INVESTIGATORS: The man who killed Mackenzie - FOX 35 News Orlando

INVESTIGATORS: The man who killed Mackenzie

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3-year-old victim Mackenzie Bussiere 3-year-old victim Mackenzie Bussiere

In an old Wisconsin cemetery that hosts headstones marking the passing of plagues, Mackenzie Bussiere is still one of the youngest, laid to rest at just 3 years old -- but her family has hardly known a day of rest since.

"Some days are easier than others," Bussiere's mother, Justina Pepper, told Fox 9 News. "You try to remain strong, but you're dying inside."

No disease claimed her life, and it wasn't an accident or a twist of fate. It was murder -- a killing that still gives Bussiere's sister nightmares to this day.


DISCLAIMER: Some of the details in this story are graphic and disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.


Brian Merkt is the man who killed the toddler. Two months ago, he walked out of prison and right into a quiet neighborhood filled with children in northern Anoka County. When asked whether he has regrets following his murder conviction, Merkt said "no" before telling Fox 9 News he did not want to be filmed.

It has been 18 years since Merkt was a 22-year-old farmhand living in Shakopee. He was babysitting his girlfriend's two children -- 3-year-old Mackenzie and 5-year-old Nicole -- on March 9, 1996 when he called police to say he woke up from a nap and discovered the toddler had fallen down a flight of stairs.

Mackenzie Bussiere was found naked and not breathing -- an image her sister can't forget.

"I remember little details," Nicole Bussiere said. "I remember seeing her at the bottom of the stairs."

When she arrived at the hospital, Mackenzie Bussiere was already brain dead -- and doctors quickly realized it wasn't because of a fall. Her aunt, Ruth, knew it too.

"I watched them lift her body off the gurney and there was a pool of blood, and I said, 'This is not good,'" Ruth Herdahl-Neuman recalled.

The girl's injuries were horrific -- cuts, bruises, abrasions. Her brain had detached from her spine, and she was bleeding from the vagina and the rectum. Her core temperature was 83 degrees -- 15 below normal.

The medical examiner ruled she died from severe head trauma, and that her internal injuries were consistent with attempted rape.

Merkt was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and rape. He hired high-profile defense attorney Earl Gray.

"I am sure when this gets to trial, truth will be brought forward," Gray said at the time. "Truth is, this is an accident and my client is not a murderer."

The trial lasted 3 and a half weeks and included hours of gruesome testimony. Aunt Ruth sat through every minute of it.

"It's so gory, you can't believe it," Herdahl-Neuman recalled. "It's so gory."

Merkt had Mackenzie's blood, vomit and his own semen on his long underwear. Prosecutors argue he forced her to perform oral sex. On cross examination, Scott County Attorney Tom Harbinson said, "You beat up Mackenzie and raped her, and then you concocted this whole story about the stairway fall, isn't that right?"

Yet, Gray would tell the jury that the girl may have been hit by a car outside and somehow crawled back indoors and argued that her vaginal injuries may have been caused by falling on a toy.

"We don't know how that happened. We do know he didn't do it. At least, we don't believe he did it," Gary told jurors.

The jury deliberated for two and a half days before reaching a split verdict that found Merkt guilty of second-degree murder -- but not guilty of first-degree murder or the rape.

"He said, 'I've never seen a case where so much evidence was presented but the jury didn't believe it,'" Herdahl-Neuman said of the judge's response.

Saying the evidence was overwhelming, the judge gave Merkt double the recommended sentence for second-degree murder, sending him to serve 25 years in prison; however, while he was locked up, Merkt refused to take part in sex offender treatment because in counseling, he would have to admit to the rape -- something he still won't do.

"I wasn't convicted of a sex crime," he said when asked why he did not complete sex offender treatment.

Even without attending sex offender treatment, Merkt still got out of prison early after serving just 17 years. He moved into a Minneapolis halfway house for a couple of months and then into a relative's home in Linwood Township, near the town of Stacy, Minn. His brother in law told Fox 9 News you have to know the man.

"Somebody gets put in prison for something they didn't do -- he's the nicest guy I ever met," he said.

When asked, "Did you not rape the child, Mackenzie?" Merkt replied, "No." When asked how she got her injuries, Merkt said, "I don't know. Not for me to prove how she got them."

He's right -- it wasn't his burden to prove; however, when he was released from prison, the end of the confinement review board still made Merkt register as a Level II sex offender -- a designation for those at moderate risk of re-offending -- instead of Level III, the highest risk level. Since the board's deliberations are not public, it's not known why they made that choice.

If Brian Merkt had been considered a Level III sex offender, there would have been a community notification meeting and neighbors would have been told all about him. Because he is a Level II, all they got was a flier.



[VIEW FULL FLIER]


"I didn't get anything," Amber Land, who lives right across the street from Merkt, said.

Although neighbors have since reposted the flier everywhere in the area, Land didn't know her new neighbor was a sex offender until the day before Fox 9 News spoke with her.

"There's lots of kids in the neighborhood," Land said. "I have three of my own and they all come over, play with my boys."

Merkt now lives just 2 miles from an elementary school and a daycare. Neighbors are now talking about a petition, but they have also been told that they could be prosecuted if they harass Merkt.

To make matters worse, there's almost no digital footprint for Merkt. His case is too old to show up in online court records, and because he's not a Level III sex offender, he's not listed on the Department of Corrections' website.

VIEW: Full criminal complaint against Brian Merkt

For the record books, his crime is all but forgotten -- a child killer without any real paper trail, remembered only by those who still visit an old Wisconsin cemetery and the grave of a girl who died far too young.

"That's one of the only things I wished for is that his guilt would eat him alive," Pepper admitted.

Shortly after Fox 9 News spoke with Merkt, a warrant was issued for his arrest and he spent a couple of days in jail for some sort of probation violation; however, the Department of Corrections says information about the violation is confidential.

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