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Editorial: NY police corruption a cautionary tale for all

Earl Robert “Butch” Merritt Jr. is a controversial native of the Belle area. He claims he was molested by a Charleston priest years ago. He claims he was an informant for Washington police against fellow gays in the 1970s and passed along a tip about the impending Watergate break-in that doomed the Nixon administration.

And now he’s the subject of a long New York Times expose of police “narc” tactics. Here’s the account from the July 2 newspaper:

In the 1990s, Merritt lived at a decrepit New York hotel, the Kenmore, that was filled with drug addicts, mental patients, ex-convicts, prostitutes and petty dope peddlers. Police recruited him as an undercover agent to make “buys” from fellow residents. He says officers also told him to frame many hotel occupants.

“I planted drugs, I planted guns, I make false reports,” he told the Times. “I was given a list — little stars by the list of tenants who I was supposed to set up … They would tell me which rooms to target, and I would slip crack behind a mattress or under the sink.”

Police even told him to start small fires in rooms, so firefighters would rush in — and dope would be found. Merritt was paid $50 per arrest and $100 when he testified before a judge.

“Prosecutors guaranteed Mr. Merritt that he would not have to testify in public,” the Times wrote. “They had suspects over a barrel: Serve six months in jail and leave the hotel — or we’ll imprison you for 20 years.”

Working from the informant’s evidence in 1994, a large police team swooped onto the hotel, kicked in doors and arrested wagonloads of residents. “I’d say 80 percent were innocent,” Merritt estimated.

As for his frame-ups, he added: “I’m a nasty son-of-a-bitch.” As for informants like himself, he said: “We ruin lives.”

Two decades have passed since the Kenmore raid. It’s probably too late to find any of the wrongful arrest victims and void their convictions or pay them compensation.

But his account is ominous. West Virginia narcotics agencies must establish strong controls to guard against faked evidence.

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