‘The Mystery of Katrina Montgomery’ features the brutal murder of Katrina Montgomery, 20, after she became entangled with the wrong group of friends in Ventura County, California. She was killed during a 1992 Thanksgiving party, and her remains have never been recovered to date. However, the authorities convicted the perpetrator — a repeat offender — based on witness accounts and other evidence. If you’re interested in learning the killer’s identity and current whereabouts, here’s what we know.
How Did Katrina Montgomery Die?
Katrina Montgomery’s life became entwined with the dark and disturbing world of a Ventura County, California, white supremacist gang called the Skin Head Dogs (SHD) very early. At the age of 16 in 1989, she entered a relationship with Mitch Sutton, a founding member of SHD. He often took Katrina to SHD gatherings, where she mingled with other gang members and their partners, some of whom became her close friends. While dating her, Mitch enlisted in the Army, and she even moved to Germany to be with him for eight months.
By the time Mitch returned in 1992 after a three-year military service, their relationship had ended. He had also severed ties with SHD, although Katrina maintained a friendship with many members. According to reports, she moved to Marina Del Rey, where she worked as a server while attending Santa Monica College. Katrina dreamt of becoming a professional photographer and showed promise in the arts. Sadly, her life was cut short when she was beaten with a wrench, and her throat was slit during a 1992 Thanksgiving Day party.
Who Killed Katrina Montgomery?
Katrina’s relationship with Mitch exposed her to a community of SHD members, including Justin James Merriman, who was also a part of the gang. Court records showed she consistently corresponded with him, incarcerated in various juvenile detention facilities and state prisons between January 1990 and March 1992. Over time, the letters grew more explicit, suggesting that Justin believed Katrina was interested in him romantically and misinterpreted her intentions.
According to court documents, Katrina and Justin’s letters indicated she might have sent revealing photos and had sexual contact with him during prison visits. However, she consistently conveyed about wanting to resume her relationship with Mitch and considered Justin only a friend. This apparent contradiction between her words and actions appeared to puzzle and anger him, leading to emotionally charged correspondence, expressing his confusion and suspicion about her motives.
Despite Katrina’s clear stance on maintaining a friendship, Justin conveyed his romantic interest in her to others within the gang. Scott Porcho, a fellow SHD member and friend of the two, attested to his anticipation that she would become his girlfriend after his release from prison. Apryl, Scott’s then-wife, confirmed that Katrina did not share this romantic interest. Shortly after Justin’s release, she and a friend visited his home in 1992 spring, and she returned with marks around her neck, alleging Justin assaulted her.
Court evidence indicated Justin had forced himself upon Katrina on another occasion after making unwanted sexual advances despite her objections. His former girlfriend, Corie, also testified he had previously coerced her into intercourse. Katrina celebrated the 1992 Thanksgiving Day with her family in Los Angeles before planning to attend a family gathering in Santa Barbara a few days later. On November 27, she joined a party hosted by SHD gang leader Scott and his wife Apryl at their North Oxnard home.
Various SHD gang members, their partners, and even members of the Sylmar Peckerwood Family gang, known to be on friendly terms with SHD, attended the party. Witnesses later gave varying accounts of interactions between Katrina and Justin at the party. Some saw them hugging and joking about sexual matters, while others noted tension between them. The party involved alcohol, drugs, arguments, and even physical altercations. As per witnesses, Justin twice handed a knife to Larry Nicassio, a 16-year-old Sylmar Family gang member, suggesting he should harm Katrina.
Larry thought Justin was joking and ignored the request. As the night progressed and most partygoers left, a confrontation occurred between the latter and Katrina. There are conflicting accounts about what exactly transpired, but it ended with her angrily leaving the house. She was visibly upset, arguing with Apryl before leaving, possibly intending to return to Los Angeles. Instead, the 20-year-old went to Justin’s home, where she was met with further violence. He coerced and forced her into sexual acts despite her pleas to stop.
Witnesses present, including Larry, did not intervene due to fear of Justin’s violent rage. The situation escalated, leading to the latter beating Katrina with a crescent wrench before fatally stabbing and strangling her. Afterward, Justin enlisted Ryan Bush and Larry’s help to cover up the crime. They transported the victim’s body to a remote location, buried her, and attempted to erase evidence of their involvement. Katrina’s disappearance prompted her family to search for her, and suspicions of foul play grew after police discovered her abandoned truck with blood traces.
After receiving a tip from a Thanksgiving partygoer, the investigators focused on Justin’s associates, especially Larry. As the investigation deepened, details of the discord between Katrina and Justin emerged, making him the primary person of interest in the case. The police visited his home to question him, coinciding with a carpet cleaning session, and the inquiry eventually hit dead ends. Around five years later, divorced from Scott Porcho, Apryl met with a prosecutor to discuss the case in July 1997.
Building a case proved challenging due to widespread deception, hindering efforts to present a convincing case to a grand jury. Nevertheless, after Apryl’s discussions with prosecutors, Larry, his girlfriend, and Ryan were arrested. Larry’s girlfriend revealed statements he made about the murder, prompting other SHD members to confess. Eventually, he and Ryan cooperated with the prosecution, sharing information about the body’s location. Larry even wore a wire to incriminate Justin while conversing with him.
Where is Justin Merriman Now?
Unfortunately, the land Larry indicated had been developed, thwarting recovery efforts for Katrina’s remains. During this time, Justin continued sexually assaulting women and was eventually charged with two unrelated sexual assault offenses. He was arrested after a lengthy standoff with the police in late January 1998. Charged with multiple non-capital crimes, Justin faced prosecution for Katrina’s death during incarceration. Reports claimed he shocked observers during his 2001 trial by giving a Nazi salute.
Regardless, a jury convicted Justin of first-degree murder and found true the special circumstance allegations that the killing was committed while engaging in the commission of rape and oral copulation and using a deadly weapon. They also convicted him of numerous non-capital crimes, including multiple counts of sexual assault and witness dissuasion. Justin Merriman was sentenced to death in early May 2001, and the Supreme Court upheld the sentencing in August 2014. The 51-year-old remains on death row at the San Quentin State Prison.