SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – The family of an Emery County man who was murdered in 1998 hoped the person responsible for his death would never leave prison. But that hope recently turned to disbelief when during his first plea for freedom, his killer was granted parole.

That man, Scott Joseph Merrill, 53, is set to walk out of the Utah State Prison on January 4, 2024, after serving 25 years for the death of Charles Watterson, 62.

In what friends and family call a senseless killing, Watterson was ambushed while working on a road in the San Rafael desert just outside of Green River on October 29, 1998.

According to court documents, Merrill, who at age 29 was homeless at the time, had been camping in the same area Watterson was working. Merrill shot Watterson twice from a distance, got closer, and emptied 50 rounds into a grader before shooting Watterson seven times in the back.

Documents state at the time of the shooting, Merrill suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. He told police he shot and killed Watterson on what he believed was a commandment from God, blaming his medication, Zoloft, for causing delusions.

According to documents, Merrill then robbed him of all his belongings.

It was a tragedy that changed the future of the Watterson family forever.

“It was a hard time, my mom immediately had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital,” Charles Watterson’s son Lonnie Watterson stated. “It was just, it was chaos. It was just complete chaos.”

Merrill was charged with several felonies, but he pleaded “no-contest” to one first-degree felony count of aggravated murder to avoid the death penalty or a sentence of life without parole.

Merrill was eventually sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. And while the Watterson family understood this meant he could someday be a free man; they were under the impression it more than likely would never happen.

“The way this worked they brought us to the capitol when his hearing was going on and said hey we’ve got him ready, he’ll make a deal and it would be with the possibility of parole,” said Lonnie Watterson “But the big thing we were told at that time was that the parole board had more power than any other stay (sic), which they do, and that they would tell him to go away and never come back.”

Merrill’s first hearing with the State of Utah Board of Pardons and Parole was on November 22, 2022.

During the hearing Madison Watterson, Charles Watterson’s granddaughter, spoke directly to Merrill, recalling stories about the man she never got to meet.

“I’ve read Facebook comments from people that lived near him about his admirable character,” said Madison Watterson. “I have heard from my family that he was the kindest and gentlest soul they have ever known. I’ve heard that he was a huge family man and a phenomenal dad. As I’ve gone through my life hearing these beautiful testimonies regarding the kind of person my grandfather was, I have had my heart repeatedly broken, knowing these are only things I will only ever hear. I will never get to meet the man from my favorite childhood story, and that is because of you.”

She then reminded Merrill of why she wanted the parole board to never let him go free.

“You have never shown an ounce of remorse for the heinous crimes you committed, but rather you stand by what you did. That day you made the decision to rob my family. You stole a life that was so meaningful to so many. You have made every family’s worst nightmare a reality for mine.”

The Watterson family then made their pleas to the parole board to not let Merrill out of prison stating they do not know if he will have delusional ideologies that could potentially lead him to kill again.

When asked by the board about the events of the shooting, Merrill said he remembered most of it.

“What I perceived was that I was shooting at who I thought was Satan,” said Merrill. “That is not to in any way characterize Mr. Watterson, that’s simply what I was perceiving. I only thought that I was defending myself. I know that sounds ridiculous now, but my beliefs and my perceptions at that time were very clouded.”

Merrill then stated he was disgusted with his actions that day and that he was ashamed that he allowed his mind to tell him what he thought was real.

“There is no justification for what I did,” said Merrill.

Merrill addressed the family during the hearing stating he feels “profound remorse” and wanted to make sure “he expressed how so sorry he was for what he did.”

“You deserve to hear that from me,” said Merrill.

Merrill also stated during his hearing that he only blames himself.

“I don’t blame the military, I don’t blame the experiences or trauma that I experienced in the Middle East during the Gulf War, Somalia,” stated Merrill. “I don’t blame my parents, my family. I don’t blame anybody else or anything else other than myself. I blame myself. I made poor choices. I neglected my mental health. I neglected paying attention to myself.”

It took a few weeks for the parole board to make their decision. They contacted Lonnie Watterson’s oldest brother to deliver the news they were giving Merrill a chance at freedom.

“They let the family know far in advance before they make the release, or make it known and so they wanted to give us a chance to settle into that, I don’t know if you ever settle into that idea,” said Lonnie Watterson. “For it to be the first time we were shocked. We were absolutely shocked it’s just unbelievable for us right now.”

ABC4 reached out to the parole board to get a better understanding of how they make their decisions. Unable to discuss Merrill’s case specifically, they reiterated there are several factors that go into their decisions, and they understand that no matter what the outcome is, someone is going to be upset. We were then directed to their website where it states:

“Decisions are based on a careful review of material in the offender’s file, including, but not limited to, information from the sentencing judge, the Department of Corrections, pre- and post-sentence and institutional reports, victim input, recommendations from the prosecuting and defense attorneys, and recommendations from law enforcement agencies. Information may also be received from the offender, the offender’s family and personal acquaintances, and any other individual, agency or entity which provides relevant information.”

For now, the Watterson family continues to remember the man they love through his memories and legacy of kindness and selflessness.

“There are very few people who can say they have never heard their parents say a curse word but that was the case with him,” said Lonnie Watterson. “I don’t know if I could ever measure up to who he was.