Although the Houston Chronicle reported the basic details of a three-hour standoff outside a business in the 2800 block of Antoine July 2, Hair Balls learned today that the man who barricaded himself and at least three employees inside the building was John A. Merritt, owner of Public Safety Services, Inc.
Merritt has been charged with misdemeanor assault, for allegedly striking an employee with a police-issue flashlight.
Michael Smith, the employee in question, told Hair Balls today that Merritt called him into a room that morning, locked the door, and told him to empty his wallet. Smith replied that not only did he not have any money, but he was still waiting on $450 in back pay.
"He said, 'I'll smash your fucking brains in,'" Smith said of Merritt. And, he said, he had good reason to believe it. He said Merritt had assaulted him once before, and was also a verbally abusive boss who knew he could easily exploit his employees -- parolees who believed Merritt could have them back in prison with one phone call.
Smith said Merritt eventually swung the flashlight at him; Smith blocked the blow with his hand and fled the building, heading about three blocks to a gas-station pay phone, where he called 911. After the first officer could not get into the office, SWAT was summoned, and the property manager was called in to bring a key.
It wasn't Merritt's first run-in with the law. Harris County District Court records show the Tennessee native pleaded guilty in 1988 to a charge of evading arrest in connection with a DWI. And according to two other criminal databases, a John A. Merritt with the same date of birth and phsyical description spent two years in a Tennessee prison in the mid-1990s for coercion of a witness. (Hair Balls called Merritt's mother in Johnson City, TN, but she said Merrit has never been to prison, so...)
And in 2001, the Texas Attorney General's and Harris County Attorney's offices sued another Merritt-run telemarketing company for alleged deceptive telemarketing practice while soliciting on behalf of the Harris County Deputies' Organization.
According to the Texas AG's Office, "The defendants engaged in fundraising efforts under the banner of stopping domestic violence, helping widows and children of slain officers, and drug awareness, but they also used the name Toys for Tots to attract donations. The telemarkets also identified themselves falsely as law enforcement officers. No evidence has surfaced to prove that any proceeds raised from these efforts actually benefitted those in need."
Smith and another ex-employee told Hair Balls that Public Safety Services collected 20 percent of funds raised. Merritt was also eligible for a tax write-off by hiring parolees who were referred to him by halfway houses throughout Houston.
Smith said he started working for Merritt in September 2009, after getting out of prison for violating probation in connection with a third DWI. He says Merritt often addressed his fellow ex-con brethren as "you fuckin' loser," and politely implored them to "get on that goddamn phone and get me some money." (Given such Christian behavior, is it any surprise that, on Merritt's Facebook page, he claims to be a big fan of the Bible?).
Smith's minimum-wage payment was enough to get a room at a downtown flophouse -- although now that his boss was arrested for allegedly beating him with a 14-inch aluminum flashlight, his employment status is in limbo, which means he may be homeless soon.
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"He feeds off unfortunates," Smith said, adding later, "He's got my world turned upside-down. I'm in big trouble because of this guy."
Merritt's recent Facebook posts describe contentious divorce and child custody proceedings with his wife, whom he claims broke into his business in May. In a June 5 post, Merritt wrote that he hired a "big shot private investigator...and we are going after everyone involved in the recent conspiracy to harm me and our company. The ones who committed crimes are having charges filed on them. And for the last few weeks there has been only one set of footprints in the sand...."
Another May post -- one that sort of gave us the willies -- describes what Merritt calls a "break-in" at a Kingwood home he owns. "Only they had a key, so there was not forced entry. They had the nerve to sit at my computer station and google search and leave odd sounding generic label cigarette butts in my ash trays. They sure were right when they said the devil never rests [sic]."
We put a call in to Dean Goodrick, president of the Houston Police Patrolmen's Union, to see if he has any comment, so we'll let you know if we hear back. We also messaged Merritt via Facebook (no working number was available) and will update if we hear back.