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Former investigator in Faria murder case accused of blackmail

Mike Merkel is charged with stalking and harassing a detective looking into police misconduct.

In the ongoing sprawling saga in which Pam Hupp is at the center, another shoe has dropped. Mike Merkel, a former Lincoln County, Missouri sheriff’s investigator who worked on the initial Betsy Faria murder investigation, was charged Tuesday with stalking and harassing a current detective. In 2021, Lincoln County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Wood launched an internal investigation into possible police misconduct during the original case. Detective Randy Lambert was leading the misconduct investigation for the sheriff’s office.

According to the probable cause statement, in March 2022, Randy Lambert received multiple anonymous text messages including photos of him dining at a restaurant and pictures of his patrol car in the parking lot. The message read in part, "I have video of you drinking and getting into your county car. We are watching you closely. you [sic] should stop throwing stones at glass houses or yours will come down first and fast… Here's a couple of pics for starters."

Lambert reported the messages to law enforcement who reviewed surveillance video from the restaurant the night the texts were sent. According to the probable cause statement, Mike Merkel and his wife, Becky Merkel, also a former sheriff’s office employee, are seen apparently taking photos of Lambert’s patrol car in the parking lot.

Additionally, investigators traced the phone number used to send the anonymous messages. The texts were sent via a “burner phone” app that was downloaded on the government-issued phone of a DEA agent. That agent is allegedly Mike Merkel’s brother, Kevin Merkel. Court documents state, “Cellular records plainly show Kevin, Mike, and Becky Merkel were acting in concert and collusion to photograph, video record, and threaten the victim with releasing the captured media.” Becky Merkel and Kevin Merkel were also charged in the case.

“The level of arrogance associated with this type of action shocks me,” Prosecuting Attorney Mike Wood told Dateline. “I’m also surprised there was involvement with a federal agent.”

Mike Merkel was heavily involved in the Betsy Faria murder investigation and was a key witness who testified against her husband, Russ Faria, in both the 2013 and 2015 trials. Merkel was one of the individuals being investigated as part of the internal review and according to the prosecutor, Merkel knew that.

“We believe the motive was to prevent the internal investigation from moving forward,” said Wood.

Despite that alleged effort on Merkel’s part, the investigation is continuing.

“We had always suspected that there was corruption involved with the sheriff’s office at that time and this particular instance reaffirms our belief that these people were willing to do things that are criminal in nature in order to continue to cover wrongdoing that occurred in the past,” prosecutor Wood said. “The legal term is ‘consciousness of guilt’ and what I would emphasize is that you don’t blackmail people for no reason. You blackmail them because you did something wrong.”

Dateline contacted the attorney representing Mike and Becky Merkel. He said he had no comment at this time. Dateline was unable to reach Kevin Merkel for comment.

Prosecutor Wood said his office has no evidence that Detective Randy Lambert was impaired while driving his patrol car on the night the threatening messages were sent.

This saga began December 27, 2011, when Russ Faria returned home to discover his wife Betsy stabbed to death on their living room floor. Betsy’s friend Pam Hupp was the last known person to see her alive and gave multiple statements to police disparaging Russ.

Russ was eventually charged with Betsy's murder in 2012. Hupp went on to testify against him at his trial in November 2013. He was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison.

Russ Faria’s conviction was later overturned.

At his retrial before another judge in November 2015, Faria’s defense attorney, Joel Schwartz, pointed to Hupp as the person with the motive and opportunity to kill Betsy. Hupp was not called by either side to testify. This time, Faria was found not guilty. Leah Askey (now Chaney), the Lincoln County prosecutor at the time, who led the state's case against Russ at both trials, continued to maintain that Russ was Betsy's killer.

Then, in August 2016, Hupp shot and killed a man she claimed had accosted her in the driveway of her O’Fallon, Missouri home, demanding “Russ’s money” and threatening to kill her.

Investigators determined that the man, Louis Gumpenberger, was not an intruder but was instead an unwitting participant in a scheme Hupp had devised to frame Russ Faria and portray him as a violent person.

According to investigators, Gumpenberger, who had a brain injury, was approached by Hupp posing as a Dateline producer. Investigators believe Hupp lured Gumpenberger into her car with a bogus promise of money to re-enact a 911 call for an upcoming episode, something Dateline would never do.

A week after the incident, Hupp was charged with Gumpenberger's murder. In a St. Charles County, Missouri courtroom in the summer of 2019, Hupp entered an Alford plea in the case allowing her to avoid a death-penalty trial. Without admitting guilt, Hupp acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict her of killing Gumpenberger. She was sentenced to life in prison.

That case prompted the then newly elected Lincoln County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Wood to reopen Betsy Faria's murder case, which eventually led to Hupp being charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action in Betsy’s death.

Pam Hupp has repeatedly denied having any involvement in Betsy Faria’s murder.