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Cybercrimes task force could become law in Missouri

Missouri State Sen. Tracy McCreery drafted a bill to bring victims of cyberstalking together with law enforcement investigating the crimes.

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — Technology is used for people to stay in touch with each other.

In the case of Robert Merkle, it was used to stalk women for years threatening to find, rape, and in some cases, murder several women.

“I hate to use his name because he seems like a horrific person,” said Missouri State Sen. Tracy McCreery.

She wants to toughen the state’s response to cyberstalking and threats. McCreery said her newest piece of legislation was inspired by the I-Team’s reporting on Merkle for years. He twice pleaded guilty to harassing and threatening women, once in 2018 and again in March 2023. Prosecutors also announced a new charge on Monday in St. Louis County, which would increase the sentence he could receive if convicted in that case, too.

In multiple instances, Merkle’s victims said they felt they weren’t taken seriously by investigators and prosecutors. McCreery thinks her bill could change that by establishing a cybercrimes task force. Her legislation already has bipartisan support.

“They don’t say ‘Hey, I’m a Republican. Hey, I’m a Democrat.’ They are just talking about their experiences and how traumatic it is to have somebody stalk you via apps and other forms of technology.”

The task force would be made up of law enforcement, victim advocates, victims of stalking themselves and forensics experts. It would examine existing regulations and protections for women and men targeted online. She hopes it will also lead to stronger laws and enhanced penalties for lawmakers to consider as they learn more.

She also hopes it helps law enforcement and investigators stay ahead of new trends or apps that potential stalkers may use.

“I think that moving this task force forward is important to get the conversation going and to draw attention to the matter,” she said. “But I also think it’s important that survivors and victims feel like people are listening and that we care.”

The Department of Justice said that in 2019, nearly one million US residents aged 16 or older fell victim to cyberstalking.

McCreery said she plans to attach her bills to other crime legislation going through the statehouse now and is hopeful it will pass by the end of the session next month. A similar proposal was drafted last year but didn’t pass by the end of the session.

Meanwhile, prosecutors in St. Louis County announced on Monday they were filing a charge to consider Merkle a prior and persistent offender. It's related to a pending case of harassment. That hearing is set for late June.

Merkle is currently in custody awaiting sentencing, after he pleaded guilty to separate, federal charges of cyberstalking and interstate communication of threats.

He was also charged with harassment in 2017 and 2018 in Jefferson County Circuit Court, resulting in a three-year prison sentence.

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