluded detection. Investigators pinpointed Merritt as the sole perpetrator after forensic evidence analyzed by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory matched evidence found on some of the children's clothing, said Lt. Col. Christopher J. Ouellette, Air Force Office of Special Investigations, 13th Field Investigations Squadron commander, according to the USAFE release.
The forensic evidence, combined with witness testimonies and corroborated circumstantial evidence, helped lead to his arrest at F.E. Warren, officials said.
Merritt was taken into military custody last October, after his reassignment to F.E. Warren in August.
USAFE officials said Merritt, while in Germany, lived in Vogelweh housing. At Ramstein, he held a variety of jobs at the 86th Airlift Wing and 435th Munitions Squadron.
The investigation into Merritt's actions are continuing, Ouellette said, and it's believed there could be many more victims. Individuals who may have knowledge of crimes by Merritt, or may have been a potential victim of his or other unknown perpetrators, are urged to contact OSI.
Investigators spent several months conducting more than 600 interviews and collecting more than 250 forensic samples from potential suspects. OSI agents received more than 100 tips from KMC residents, said Special Agent Michael Tischer, 13th FIS, Major Crimes Division.
"Without direct community involvement, leadership support and cooperation from the brave victims, we would not have succeeded in identifying this sexual predator," Tischer was quoted as saying in the release.