One thing not to be thankful for this Thanksgiving is that nowhere is safe from violence and murder, especially not an idyllic Thanksgiving dinner, complete with Christmas carols, in a wealthy Florida suburb.
On Thanksgiving day in 2009 a 35-year-old Florida man named Paul Michael Merhige surprised his family by attending a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by his cousin in a gated community in Jupiter. There were 16 members of the Merhige family in attendance. Paul had a history of not getting along with his family and had even been forced to stay away by a restraining order his sister took out. But Paul’s parents took pity on him and didn’t want him to be alone on Thanksgiving, even if other family members had explicitly said they were uncomfortable. When Paul asked where Thanksgiving was being held that year, they invited him. Anyone who has witnessed someone becoming the black sheep of their family for being gay while the uncle that molested children in the family continues to be invited to dinner can understand the dynamics of how this happened.
In preparation for this family meal, Paul spent $2,000 on guns and ammunition and withdrew $12,000 from his bank account. He told the salesman who helped him purchase a scope for a bolt-action Remington 700 rifle that he was going hunting.
While the family prepared dinner that day, Paul’s mother and sister had a conversation about why he’d asked to be invited to dinner. Carole, Paul’s mother, said “I hope he doesn’t come and kill us all tonight.” Paul’s sister Lisa agreed, saying “It came to my mind, but don’t say that to Dad because Dad would get upset that we had such ideas.”
Family members said Paul was quiet at dinner until he went to his car and returned with a gun and started shooting.
That evening, Merhige killed his 76-year-old aunt Raymonde Joseph, his 33-year-old twin sisters Carla Merhige and Lisa Knight, and his first cousin once removed, 6-year-old Makayla Sitton. Lisa Knight was pregnant at the time. Makayla was asleep in her bed but Paul deliberately went up to her room and shot her three times.
As he gunned down his family members, Paul said “I’ve been waiting 20 years to do this.” Surviving family members said there was no warning or argument that took place that day. Paul Merhige fled the scene and went off the grid, living on the cash he’d withdrawn, until he was caught in January 2010. In 2011 he pled guilty in order to avoid the death penalty. He is now serving 7 life sentences in prison.
Paul Merhige had been given a privileged upbringing in the Miami area. He was an honors student and athlete at Gulliver Prep school before getting a degree from the University of Miami. However, afterwards Paul never got a job and supported himself.
Richard Gelles is a sociologist who has written over 20 books on family violence. He says the holidays can be a dangerous time because these men are confronted with economic and relationship stressors more than other times of the year. Gelles says that in the case of Paul Merhige, people who “return to kill their family members” can be motivated by failing to successfully live on their own. When they are confronted with the prosperity and success of others they view as less intelligent or weaker, their self-esteem cannot recover.
These people are often young men, socially isolated, and have a low socio-economic status.