MURDER IS MY BEAT: FLORIDA
The Deadly Diva: Songs In The Key Of Death
By David K. Frasier
Reading time 12 Minutes
On Friday, July 14, 1973
On Friday, July 14, 1973, Salwa Merrige-Abrams, 45, calmly, but reluctantly signed papers in Miami’s Dade County Courthouse effectively ending her nineteen-year marriage to James Abrams, a 43-year-old pilot for National Airlines. Salwa Edna Merhige (later changed to Merrige), born in Brooklyn to Syrian parents on November 7, 1929, had the potential, according to the director of the Miami Beach Opera Guild, to be one of the country’s top mezzo-sopranos. However, forgoing the opportunity to perform principal parts in the repertory of grand opera at the national level, she chose to focus on the twin roles of wife and mother. While raising son Jack, 14, and daughter, Melisa Anne, 10, Salwa sang in churches, synagogues, and did cameo performances with the Greater Miami Opera Guild and the Miami Beach Symphony. The family resided in a fashionable section of southwest Miami in a gray T-shaped home situated on more than an acre of wooded land at 5450 SW 60th Court. A guest cottage at the rear of the property served double duty as a game room and toy storehouse. Jack and Melisa Anne attended the prestigious Horizon School for Gifted Children and were well liked in the neighborhood even though their parents were known only by name by residents on the dead end street.
In 1971, James Abrams announced he was leaving the marriage, moved out, and set up house with a stewardess across town in a smaller home at 2401 SW 59th Avenue. It was cold comfort to his heartbroken wife that Abrams contributed a grand a month in family support, continued to pay for his kids’ pricey private school, and sent everyone on all-expense paid vacations to Houston, New York, and Washington. Salwa, hoping for a reconciliation, developed insomnia and confided to the psychiatrist she’d been seeing since the split that she felt her “world was falling apart.” Against medical advice, she refused to take the prescribed tranquilizers. Searching for direction and fulfillment, the mezzo turned to the career she’d earlier shelved in selfless devotion to husband and family. In 1972, she appeared in the Miami Beach Music and Arts League production of The King and I and sang the role of “Suzuki” in the Miami Opera Guild Family Opera offering of Madame Butterfly at the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. The deeply depressed diva would be unable to honor a commitment to appear in the August 26, 1973 “Evening with the Music of Richard Rogers” as part of the Civic Opera of the Palm Beaches annual Summer Pops Festival.
Although Salwa’s professional career was seemingly on track, she was unable to accept that her errant mate preferred playing house and tooling around Miami in his slate blue 1973 Camaro with his live-in girlfriend rather than continuing to play the stale role of husband. In a deposition given on April 15, 1973, the singer tearfully told attorneys she still loved her husband, opposed the divorce, and flatly stated “my children and I need him as the head of our family.” As the “acting” head of the fragmented household, Salwa ostensibly strove to engage more fully with her kids. Nearly a year earlier in July 1972, she purchased a .38-caliber revolver with a four-inch barrel for $129.64 and a box of 50 hollow point cartridges from the Hialeah Range and Gun Shop. She and son Jack could bond over target practice. The teen, uninterested in firearms, wasn’t terribly disappointed when authorities informed his mother that Florida law prohibited children under the age of 18 from firing handguns on a licensed shooting range. The law, however, did permit minors to operate shotguns. Salwa purchased one from a friend in November 1972 for $135.00. Ten-year-old Melisa Anne apparently didn’t need this type of parent-child interaction. For years she’d picked flowers and given bouquets to housewives in the neighborhood and recently had gone door-to-door selling chocolate bars for charity.
Exiting the courthouse
Exiting the courthouse on July 13, 1973, Abrams told his attorney, Paul A. Lewis, Salwa had cryptically promised her soon-to-be ex “a real surprise” awaited him the next day when he was scheduled to drop by the former family home to pick up the kids for an outing. Lewis, a savvy veteran in the divorce wars, strongly urged his client to stay away from the house and hire movers to retrieve the rest of his belongings. The next morning, Abrams played tennis with Bob Cunningham, a fellow National Airlines pilot, during which he mentioned Salwa had phoned to remind him to come by the house later that day. Although Salwa had issued multiple threats against her handsome husband during their separation, Abrams told his wary colleague she’d made none recently and he felt comfortable picking up his kids.
Later that day, a concerned friend contacted Miami authorities to report that Salwa had “sounded strange” and barely conscious during their afternoon phone call. Sheriff’s deputy Mark Blount caught the call and noted two cars (one containing a dog) parked in the circular driveway at 5460 SW 60th Court. Entering the unlocked residence, the deputy discovered a tableau of tragedy the equal of any to be found in Italian grand opera or French Grand Guignol. Like pieces on a chessboard, Blount uncovered the bullet-riddled corpses of Abrams and his two adored children in separate rooms of the sprawling house. At center stage, the unconscious diva was splayed face-up on the dining room floor amid numerous empty pill bottles near a baby grand piano covered with scores and framed photos chronicling her career. The freshly loaded murder weapon was nearby on a credenza while a handwritten last will and testament was left on a table in the living room near Melissa Ann’s body. In the document, dated the day of the slaughter, Salwa meticulously outlined the disposal of her personal property and (in a hastily added paragraph) requested the family be cremated and not buried.
Ambulanced to the South Miami Hospital, the comatose woman languished in Bed A, Room 642 in the intensive care unit surrounded by police eager to serve her with three first-degree murder warrants. Four days later at 1:15 A.M. on Thursday, July 19, 1973, Salwa expired without regaining consciousness. The diva’s death left authorities with a central unanswered question -- How was she able to orchestrate the systematic killing of three family members in separate events without any of the others being aware of the murders?
Miami Metro detective Lloyd Hough
Miami Metro detective Lloyd Hough, at rank for only three years, was tasked with leading the investigation. Initially baffled by the lack of chaos at the crime scene (each murder was contained in a separate part of the house), Hough assigned special significance to the discovery of the family dog inside Abrams’ idling Camaro, the radio still playing. According to the police theory of the crime, Salwa waited until Abrams and the kids were in his car before asking to speak with him alone inside the house. Seated in an armless boudoir chair calmly smoking a cigarette in the master bedroom at the rear of the residence, Abrams had no time to react when his estranged wife removed the .38 from the closet and emptied the six shot revolver, striking him at least four times. Reloading, she dumped the spent shells on the floor near his body, cranked up the volume on the stereo, and then brought teenaged son Jack into the home. His bullet pierced corpse was found on the floor of his bedroom (at the opposite end of the house from his father’s death site) also lying amid six spent shells. Ten-year-old Melisa Anne was next, her body on the floor next to a couch in a living area to the inside right of the front door. Salwa had emptied the gun into her daughter, and then, police speculated, returned to the master bedroom closet to reload. Unable to pull the trigger in her big death scene, the deranged diva opted to lower the curtain on her carefully choreographed family tragedy by gobbling a cocktail of Quaaludes, tranquilizers, and an array of barbiturates. Finis.
Fate, however, wasn’t done with the star-crossed Merhige family. Salwa’s nephew, Paul Michael Merhige, had a long history of mental illness (depression and OCD) highlighted over the years by repeated threats of physical violence against his family. Like Aunt Salwa, Merhige also refused to take prescribed medicine to control his mercurial mood swings. Remarkably, the troubled 35-year- old was invited to a cousin’s home in Jupiter, Florida to share Thanksgiving dinner with sixteen family members and friends on November 26, 2009. It ended badly. Following the feast, an angry Merhige left the home, quickly returned with a handgun, and opened fire killing four. Among the dead were his twin sisters (one of them pregnant), a septuagenarian aunt, and a 6-year-old female cousin. Two others were wounded, while another potential victim escaped certain death when the pistol pointed at his head jammed. Fleeing the scene in a royal blue 2007 Toyota Camry sedan, the subject of a state and federal manhunt was finally apprehended without incident on January 3, 2010 in the Edgewater Lodge at mile marker 65.5 in the Florida Keys. The evening prior to the arrest, the Thanksgiving massacre had been featured on the crime-stopper TV show, America’s Most Wanted. The Lodge owners, noting the striking resemblance between the fugitive Merhige and the guest registered as “Paul Baca” in Room 214, contacted the program’s hotline. The phone call netted the tipsters a $100,000 reward. Charged with four counts of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted first-degree murder, Merhige initially pleaded not guilty, but changed his plea after prosecutors took the death penalty off the table. On October 27, 2011, Aunt Salwa’s nephew and fellow mass murderer, Paul Michael Merhige, was sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences by a Florida circuit court judge. Subsequent civil lawsuits brought by some victims’ family members against Merhige’s parents claiming they set the stage for the bloodbath by secretly inviting their disturbed son to the family gathering were tossed out by the court on the principle that parents can’t be held responsible for the intentional actions of their adult children. As of March 26, 2017, Merhige (Inmate #B10149) is housed at Lake Correctional Institution in Clermont, Florida.
David K. Frasier, a retired reference librarian at the Lilly Library at Indiana University, is the author of the books Russ Meyer – The Life and Films, Murder Cases of the Twentieth Century, Suicide in the Entertainment Industry, and Show Business Homicides. He was the associate editor of Russ Meyer’s three-volume autobiography, A Clean Breast, and wrote the booklet for the Arrow Films 13 DVD box set retrospective, The Russ Meyer Collection. Frasier is currently serving a life sentence in Bloomington, Indiana.