ATLANTA - Imagine you are hurt in a car accident and your lawyer gets you a big settlement. Sounds good. But, what if your lawyer settled your case in secret and kept your share of the money?
That’s what a group of angry clients of a prominent Cobb County attorney believe happened to them.
Tina Sailer, Myrna Evans, and Beverly Braswell share a common bond. All three - hurt in car accidents. All three hired a lawyer, named Richard Merritt, to sue for damages and medical care. All three won settlements.
But, according to a Cobb County police warrant, their lawyer never told them he settled their cases. He was charged with stealing their money. All of it.
Beverly Braswell never saw a dime of her $50,000 settlement. Tina Sailor didn’t receive her $75,000 settlement. Myrna Evans didn’t get her $9,000 settlement.
“I felt betrayed. I felt violated. The lies the deceit. I trusted this person,” said Braswell.
At the time, these women didn't know about each other. But the strangers connected after Tina Sailer began writing negative reviews about Merritt on social media sites like Yelp.
They soon found out they were not alone. And, they found out other alleged victims tried to have Richard Merritt arrested for theft of a settlement check - two years earlier in 2015.
Cobb County Police finally arrested Merritt in January of this year on multiple counts of theft and exploiting the elderly.
Two of his former clients identified in the warrant were in court during a recent bond hearing.
Claire and Ingrid Hanson tried to have Merritt arrested by the Cobb Sheriff's office in 2015. They filed a complain and signed an affidavit. They say they gave investigators a letter spelling out how Merritt "illicitly settled our case" for "$70,000" and kept the money. The sisters told FOX 5 an investigator said he couldn’t make a criminal case.
“Cobb County Sheriff's Office were notified about the first victim in two thousand and fifteen if they would have acted at that time none of us right would be injured,” said Sailers.
A Cobb sheriff's spokesman says the investigator thought the sisters were involved in a civil dispute and the case would be settled in civil court. There was no civil case at the time.
So, Richard Merritt continued to practice law, living what appeared to be a rich life. Complete with his Porshe, and trips posted on his Facebook page that included deep sea fishing trips, Braves baseball, and beach resort getaways.
Beverly Braswell saw it all. She lived in his neighborhood.
“Living large. Most definitely,” said Braswell.
Then, in February of last year, the Hanson sisters tried again. They went to Magistrate court and asked a judge to take out a citizen's warrant against the well-known, well-heeled Cobb attorney. The judge said yes.
That warrant sparked a massive Cobb County sheriff's investigation that led to Merritt's arrest in January.
At a recent bond hearing, Merritt came face to face with a courtroom packed with his alleged victims. 16 victims in all, according to the arrest warrant, and prosecutor Jason Marbutt told the judge those victims’ losses were staggering.
“The court is looking at somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000 of money that was stolen from the victims alleged in this warrant,” said Marbutt.
Merritt’s wife, who has now filed for divorce, spoke.
“I'm in financial ruin, said Jenine Merritt. “He's squandered every cent we had with his income as a lawyer and mine as a doctor.”
In the end, Judge Joyette Holmes granted a $400,000 bond, and the massive theft case against Richard Merritt finally moves forward. Earlier, Merritt voluntarily surrendered his law license, admitting he settled a $75,000 case but didn't give the money to his client. And his alleged victims still struggle to piece their lives back together.
“He's done so much damage to all of us,” said Braswell.
One of the problems they face: Beverly Braswell says doctors and hospitals are pressing her for payment for treating her injuries from the accident, but the money from the settlement is gone. So far, all three women have been told by lawyers they can't get the settlement overturned.