Claude Merritt Sentenced To Nearly 28 Years For The Murder Of Gay Teenager Jason Fox

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On October 4, 2020, 19-year-old Jason Fox’s remains were found in a shallow grave with his hands tied behind his back in Pend Oreille County, Washington State. He was reported missing on Sept. 16. Following the discovery of his remains, four people were arrested for his murder.

Police arrested Kevin Belding, Matthew Raddatz-Freeman, Claude Merritt, Riley Hillestad, and Sean Bellah in connection with the murder. Hillstead, the alleged ringleader of the crime, was charged with nine counts, including first-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping. Merritt and Raddatz-Freeman face similar charges, while Bellah was arrested for providing false or misleading statements in connection with the investigation.

According to multiple reports, Fox was trying to get his life back together in the small northeastern town of Newport on the Idaho border.

He had come out as gay to his family but told others he was bisexual because he felt it might be more acceptable in town.

The teen had experienced problems with acceptance in the conservative town and had experimented with drugs, but was looking forward to attending school again.

It was alleged Fox had been invited to hang out with friends by Merritt on the night he was murdered, but he had reservations. He received assurances Hillstead, would not be joining the group at the Timber River Ranch where his bound and tortured body was eventually discovered. According to Inlander, Fox sent a text message with the address of the ranch to his cousin “just in [case] anything happens to me.” The text would prove to be the last time his family heard from him.

His family immediately reported him missing and when police contacted the suspects the day following Fox’s disappearance, all five gave different versions of the previous evening’s events. Fox’s car was later found abandoned outside Libby, Montana, and his buried body was discovered on the ranch on October 4.

Making matters worse, a memorial in his honor was vandalized with homophobic slurs. Fox’s mother Pepper had been visiting the memorial every night to light a candle.

Fox’s mother, Pepper, believes Jason was killed because he was gay and this was a hate crime.

Last month, a jury found Claude Merritt guilty of kidnapping, beating, and murdering the teen.

Pend Oreille County Prosecutors say Merritt lured Fox to a shop at 22 Yergens. There, he was tied up and beaten, then taken to a 4-foot deep hole and buried there.

In closing arguments, the Pend Oreille County Prosecutor, Dolly Hunt, told the jury they believe Merritt, also known as ‘CL’, played a major role in this murder.

“The testimony was that Claude Merritt kneed Jason in the face in the shop office that night. Claude Merritt stomped on Jason in the back of that side-by-side,” Hunt said. “Claude Merritt is the one that places Jason on his knees at the edge of that grave.”

Merrit’s defense attorney Dennis Morgan insisted none of the evidence admitted in court proved his involvement in these crimes.

“CL’s DNA wasn’t there, CL’s fingerprints weren’t there, CL’s blood was only in that bathroom. The shoes of all four were tested, no evidence was found on CL’s shoes,” Morgan said. “The ranger was searched and examined. There was no evidence connecting CL to Ranger other than he and Jason riding around on it that night having fun.”

Prior to sentencing, the family of Jason gave impact statements. They wanted the judge to give Merritt the maximum sentence for his kidnapping and murder charges.

The judge came to that decision after hearing no remorse in Merritt’s statement.

Jason’s brother, Robert Fox, during an impact statement, shared with the court that he had his favorite memory of his brother tattooed onto his arm.

Jason’s stepmother, Susan Fox, says that they weren’t permitted to see him one last time at the morgue due to the state of his body.

She stated: “The only solace I have in this is knowing that the last words out of my mouth to Jason were I love you, and I am so thankful that I said that.”

Merritt spoke for the first time in court, insisting Jason was his friend and he is innocent.

“I tried to stop it, but then to have a rifle put in my face and say if you do not sit down and shut the hell up you’ll be right next to him. How does that make me feel your honor?” Merritt said.

Judge Lech J. Radzimski said Merritt’s lack of remorse convinced him that the maximum sentence was appropriate.

“When I came out here, I had one idea of what was going to happen and I was waiting for you and I wanted to hear what you were going to say… but your anger this morning, your lack of empathy for the family. You’ve turned this entire thing about you,” Judge Radzimski said. “And I looked for some kind of spark, for lack of a better term, of humanity or decency that you would recognize the people that bared their soul for you this morning… So, ultimately, I do conclude in this situation that the top end is what’s appropriate.”

After the sentencing, Jason’s father, Michael Fox, said: “It doesn’t bring Jason back. It absolutely does not make anything right. But it’s good to know he got the maximum he could get in Washington state and we feel good about that.”

This isn’t over for the Fox Family. The final suspect believed to be involved in the murder of Jason Fox is set to stand trial in May.