By Tim Eberly
Wesley "Bear" Merrill, a former Hill County resident who was linked to a 1999 double murder in Havre, was sentenced Tuesday to more than 16 years in federal prison on felony drug charges.
Merrill, 19, who is already serving two years at the Montana State Prison for previous parole violations, was convicted in June of conspiring to distribute almost 18 pounds of methamphetamine, with an approximate street value of $800,000. Merrill pleaded guilty to the charge.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Lori Harper Suek, Merrill was the subject of an ongoing investigation since 1997 and is believed to be associated with a high-volume drug ring that includes between 30 and 50 people about 20 of whom have already been charged with drug-related crimes.
"He was dealing with a myriad of people in the Great Falls area thoughout the years," Suek said. "He was dealing drugs since he was a juvenile, probably from 13 or 14 years old, all the way through until we indicted him."
Merrill, who has lived at various times in Havre and Box Elder, was indicted in February on the drug offense, which was unearthed by a multiagency meth investigation named Operation Speed Trap.
"There's not a mean bone in his body," said Box Elder resident Darlene Berger, Merrill's maternal grandmother. "This is really upsetting. I feel really sorry for the kid. He never did half the stuff the judge said he did. If I had the money, I could get him a good lawyer, but I don't."
Eric Andrew Green, 22, of Great Falls was another recent target of the Speed Trap investigation. Green, who Suek said had "minor connections" to Merrill, has been sentenced to 18 months in boot camp following his cooperation with investigators. He was convicted of felony possession with the intent to distribute roughly 50 grams of meth since January.
Though he was not charged, Merrill was connected to the September 1999 slaying of 30-year-olds Kristi Walker and Kevin Caplette, both of Havre. During the double-homicide trial, Assistant Montana Attorney General Joe Thaggard said Merrill instructed Reid Danell, who pleaded guilty to both murders and is serving two life terms, to collect a $2,000 drug debt from Walker. Merrill also threatened Walker with an unloaded shotgun, said Thaggard.
On Jan. 20, 2000, Merrill, then 17, admitted to charges of criminal possession of dangerous drugs with the intent to distribute after he was arrested on Oct. 12, 1999, with three pounds of meth. He was sentenced in July 2000 to three years in the state prison after violating his original terms of probation.
Previously, Merrill admitted on Feb. 6, 1998, to four charges, including reckless driving by eluding and operating a motor vehicle while his license was revoked, after he rolled his car following a police chase. Notably, the suspected leader of the Great Falls drug ring, Victor Saucedo, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in May, was in the overturned vehicle with Merrill.