Disgraced former professor pleads guilty to receiving child pornography
Former Central Michigan University professor William Lord Merrill, 58, pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to receiving child pornography.
According to court documents, Merrill entered into the guilty plea Feb. 20. He faces a minimum of five years in prison, with a possible maximum sentence of 20 years. Sentencing is scheduled for July 11.
The court must also impose a term of supervised release for a minimum of five years and up to life. Merrill will also be required to register as a sex offender, reporting his name, residence address and the names and addresses of any place where he will be, among other information.
One of Merrill's attorneys, Frank Reynolds, said the plea agreement would charge Merrill with one count of indictment instead of the original three.
“He did it because the fact of the matter is he received child pornography,” Reynolds said. “The agreement itself has a maximum amount of 20 years. But, we’re not going to know that until the sentencing.”
Reynolds said sentencing will depend on the guidelines set by Magistrate Judge Charles E. Binder, who took the plea on Thursday.
“We’re getting ready for his sentencing and (will) explain more about his background, because he has no other criminal background. He got his Ph.D and he had some particular traumas in the past,” Reynolds said. “There are a lot of circumstances to not give him the maximum (penalty).”
Merrill's sentencing is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. July 11 before District Judge Thomas L. Ludington in U.S. District Court in Bay City.
Merrill was arrested for one count of possession of child pornography Dec. 19 but has since been charged with two additional counts in federal court.
According to court documents, Merrill knowingly received child pornography on or about July 26, 2003. The items of the pornographic material had been mailed, shipped or transported by a computer.
The defendant knew the material constituted child pornography as defined by Title 18 in the United States Code 2256.
The FBI seized Merrill's hard drive from his CMU office, in addition to the hard drive that contained child pornography. Merrill allegedly possessed more than 65,000 images of child pornography.
Additionally, the U.S. attorney agreed Merrill assisted the authorities in his prosecution by notifying authorities in a timely manner that he intended to plead guilty.
CMU Police Chief Bill Yeagley complimented the cooperation between the university, his department and the FBI.
“I give great credit to the individuals who brought this to light,” Yeagley said. “Especially Detective (Michael) Sienkiewicz on not only how he conducted the investigation, but his partnering with the FBI.”
Sienkiewicz was later recognized for the help he provided when he was given a certificate of recognition from the FBI.
The FBI had located a video file on a hard drive seized from Merrill’s office at CMU after it was discovered by the IT department.
When a warrant was issued on Nov. 5 to search Merrill's Mount Pleasant home and office at CMU, items seized and disposed of included all computers, laptops, iPads, VHS tapes, CDs, DVDs, hard drives, phones, media storage drives, knives, handcuffs, USB flashdrives, iPods and prescription pills, according to court documents.
As previously reported by Central Michigan Life, Merrill was charged Nov. 8 in Isabella County with a four-count felony, consisting of one count of possession of sexually abusive material, one count of distributing or promoting child sexually abusive activity and two counts of using a computer to commit a crime, according to court records.
The investigation began when CMU’s information technology staff noticed a large amount of data being transmitted from a single computer on the network.
After tracking the source of transmission, IT disconnected Merrill’s computer from the Internet in hopes that the user would contact IT for support, according to an affidavit. After further inspection of his computer, an IT worker discovered images and videos of child pornography.
Merrill was scheduled for a preliminary hearing in Isabella County Trial Court on a four-count felony relating to child porn, but federal prosecutors served a warrant for his arrest. He was sent to Bay City.
Merrill resigned from CMU Nov. 5 after being suspended by university officials.