Bellingham son of Watergate prosecutor recalls his father with mix of sadness, pride


William Merrill

William Merrill, shown in about 2008, was a leading Watergate prosecutor who kept a bust of his friend Robert F. Kennedy in his room at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, in Michigan, where he lived for many years after suffering a stroke. Merrill's son, Rick, lives in Bellingham.


Four decades ago, while his father was a regular figure in the national media, Rick Merrill was living a news-free existence on a farm in Vermont.

His father, William Merrill, was the assistant Watergate special prosecutor who brought members of the White House "plumbers unit," also known as the "dirty tricks squad," to trial for violating the civil rights of Daniel Ellsberg.

Ellsberg was the man who leaked the secret "Pentagon Papers" about the Vietnam War. The so-called plumbers violated his rights by burglarizing the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in search of disparaging information.

In July 1974, Merrill convinced a jury to convict John Ehrlichman, a top aide of President Nixon's, plus White House fixture G. Gordon Liddy and two other men, Eugenio Martinez and Bernard Baker. He also negotiated guilty pleas from Charles Colson, Nixon's legal adviser, and Egil "Bud" Krogh, a deputy assistant to the president.

Years later, in a New York Times column titled "The Break-In That History Forgot," Krogh said the mindset behind the Ellsberg burglary led "inexorably to Watergate and its subsequent cover-up."

William Merrill was at the peak of his legal career, a story he detailed in his book, "Watergate Prosecutor."

Rick Merrill, 61, now lives in Bellingham and teaches dance at Western Washington University. He respects what his father accomplished under the intense pressure and national glare of Watergate. He just wishes that his dad - whom he described as hard-working, ambitious and idealistic, but also busy and distant - had been a closer father to him.

William Merrill and his first wife, Rick's mother, divorced when Rick was young.

"He's this historical figure that I didn't know that much," Merrill said.

While in Michigan for his father's funeral in 2011, he was happy to learn that his dad had been a loving father to his two daughters from his third marriage.

At the funeral, Marisa Merrill read the poem "The Road Not Taken," by Robert Frost, one of her father's favorite writers. In the poem, a traveler ponders which fork of a road to take in a yellow wood, knowing that choosing one over the other would lead to later choices that would, in turn, make it unlikely the traveler would ever face the same choice again.

In like fashion, William Merrill early on chose to work diligently as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Detroit. He also chose to aspire to politics, losing a race for Congress in the 1960s.

The Ellsberg burglary in September 1971 came nine months before five people in cahoots with the White House were caught inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. When Archibald Cox was named the special prosecutor to investigate, Merrill chose to accept lower pay and join Cox's legal team.

"He felt a real commitment to the rule of law and to the Constitution," Rick Merrill said.

William Merrill was well-suited for the challenge. He was smart, with a law degree from Yale. He was savvy, having worked as a federal prosecutor for a dozen years.

His book, written in 1978 but not published until 2008, is a primer on strategic thinking for prosecutors.

But any hopes of a sit-down rapprochement between father and son disappeared when William Merrill suffered a massive stroke in 1992. He lost much of the use of the right side of his body. More tragically, he lost the ability to speak.

"His whole self-esteem was in his prowess with language," Rick Merrill said. "That's exactly what he lost."

Merrill's stroke left him impoverished, divorced, and lonely in a veterans' home in Grand Rapids, Mich. Despite his setbacks, he chose to soldier on.

He pushed himself to walk, and managed to maneuver in and outside of the home on a tricycle. Normally right-handed, he taught himself to paint with his left hand.

"The doctors were amazed how much mobility he regained," his son said.

Looking back, Rick Merrill knows his father's life involved a series of choices. Some had major implications for the rule of law during Watergate. Others were more personal, with mixed results.

He wishes he had known his father better, but his regard for his father remains strong.

"I respect his courage," he said, "his willingness to make tough decisions and work hard at it."


William Merrill's book, "Watergate Prosecutor," $24.95, is available through bookstores and directly from Michigan State University Press.

The name of the person who read "The Road Not Taken" was corrected Oct. 25, 2013.

Reach Dean Kahn at or call 715-2291.

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