NEW PALESTINE, Ind. – A tip from a witness and a Speedy Rewards card helped police track down a suspect in a deadly May hit-and-run in Hancock County.
Timothy Merrill, 44, is charged with leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death, theft, leaving the scene of accident where the defendant has a prior conviction and leaving the scene of an accident with bodily injury.
According to court documents, the crash happened around 8:15 a.m. on May 18 near the intersection of 600 West and U.S. 52.
Gerald Jensen was driving his wife, June, to a heart center appointment in Carmel when a silver SUV struck the back of their gold Chevy Equinox. The vehicle turned north on 600 West and drove off, Jensen said. He believed it was a Chevy Trailblazer.
He asked his wife if she was OK, to which she replied, “I think so.” But June Jensen became very quiet during the ride and didn’t act like herself, Gerald Jensen told investigators.
Once they arrived at the heart center in Carmel, Gerald helped his wife out of the car and noticed she was struggling more than normal, having apparently lost the ability to maintain her balance or walk.
The Jensens were immediately directed to the emergency room. June was given a CT scan and was diagnosed with a brain bleed. At 11:42 a.m., she was taken off life support and pronounced dead.
Prior to the crash, she’d shown no signs of a brain injury. A preliminary autopsy later found she’d died from blunt force trauma to the head after suffering a large contusion to her brain, according to court documents.
Photos of the Jensens’ Equinox showed it sustained heavy damage to the rear end. The back hatch had been pushed in above the rear bumper. Police also noticed silver paint on the Equinox’s body from the collision.
Police asked nearby businesses for surveillance footage, but none of the businesses had cameras that reached the intersection where it happened. In an appeal for help, the New Palestine Police Department mentioned the crash and a white or gray SUV with “heavy front end damage” in a May 19 Facebook post.
The next day, a woman who’d seen the Facebook post contacted police and said she’d witnessed the crash. She saw a vehicle matching the description pull out of a Speedway in front of her on U.S. 52. She described the driver’s behavior as erratic and said the vehicle appeared to be going 70 mph. At the intersection of 600 West and U.S. 52, the SUV came to a complete stop before jolting forward and hitting the vehicle in front of it, she said.
The witness said the silver SUV then went into reverse and headed north on 600 West. She followed the SUV for a time but couldn’t get the license plate number. She was certain the SUV was a silver, older model Chevrolet Trailblazer and believed it had an “In God We Trust” plate.
Now aware of the driver’s stop at the Speedway gas station on U.S. 52, police looked at surveillance footage from the store. The footage showed a silver Chevrolet Trailblazer had stopped for gas around 8:05 on the morning of the crash. The driver was a white male wearing “a tan/camouflage sweatshirt, black hat, black Nike tennis shoes with a white check-mark and glasses,” according to court documents.
The man bought coffee, some Dayquil caplets and cigarettes from inside the store. He’d also prepaid for $20 in gas using a debit card and his Speedy Rewards card. After pumping gas, the man grabbed a bag of ice without paying, police said.
Investigators showed a surveillance image of the Trailblazer to the witness, who was certain it was the same vehicle. As the crash had not yet happened when the footage was recorded, the Trailblazer had no visible damage.
Police used the debit card information as well as information from Speedway’s corporate office to identify the man as Timothy Merrill. His license inquiry from the BMV returned as “suspended infraction,” police said.
Investigators scoured Facebook to learn more about Merrill. They identified his wife and learned he owned a construction business. Pictures posted on the Facebook page for Merrill’s business showed him wearing the same clothing as the man seen on the Speedway surveillance footage. Another picture showed a Trailblazer matching the one from the surveillance video. The address for the business also matched the address of Merrill’s wife, according to court documents.
When police went to the address, they found a silver Chevrolet Trailblazer with front end damage that was visible from the road. Police obtained a search warrant on May 20 and discovered the Trailblazer had the wrong license plate on it; the plate instead went to a vehicle belonging to Merrill’s wife, police said. An “In God We Trust” plate—the one that actually belonged to the Trailblazer—was in the back seat of the SUV. Police had the vehicle towed as evidence.
Investigators said damage to the Trailblazer was consistent with damage to the back of the Equinox. “Duct tape had been recently placed on the front end of the Trailblazer,” police said, adding that silver spray paint had also been applied to the front bumper.
Police said they initially had trouble interviewing Merrill, who said he often worked out of state. Police described him as “uncooperative” throughout the process, according to court documents. Multiple meetings were scheduled with police only for them to be canceled.
Police did eventually find Merrill, who appeared via video in his initial hearing this week. He entered a plea of not guilty, with his next court appearance scheduled for next month.