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Air Force sergeant gets prison in child-sex case

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. » An Air Force sergeant faces 25 years in military prison after pleading guilty to charges he sexually molested girls in Germany and the United States.

Officials at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne and Ramstein Air Base in Germany announced Thursday that a military judge sentenced Tech. Sgt. Michael L. Merritt earlier this week in Wyoming.

Merritt pleaded guilty to military charges including sexual assault and kidnapping. His guilty pleas cover crimes against four girls, ages 5 to 14, from 2003 through 2013.

A release from Ramstein Air Base in Germany states military investigators identified Merritt as the perpetrator in the abduction and molestation of the children there after analyzing forensic evidence on clothing.

Lt. Gen. Tom Jones, vice commander of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe, issued a statement saying the Air Force is grateful that the affected families finally have closure.

"This predator caused a lot of pain and suffering in our community, and we hope this conviction provides healing and a sense of security for all those affected," Jones said.

Capt. Eydie Sakura, Air Force spokeswoman at F.E. Warren, said Thursday that Merritt transferred to the nuclear missile base on the outskirts of Wyoming’s capital city last August and was arrested in October. He was assigned to the 319th Missile Squadron.

Merritt faced a General Court Martial before a judge on Monday and Tuesday at F.E. Warren. Air Force legal records show Merritt’s guilty pleas included admitting he committed sex crimes last fall against a girl in Cheyenne.

F.E. Warren is one of three Air Force bases in the U.S. that houses intercontinental ballistic missiles. Sakura said Merritt was a facility manager before his arrest and didn’t have direct contact with nuclear missiles at the base.

Sakura said the Air Force Office of Special Investigations probed a number of allegations regarding incidents involving U.S. military dependent children and one German national child both on and off Ramstein Air Base. Merritt’s guilty pleas only addressed offenses involving U.S. military dependent children, she said.

"His access to children was strictly off-duty," Sakura stated in a written response to questions from The Associated Press. "He did not have a job or responsibilities with childcare, education or direct work-related contact with children. He also did not do any volunteer work either."

Sakura said she was not allowed to release Merritt’s age. According to the written statement she provided, Merritt held a variety of jobs at the 86th Airlift Wing and 435th Munitions Squadrons after arriving at Ramstein in October 2006. His positions include work as a munitions inspector.

Sakura said she couldn’t release information on where Merritt had been stationed before going to Germany, but she said he had been stationed somewhere in the continental United States.

The military judge hearing Merritt’s case sentenced him to serve 50 years, but Sakura said his sentence will be capped at 25 years under a plea agreement he reached with prosecutors before his court hearing. The pre-trial agreement saved the four young victims from having to testify at trial, she said.

Merritt was stripped of his rank, forfeited all pay and will receive a dishonorable discharge. Merritt will be transferred to military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., Sakura said.

A series of AP reports last year documented training failures, low morale, deliberate violations of security rules, leadership lapses and other missteps in the U.S. military’s nuclear missile corps. The AP also disclosed an unpublished study that found evidence of "burnout" and frustration among missile launch officers and ICBM security forces.

In response, top military officials have taken steps they say are intended to restore public confidence in the nuclear force and ensure the weapons are under competent control.

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