Man beaten on Lamberton Street dies in hospital
The man who was brutally beaten while walking home earlier this month has died in the hospital. He was very active in Trenton’s arts and music community, and his death has saddened all who knew him.
“He was the kind of guy who makes the city of Trenton special,” TC Nelson, owner of Trenton Social, told The Trentonian after hearing the news Thursday. “He was supportive of everything and everyone who was trying to do something positive in the city.”
Stephen Merrill, 60, was brutally beaten around 3 a.m. August 2 in the 900 block of Lamberton Street. He suffered a brain bleed, a collapsed lung, facial fractures, a broken arm and broken ribs. Merrill died in the hospital Wednesday after being taken off of life support. An autopsy to determine the official cause and manner of his death is scheduled for Friday.
Jonathan Weathers, 25, was arrested last week and charged with attempted murder and robbery in connection with the beating. His charges will likely be upgraded to murder.
“Stephen was well-known and well-liked by everyone who hangs out at Trenton Social,” Nelson said. “He was a really nice guy and everyone’s upset about the incident. They’re left with a big question mark: How does this happen to such a nice guy? It seems like it was just a random act of violence, and it makes no sense.”
At Weathers’ bail hearing Wednesday, prosecutors said his girlfriend provided an eyewitness account detailing how he beat Merrill within inches of his life, then stole his wallet, cash, a Samsung phone and a Fitbit watch. Prosecutors say the woman’s statement is corroborated, in part, by surveillance video.
Prosecutors say Weathers was driving his girlfriend’s Nissan Maxima on South Broad Street when he saw Merrill walking alone. Weathers asked his girlfriend what she “thought about him,” prosecutors say, and she told Weathers not to rob him.
Weathers then got mad at his girlfriend, cursed at her, and drove the car to a side street, where he parked and jumped out of the vehicle. Prosecutors say he told the woman to switch to the driver’s seat while he approached the victim.
The woman told police she saw Weathers hit Merrill, and that they both fell onto the sidewalk, out of view. Weathers then stole Merrill’s property, ran back to the car and told his girlfriend to drive.
Merrill was left unconscious on the ground to die, officials say, but the man’s neighbors found him and called police.
“This is terrible,” city artist and Executive Director of Artworks Lauren Otis said via text message Thursday morning after hearing Merrill died.
“Stephen was an active member of the Trenton Photo Club,” Chris Marinari said. “He was a great guy. Trenton needs more people like him that are enthusiastic about the future of the city and how we can make it better. But because of some random, senseless act, we now have one less. It’s a very sad day.”
Nelson said Merrill was at Trenton Social on the evening before the brutal beating, but left the bar sometime before midnight.
“I remember seeing him at my place the night before, but the incident happened much later,” Nelson said. “We were cooperative with the police investigation and tried to help them piece together the timeline. But Stephen wasn’t here until closing time. I saw him here around 10 or 11 p.m. I don’t know where he went after that.”
According to prosecutors, at some point during the escape after the beating, Weathers switched seats with his girlfriend and drove to a gas station, where he used Merrill’s credit card to purchase cigarettes and gas.
Later, Weathers unsuccessfully tried to burn Merrill’s wallet, and then stashed the victim’s cellphone in the bushes outside of his girlfriend’s home, according to prosecutors.
Weathers eventually disposed of the cellphone by throwing it out of a car window, and he tossed Merrill’s wallet into the sewer, prosecutors said.
Detective Sgt. Anthony Manzo of the Violent Crimes Unit later watched surveillance footage from the night of the beating and recognized Weathers as the suspect. Manzo knew Weathers from previous encounters in the city. Weathers was arrested Aug. 10, after police saw him driving the Nissan Maxima, which was captured in the surveillance video.
When police stopped the vehicle, they arrested Weathers in connection with active local warrants. Further investigation developed enough probable cause to charge Weathers in connection with the robbery.
Weathers has been arrested four times for various offenses ranging from aggravated assault to drug distribution. He has three felony convictions and has served prison time — most recently in 2013, prosecutors said.
When he attacked Merrill, prosecutors say, Weathers was out on bail after pleading guilty to a domestic violence charge involving his girlfriend — the same woman who gave police a statement about the robbery. Weathers was not supposed to be with the woman at the time of the crime because she had a restraining order against him, prosecutors said.
In the domestic violence case, Weathers was accused of punching and slapping the woman, and then stealing her cellphone. He was charged with robbery and burglary, but under terms of a plea deal he admitted only to the latter. He was expected to receive a sentence that would have kept him out of jail, but now faces the possibility of life in prison if he is convicted on murder charges.
Weathers’ attorney said he did not intend to kill Merrill.
Nelson said Merrill has grown kids who live outside of the city, but often visited Trenton Social with their father. Nelson described Merrill as an avid photographer who loved children and the outdoors.
“He was big into photography and took some great pictures of my son,” Nelson said. “He loved kids, and he was always riding his bike or kayaking on the river. He was supportive of everything that was going on in the city music-wise and art-wise. He was involved and he was plugged in.”
Weathers is being held in the county jail. His bail was set at $500,000 for the robbery and attempted murder charges, which will likely be upgraded.
— Trentonian staff writer Isaac Avilucea contributed to this report.