A few seconds on TV led to the arrest of a man suspected of the Thanksgiving massacre of four members of his family, including his pregnant sister.
Paul Pfaff was watching a football game on Fox TV when a preview of "America's Most Wanted" came on. A picture of Paul Merhige flashed on screen and Pfaff realized that the man was a guest in his motel.
"There was no doubt because we have a big-screen TV in the house," said Melinda Pfaff, who co-owns the Edgewater Lodge in Long Key, Fla., with her husband. "It just shocked [my husband] to the core."
Melinda Pfaff said she went on to the "America's Most Wanted" Web site to verify that the photo shown on the commercial was indeed the man staying at their motel, and then she called the police.
"I called in the tip and [the dispatcher] said, 'How sure are you on a scale of one to 10?'" Pfaff said. "I said, 'A 10. You need to get here now.'"
Merhige, 35, is accused of fatally gunning down his twin sisters, one of whom was pregnant, an elderly aunt and a 6-year-old cousin on Thanksgiving day.
He checked into the Edgewater Lodge, which is a three-hour drive from the scene of the crime in Jupiter, Fla., on Dec. 2, the Pfaff's said.
U.S. Marshals along with officers from several area police departments arrested Merhige a few hours after the tip was received.
Merhige was being held at the Palm Beach County jail on four counts of murder. He was denied bail at a hearing this morning, and is scheduled to be arraigned on Feb. 1.
"There is a weight lifted off our shoulders, obviously, by making this apprehension," Jupiter Police Chief Frank Kitzerow said at a news conference to announce the arrest.
"I always knew justice would be served," said Jim Sitton, the father of the 6-year-old female victim, Makayla Sitton. "This does not bring my daughter back, so I'm not jumping up and down with jubilation, but at least now I'll be able to sleep knowing the monster's not right outside my door."
Just as he has with many high-profile crimes, John Walsh, the host of "America's Most Wanted," made it a personal mission to locate the suspect in the Thanksgiving day killings.
He held a press conference with Sitton in late December urging the public to continue the look for the suspect, whose face was plastered on wanted posters in several Florida neighborhoods.
"This family needs justice, needs closure," Walsh said. "America needs to saddle up and find this guy."
In 20 years, Walsh's groundbreaking program has helped police across the country arrest 1,099 suspects, according to a spokesperson for the show. Walsh developed the program after his own 6-year-old son was abducted and brutally killed.
Saturday night's airing of "America's Most Wanted" was the fourth time the crime was featured on the show.
In a press release after Merhige's arrest, the Jupiter police said the apprehension came "as a result of the continuous coverage on America's Most Wanted."
The tipsters, Melinda and Paul Pfaff also credited the show. The most-wanted posters and local news stories hadn't reached them in Monroe County, so they were unaware of the story until Paul Pfaff saw the preview during the football game.
"His behavior was never really odd," Melinda Pfaff said. "But my husband thought he might have been a little nervous when he first checked in."
On the Friday before the arrest, Paul Pfaff checked in on the guest in Room 14, who had registered under the name "John Baca." Pfaff said he was concerned because he had seen very little of the guest.
When Merhige opened the door, there was nothing out of the ordinary, so Pfaff forgot about it until Saturday night when he saw the suspect's face on TV.
"It really bothered him that a mass murderer was in the room next to my daughter," Melinda Pfaff said. "I just wanted to make sure everyone was secure and do what we had to do. We had to get him out of here."