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Date of Issue: November 08, 2007

Woman convicted in Palma Sola murder

A mother recanted her murder confession and blamed her son last week for the slaying of her longtime boyfriend.

The change of heart - or legal tactic - didn’t work. A jury on Nov. 2 convicted Merle Zeigler, 54, of second-degree murder in the slaying of her 15-year boyfriend, Frank Reposh, 41.

Zeigler was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The jury found that Zeigler was responsible for the death of Reposh, whose remains were found in a shallow grave on the shore of Palma Sola Bay in June 2006. Her son, Joshua Zeigler, 27, already has been sentenced to life in prison for his role in the slaying.

Reposh died on or around Oct. 10, 2005, in his residence in the 7800 block of 40th Avenue Drive West in Bradenton. The duplex is near the burial spot. Over the course of many hours, Reposh was punched, stabbed, bound, robbed, gagged and shot twice, according to reports.

Witness testimony and taped recordings, more than forensic evidence, put the gun that killed Reposh in Merle Zeigler’s hands.

The trial began with opening remarks on Oct. 30, after a day of jury selection in Circuit Judge Edward Nicholas’ second-floor courtroom in the Bradenton courthouse.

Merle Zeigler, wearing a dark sweater, red print blouse and slacks, sat to the left of her attorney, Jeffrey Haynes. Much of the time, the gray-haired, slight woman - about 5 feet tall and 100 pounds - sat with her hands folded on a table. She showed little expression, only occasionally raising eyebrows at an attorney’s argument or a witness’ statement.

During the opening remarks, prosecutor Ed Brodsky, occasionally pointing to Zeigler and referring to taped statements and conversations, said, “She admits to her role, to killing Frank Reposh.”

Zeigler’s attorney, Haynes, outlined a situation in which a mother tried to take the rap for her son. Yes, Haynes said, Merle Zeigler stood by while her son killed Reposh and she tried to help conceal the crime. Yes, she confessed to killing Reposh. But no, Haynes said, Merle Zeigler did not murder the man.

“The murder was committed by her son,” Haynes said. “Merle Zeigler, what she is guilty of is lying.... She admitted she did everything. But Joshua made the conscious decision to stab Frank Reposh. He alone decided to kill Frank Reposh.”

The attorneys did not dispute some circumstances in the slaying - the Zeiglers, along with Joshua Zeigler’s girlfriend Debbie Meneely and their infant daughter, were living with Reposh in a tense environment; the Zeiglers and Reposh engaged in a lengthy argument that turned violent on or about Oct. 10, 2005; Joshua Zeigler stabbed and shot Reposh; and the Zeiglers and Menelly, 22, tried to hide Reposh’s body.

Where the defense and prosecuting attorneys disagreed last week was over Merle Zeigler’s role in the slaying - bystander and accomplice after the fact or the killer who bought the gun and fired the first shot into Reposh’s head.

On the opening day of the trial, after about an hour of attorney remarks, the state’s first and star witness, Menelly, took the stand.

Menelly kept the killing a secret for about eight months. Then, after breaking up with Joshua Zeigler and pursuing a domestic violence charge against him, she confided to a friend that she witnessed the crime. Her friend, Gary Underwood, contacted the sheriff’s office, which began the investigation that led to the Zeiglers’ arrest and the finding of Reposh’s remains.

For months Reposh’s whereabouts had been a mystery to friends and family - attorney Ralph Mattice had filed a suspicious circumstance report in regards to Reposh’ disappearance in February 2006 because the missing man stood to receive a $100,000 insurance settlement in connection with a car accident.

Menelly, under questioning by Brodsky, remembered the events of Oct. 10, 2005, and the days afterward.

She said she arrived home at about 6 p.m. to find the Zeiglers and Reposh in an argument over the sale of some drugs and all the occasions that Reposh had abused Merle Zeigler.

Menelly recalled that Joshua Zeigler held a knife and that when Reposh tried to leave the duplex through a sliding door, the Zeiglers stopped him and he was stabbed in the skirmish.

Menelly said she went to a store to buy bandages and peroxide for Reposh and, when she returned, the Zeiglers and Reposh were still arguing.

She went into a bedroom until the sound of a gunshot drew her to the living room. Menelly said she saw Joshua Zeigler holding the gun. Merle Zeigler was nearby. Frank Reposh was on the floor, hog-tied, face-down on a sheet of plastic, bleeding from the head and screaming.

Joshua Zeigler ordered her to return to her bedroom, where she said she watched movies until she heard another gunshot. Menelly said she returned to the living room to find the Zeiglers by Reposh. The gun was lying on a counter.

“He was dead gone,” Meneely said. “And I freaked out.”

Reposh’s body was placed into a bathtub at the residence, where it remained for about three days. Then Menelly borrowed a van from a friend and drove the Zeiglers to Palma Sola Bay, where they buried Reposh’s remains.

Menelly said she stayed in the duplex and assisted with concealing the crime because “I’m deathly afraid of Josh.”

The trial proceeded through the week with witness testimony, expert testimony and the introduction of forensic evidence and crime-related documents, followed by the judge’s instructions and the jury’s deliberations.

Brodsky said key to his case were the statements Merle Zeigler made to authorities, including those while riding with Manatee County Sheriff’s Office deputies from her temporary home on Anna Maria Island to MCSO’s criminal investigation division.

Zeigler had been staying in Bradenton Beach at the invite of a friend.

As part of MCSO’s investigation, Zeigler’s residence in Bradenton Beach was put under surveillance. Kevin Pease, an investigator with MCSO’s violent crimes task force, said that during the surveillance, Zeigler emerged from the residence and told him, “I know it’s over, just go ahead and shoot me now.”

Zeigler was handcuffed and placed in an MCSO car. During that time, according to Pease, Zeigler said, “That (expletive deleted) was going to take my son and grandbaby away from me and that (expletive deleted) got what he deserved.”

Pease said he assumed Zeigler was referring to Reposh, adding that she told him, “he beat her several times ... and that on one occasion he hit her so hard that she saw stars.” Zeigler also told the investigator Reposh threatened to kill her, “to get duct tape and take her out to Myakka City.”

The prosecutor’s crime scene evidence included two fingerprints, found on the adhesive tape put over Reposh’s mouth, that he said matched Zeigler’s prints.

Testimony and arguments in the trial ended Nov. 1, the day Zeigler herself took the stand and denied shooting Reposh, whom she said she loved.

The jury spent little more than an hour deliberating before returning its verdict at about 9:45 a.m. Nov. 2.