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December 21, 2013

Investigators still searching for woman missing since 2004

‘We’re getting ready to put a stone on an empty grave’

Karen Koense said she knew her older sister wouldn’t just walk out on the family — that couldn’t be why 65-year-old Mary Mergel seemed to just vanish from her Murray County home in early 2004.

“Some people thought she just was so depressed she just took off,” Koense said. “That wasn’t my sister. I know my sister, knew my sister, well. She wanted to come home.”

Mergel had left her family and friends in New Jersey a few years earlier to move near Chatsworth after her only son, Paul, moved south with his three children. She sold a successful hair salon to make the move, and when she couldn’t get medical care for her ailing husband at a Veterans Administration clinic locally, she moved him back north to receive care until his passing in early 2004. She drove back to visit monthly, Koense said.

Then, after her husband died, Mergel made a decision, Koense said. She would sell her house on the five acres off Devonwood Lane near Chatsworth and move back home. By sometime in March or April, Koense said, she stopped hearing from her sister. Messages went unreturned. When she was able to reach a family member, she got various stories about her sister being off on a trip to Florida or California. Finally, on May, 30, 2004, family in New Jersey filed a missing persons report with the Murray County Sheriff’s Office.

Officers visited the home to do welfare checks. They discovered her belongings had been packed away. No one could find Mary Mergel. Search teams canvased the neighborhood. Dogs were brought in to find her. Neighbors were interviewed. The house was searched. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation became involved.

Finally, Paul Mergel was charged with several offenses related to cashing Mary Mergel’s Social Security checks after her disappearance. He pleaded guilty to seven counts of first degree forgery and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, went to prison for about a year and was released on probation.

Still, no one seemed to know, or be able to prove, what had happened to Mary Mergel. Authorities continued searching but never found her. Every year, the GBI revisited the case. Family members in New Jersey had Mary Mergel declared legally dead. Neighbors who lived nearby at the time she disappeared moved away.

Then, about two months ago, investigators revisited the case after receiving a tip on where they could find her body. They spent four days searching an area in Murray County. They brought in crime scene specialists and cadaver dogs, but they found nothing.

“We’re getting ready to put a stone on an empty grave because we have no idea where she is,” Koense said. “We miss her. We’ve waited 10 years for something to happen, somebody to find something — and nothing.”

Koense believes someone murdered her sister, and she believes she knows who did it, but she also believes that person may have had an accomplice. Greg Ramey, special agent in charge for the GBI region that includes Murray County, said Mary Mergel disappeared under suspicious circumstances. It’s possible she was murdered, but without a body, nothing can be proven, he said, and it’s also possible that she died of natural causes. No one has been charged in her death. Investigators said that because the investigation is ongoing, they don’t want to publicly say much more than that.

“At this point, we still consider her missing,” Ramey said. “Whether it’s a result of foul play or not, we don’t know. ... Eventually, we feel like with the right information, we feel like we’ll solve this.”

Family members hope something — perhaps Paul Mergel’s arrest or someone coming forward — will eventually lead to authorities finding Mary Mergel. Paul Mergel, 46, of Port Monmouth, N.J., was arrested on drug-related charges in New Jersey earlier this year, officials said. According to area news reports, he was held there on $100,000 bond after authorities learned he was wanted on a probation warrant in Murray County. He was extradited to the Murray County jail on Nov. 21 and remains there without bond.

Assistant Public Defender Betsy Flack said she will represent Paul Mergel in a probation revocation hearing scheduled for Jan. 8 in Murray County Superior Court. He was wanted for failure to report.

Capt. John Cherry of the Murray County Sheriff’s Office said the investigation is ongoing.

Anyone with information on the case is asked to contact Cherry at (706) 695-4592.

Ken Koense, Mary Mergel’s nephew, said staying on top of the case and being able to, in person, press for the deepest investigation possible is difficult to do from hundreds of miles away. He hopes someone nearby can help the family get answers so they can finally have closure.

“There’s not a time when we don’t think about what happened to our aunt, and (we hope) the person we think committed the crime gets justice,” he said.

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