You may have seen him on local and national TV – “Dateline” and “20/20.” For six years he converted new white Ford Crown Victorias into patrol cruisers. As a corrections officer for six years he guarded adults and juveniles. But Knox County Sheriff’s Office Detective Lt. Allen Merritt says he’s just a guy from Halls doing his job and loving his work in his hometown.
Born and reared in Halls, this son of Bobbie and the late Jack A. Merritt is in his 27th year at the KCSO. He, his wife and their two daughters make their home – where else? – in Halls. He graduated from – yep – Halls High School in 1990 and was a 5-8, 155-pound offensive guard, a defensive end and played on the punt and kickoff teams. No. 52. He also wrestled. Tough guys wrestle.
His name may be familiar for the work he did as the lead investigator in solving the November 2016 domestic-violence murder of 16-year-old Central High School cheerleader Emma Walker, who was shot to death in her bed at home in Fountain City in the middle of the night by her ex-boyfriend, William Riley Gaul, then 18.
In May 2018, Gaul was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for 51 years on that single charge. He was sentenced on the remaining charges (stalking, theft, tampering with evidence, reckless endangerment, possession of a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony, and felony murder) later last year.
“The Emma Walker case does not haunt me, but it was a tough one,” he said. “When I went to the house that morning the family was sitting in their living room. Her parents, Mark and Jill, came down to headquarters and we interviewed them. As I was taking their identification information, I realized that I know Mark from high school. We were on the wrestling team. That’s when this case got more personal for me. But I had not seen Mark since high school.”
“When we got the conviction, the case was over for me. But the Walkers have to live with this forever, and they think about her every day. And as a detective there is no greater reward than the family telling me ‘job well done’ when it was all over,” he said, choking up, fighting back tears, his lips quivering. “But it’s really bittersweet. This was the most senseless crime of my career.”
He added: “I got awards and recognition for this case, but we were all working it together. Everyone in our unit should have gotten an award.”
Upon the jury’s finding of guilt by William Riley Gaul on the first-degree murder charge of killing Emma Walker, Knox County District Attorney Charme Allen said:
“Today is about justice for Emma Walker and her family. That goal was achieved because of the hard work of many different people. Courageous citizens came forward, worked with law enforcement, stood with us, and made this trial possible. This trial also would not have been possible without the hard work of the FBI, TBI, Knox County Forensic Center, and the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, especially Lt. Allen Merritt, who worked this case tirelessly from day one.”
He also was the lead detective who investigated charges against a pastor, David Lynn Richards. Richards was convicted in February 2019 on nine felony counts, including rape, incest and sexual battery of his adopted daughter. Last week he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
In 2016 Merritt was promoted to lieutenant and moved from Homicide to the Property Crimes Unit, where he supervises 20 detectives today. The unit investigates an array of crimes – vandalism, theft, burglaries and aggravated burglaries (where lives may be threatened), fraud, identity theft and financial abuse of the elderly. The latter really gets his blood boiling as adult children and other family members steal from their aging parents and grandparents. “Don’t get me started on that,” he said.
This past Friday morning we spent three hours-plus together, talking about his career and him, a detective passionate about the work, about the people he works with and the people he serves.
He was reared working around and in his father’s business in Halls, Jack’s Auto Supply. The family knew a lot of people in Halls, and he listened and watched how his dad interacted with the customers and with people in general. “That’s where I get my gift of gab from, I guess,” he says. “It helps me in this line of work, too.”
He joined the KCSO in 1992 and spent four years as a guard at the East Tennessee Juvenile Detention Center, followed by two years at the Knox County Detention Center. Then in 1998 he attended and graduated from the KCSO Regional Training Academy, followed by six to eight months as a plainclothes officer assisting in high-profile large narcotics and homicide cases. The Merritts’ first baby was on the way then, and he needed regular hours, so off to Fleet Management he went, staying for six years. There, the cars come in and the team at Fleet Management paints them, outfits them with sirens, speakers and whatever else they need to hit the road.
While at Fleet Management, he was promoted to sergeant. In 2007 he was transferred to the Property Crimes Unit as a detective. “I always wanted to be involved in solving crimes, and I enjoy thinking and putting the pieces together,” he said.
One of the first big cases he investigated was the burglary of Enix Jewelry in Halls. The burglars cut a hole in the roof and a hole in the safe. The estimated loss of the complete inventory was $350,000. He worked the case, traced it to a group of Cuban immigrants in Hialeah, Fla. He contacted Florida officers – local, state and FBI – and worked with them all. It took two years to catch and indict the group. They had struck in several Southern states. Merritt finally caught them here in December 2009 trying to burglarize Knox Jewelry & Loan. “We waited for them to cut the hole in the roof and get inside, and then we went in and made the arrests,” he recalls. There were many more details to this case, but it came down to hard work and what some call “gumshoe detective work.”
The nine criminals were indicted and found guilty on 12 counts in both Knox County and Florida jurisdictions.
“That’s where it’s at as a detective – solving the crimes,” he said. “It is very satisfying.”
The work happening today in Property Crimes makes him proud. “Last year we had about 4,800 reports made to the unit and each detective was working about 40 to 50 cases a month,” he explained. “Guess what percentage of the cases we solved – 32 percent. That doesn’t sound that great, right? Well, the national average is 18 percent. Our 32 percent is pretty good in my book.”
In his spare time, Merritt is also the commander of the 12-member KCSO Dive Team. Last Friday afternoon after our interview he was headed out to Bull Run Creek. The team was searching for evidence involved in a shooting. The team recovers drowning victims and looks for all types of potential evidence – cell phones, pagers, weapons of all types, whatever they think will help solve a case.
Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler says he’s known and worked with Merritt for at least 25 years. Here’s what he had to say about the veteran professional: “He’s very dependable, and he’s very much a professional. He’s always there for support and assistance, and he goes above and beyond on everything he does.”
Editor’s Note: This is part of a weekly series – Our Town Heroes – highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-service professionals. Watch for this feature every Monday on KnoxTNToday, and if you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency-services professional we need to feature, please email Tom King or call him at (865) 659-3562.