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MARTINSBURG – Three Maryland men allegedly involved in a violent drug-related murder last spring near Rippon, a crime that led to the killings of two innocent bystanders, are facing federal trials on kidnapping and conspiracy charges.

Meanwhile, Jefferson County murder prosecutions against Monroe Merrell and David Ray Sanford Jr., both of Westminster, and John Westley Black III of Taneytown have been withdrawn. County prosecutors retain the option to file charges again later, possibly after the outcome of the new federal prosecutions against the three men.

Federal grand jury indictments against Merrell, Sanford and Black were publicly released last week in U.S. District Court for the Northern West Virginia in Martinsburg.

The three men remain incarcerated while awaiting a resolution to their federal cases.

“This is one of the most heinous crimes I’ve seen, where three people lost their lives for what appears to have begun as a $40 debt,” U.S. Attorney Bill Powell offered in a prepared statement. “These crimes will be aggressively prosecuted. We owe that to the families of the victims and the citizens who count on us to do so.”

Merrell, Sanford and Black are charged with the kidnapping death of Jonathan Riddle of Taneytown, one of crimes that, according to court records, could lead to the death penalty upon a conviction. The federal charges could be brought in the case because Riddle’s kidnapping crossed state jurisdictions, starting in Maryland and ending in West Virginia.

Riddle was allegedly assaulted by Merrell, Sanford and Black in a Westminster apartment during an argument over $40 worth of methamphetamine. Riddle was beaten, stabbed, and driven bleeding and bound in the trunk of his car to an isolated road near Rippon on the morning of March 18, according to police and court charging documents.

Investigators believe Riddle was killed near Rippon, where his partly burned body was abandoned in woods beside the roadway.

Merrell, 23, Sanford, 27, and Black, 23, face federal kidnapping and kidnapping conspiracy charges.

Merrell and Sanford also each face federal felony charges of fatal witness tampering, another crime that opens the doors for the federal prosecutions.

The federal charges are based heavily on information provided by five unidentified cooperating witnesses as well as two other men allegedly involved in both women’s murders, according to FBI affidavits.

According to police and court documents, Merrell and Sanford lured two women who saw some of the events before Riddle’s murder to their deaths in Falling Waters early on April 7.

Law enforcemtn officials believe that Merrell and Sanford conspired and participated in killing 18-year-old Danielle Tyler and 33-year-old Heather Grogg as a police investigation began focusing the two defendants as suspects in Riddle’s murder.

Three other people are also facing federal charges for allegedly assisting or participating in the murders to prevent Tyler and Grogg from cooperating with the police investigation.

A Westminster man, 23-year-old Jeffrey Craig Smith Jr., faces a federal accessory charge for allegedly assisting Merrell and Sanford in killing the two witnesses. Smith shot Grogg three times near a Falling Waters cemetery, police say. However, according to investigators, Smith admitted to being present when Grogg was shot but denies shooting her.  

Falling Waters residents April Braner, who turns 38 this Friday, and Norman Arthur Bradford, who turns 50 next month, have both been charged with aiding with a fatal witness tampering.

Tyler was killed at what had been an outlaw motorcycle clubhouse on Braner’s property in Falling Waters, according to police. Federal criminal complaints filed in the case maintain that Tyler’s and Grogg’s bodies were burned in a fire pit behind the clubhouse and their ashes released in the Potomac River.

Murder charges in Berkeley County against Smith, Braner and Bradford were also dropped after the federal charges were filed against those three.

All six defendants in the triple-murder case are held in West Virginia jails while awaiting trials and resolutions to the charges against them.

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