Man charged in Pa. stabbing rampage had failed to finish anger management therapy after parole

By Michael Rubinkam, AP
Monday, June 28, 2010

Pa. rampage suspect had been sent to anger therapy

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A convicted murderer charged in the weekend stabbing deaths of four people was released from prison in 2006 but was put back behind bars two years ago for failing to complete anger management therapy.

Michael Ballard, 36, who is charged with four counts of homicide in Saturday’s rampage in Northampton, was paroled again on April 19. He was living at a halfway house in Allentown when authorities said he attacked his former girlfriend, her father, her 87-year-old grandfather and a neighbor who ran over to help after hearing screams.

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, who has long railed against the state’s parole system, said he was outraged that Ballard won early release from prison. He likened Ballard to a rabid dog that needs to be put down.

“These are sociopaths and they need to be warehoused,” Morganelli said. “Unfortunately, this is not a unique situation.”

Ballard fatally stabbed 56-year-old Donald Richard in Richard’s Allentown apartment in 1991, when Ballard was 18 years old. He pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, theft and fraud and was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison.

Ballard stabbed Richard 13 times, cut his throat, stole his car and used his credit cards to buy clothing and dinners for friends, according to newspaper accounts from the time. Then-Lehigh County District Attorney Robert Steinberg linked Ballard — an Arkansas man whose parents had sent him to Pennsylvania to live with an aunt — to the Ku Klux Klan, and Ballard claimed to investigators that Richard had made sexual advances.

Ballard had spent 15 years in prison when the state Board of Probation and Parole released him to a halfway house in November 2006. Ballard’s parole came with several conditions, including that he participate in “outpatient anger management treatment,” according to documents released Monday by the board.

Ballard was required to remain in treatment “until the treatment source and/or parole supervision staff determine it is no longer necessary,” the board said.

Ballard stopped going to anger management by April 2008, and he was returned to prison as a parole violator. He came back before the parole board in November 2008, but the panel decided to keep him locked up, citing his “failure to demonstrate motivation for success” and his minimization of and “refusal to accept responsibility” for his crimes.

The board next considered Ballard’s case in December 2009. Board members decided he was ready to be released and did not order any additional treatment for Ballard.

Board spokesman Leo Dunn declined to comment about the decision.

Ballard was scheduled to return at 2 p.m. Saturday to the halfway house where he had been living, but he failed to show and a warrant was issued for his arrest, according to state Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton.

Police allege Ballard fatally stabbed 39-year-old Denise Merhi; her father, Dennis Marsh, 62; her grandfather, Alvin Marsh Jr.; and her neighbor, Steven Zernhelt, 53, inside Merhi’s brick twin on a quiet street in Northampton, about 70 miles north of Philadelphia.

After the attack, Ballard drove away in Merhi’s Pontiac Grand Prix and crashed it less than 10 minutes after police responded to a 911 call and discovered the bodies.

Morganelli is seeking a death sentence for Ballard, who remained hospitalized Monday with injuries believed to have been suffered in the crash.

“This guy’s a rabid dog and he needs to be put down, and I’m going to put him down with a death sentence,” Morganelli said Monday.

Zernhelt’s brother, David Zernhelt, said the family is satisfied with Morganelli’s stance.

He said he hopes people will “not remember my brother Steven (for) having been slain,” but for an act of heroism. State police say the married father of three was acting as a good Samaritan when he rushed over to Merhi’s home and was stabbed as he got through the front door.

“He was always very giving and would put his life on the line for just about anyone just to try and make things right,” David Zernhelt said of his older brother.

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