UPDATE by CLAIRE GALOFARO | Bristol Herald Courier
BRISTOL, Tenn. – A city man was arrested Saturday, accused of raping a young girl in 1985 – half of his lifetime ago.
Freddie Merritt, 50, of Bristol, Tenn., was 25 years old 25 years ago, when the rape is said to have occurred. He was charged Saturday with aggravated rape, as it would have been classified in 1985, since the independent charge of child rape did not appear in the Tennessee Code until 1989.
In November 1985, a 7-year-old girl told her mother that six months earlier a friend of the family sexually assaulted her, according to Sullivan County Sheriff’s Lt. Bobby Russell. Her mother, who would doggedly pursue the case for more than two decades, contacted authorities.
Russell said he is not sure why there were no charges after the first investigation, but he suggested that since months had passed there was no physical evidence.
He said the case file contains only a social worker’s records and the statement of the 7-year-old.
That girl is now in her early 30s and lives out of state.
Around two years ago, the girl’s mother convinced Merritt to talk to her, under the guise of letting bygones be bygones. He didn’t know she was tape recording their discussion and admitted the rape, Russell said.
Tennessee is one of 40 states that legally requires just one party of a conversation to be aware of a recording device, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The mother ushered the taped confession to the Sheriff’s Office, which reopened the case with the new information.
The two-year investigation that followed primarily circled around how – and if – a man can be prosecuted for a 25-year-old case.
Aggravated rape, in 1985, included child rape, a Class X felony that had no statute of limitations, according to Sullivan County Assistant District Attorney Amber Massengill. Today, child rape is a Class A felony, which has a 15-year statute of limitations.
Last week, a Sullivan County grand jury handed down a sealed indictment of aggravated rape. If convicted, Merritt can choose to be sentenced based on 1985 guidelines or those from today. Then, a Class X felony of child rape was punishable by up to life in prison. Now, as a Class A felony, the code only specifies a minimum sentence of 25 years.
Merritt was arrested early Saturday and taken to the Sullivan County Jail. He was released the same day on a $50,000 bond and awaits a hearing at 9 a.m. Feb. 12.
Russell said Merritt has no criminal record, and has not been named as a subject in any other sex abuse cases.
A man that answered the door at Merritt’s home Monday afternoon, down a winding road off Bristol Caverns Highway, said he was not home. Merritt also did not return an evening phone call seeking comment.
Police asked that his street name, which the Bristol Herald Courier usually publishes, be withheld to avoid identifying the victim.
Russell said this case is the oldest he’s been involved with.
“It happens,” he said. “But it certainly doesn’t happen every day. There are cases all the time that, for whatever reason, can’t be prosecuted.”
Investigators in Sullivan County got a break in a nearly 25-year old case.
Sullivan County investigators arrested Freddie Merritt on Friday. They charged him with aggravated rape.
The charge stems from an incident involving a 7-year old girl that allegedly took place more than 2 decades ago.
Investigators reopened the case after they got new information from a family member.
Merritt is free on a $50,000 bond.