BY DAVID OVALLE, firstname.lastname@example.org
The two had met through a popular telephone chat line.
Moments later, Merritt was shot dead. Boykin stole his Nextel phone and sold it, police say. Soon, Boykin was charged with murder.
The case underscores what authorities say has been a troubling spike in violence in Miami-Dade stemming from meetings set up through the increasingly popular chat lines advertised on late-night TV and the Internet.
Since April, meetings arranged through local chat lines have led to at least a dozen violent encounters -- including kidnappings, home-invasion robberies and two dates that ended in murder.
''Patching into the party lines is like playing Russian roulette with a telephone keypad,'' said Assistant State Attorney Stacy Glick, who is prosecuting Boykin.
There is no single explanation for the recent spike. Police agencies do not keep statistics on crimes that stem from chat line meetings. Broward Sheriff's Office spokesman Jim Leljedal said he could not recall any recent phone chat line-related crimes in the county, but some people from Broward have been victims of crimes committed in Miami-Dade.
Unlike online chats, there are no archived records of phone conversations. Many victims are too embarrassed to cooperate with police.
At least three criminal cases this year revolve around older men preying on underage girls and boys. Others are robberies -- people seeking a romantic rendezvous who end up with a gun in their face.
Paid 900-number chat lines have existed for decades. But in recent years, chats with local numbers have proliferated as the cost of calling long distance has dropped. The reason? According to Federal Communications Commission, some companies make money because they are routed through rural local phone carriers, which by law can charge long-distance companies per call.
The FCC this month began revamping rules after complaints of excessive charges lodged by long-distance companies.
Party-line crimes have drawn police attention in spurts over the years.
In 2004, police in Paterson, N.J., encountered five sexual assaults of underage girls who met their attackers through chat lines.
For Paterson Detective Haydee Santana, the cases were personal -- she had recently discovered her daughter was chatting on the party lines.
Santana began appearing on television news shows. She credits the exposure with curbing chat line-related incidents in Paterson.
''I think because of that, a lot more parents paid attention, especially mothers,'' Santana said. ``They weren't aware of what their little kids were doing.''
In October 2005, a 24-year-old man was sentenced to 25 years in prison for strangling Tyisha McCoy, 13 -- he met her through a teen chat line called Loup, notorious for sexually explicit conversation.
In August, two sisters in Pennsylvania pleaded guilty to third-degree murder after strangling a man they met through a chat line. They had arranged to have sex.
In January, a Seattle man was convicted of killing an executive he met through a gay chat line.
In Miami-Dade, the chat lines are popular in the urban northern core, where often young people longing for socialization cannot afford the Internet, detectives say.
That happened last month in the case of Latisha Cross, 13, who went missing with her infant son on Sept. 29.
Latisha frequently called phone numbers from Talkee.com, a national network of live chats, personal ads and voice mails.
Miami-Dade Detective Brigitté Robert started her investigation by calling numbers scrawled on paper in the girl's room. One man told her he was 17. She pressed him for his birthday. He admitted he was 34.
Robert also found a 14-year-old Miami Gardens girl who used the chat lines with the blessing of her grandmother, who preferred it over seeing her on the streets. ''This was an eye-opener because it's so dangerous when you think about it,'' Robert said.
It turned out that Latisha was with a young couple she met on the chat line. She claimed she was a 17-year-old runaway. But after the couple saw her case on the TV news, they dropped her off at home.
An aunt said Latisha turned to the chat lines because ``she just wants to be grown.''
''The party phone lines can be as dangerous as anything a child would do online,'' said Michelle Collins, an official with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. ``You are still talking to a complete stranger, whether you have a phone or a keyboard.''
Ripple Communications, which runs Talkee.com, defends the national network of party lines, insisting callers must heed precautions played on a recording when they dial.
Dee Leander, a manager, said the chat line is ``the poor person's Internet.''
''We have three rules: Never give out your name and address; you have to be 18; and never, ever give out your phone number,'' Leander said, adding: ``We cooperate fully with all police agencies.''
The risk of predators is only one factor. Robbers pose an equal threat.
In recent months, a group of between six and a dozen people began targeting people they met on chat lines. The group included two females, one of whom is 16.
One couple from Plantation, Rafael Garcia and Viviana Portieles, looking for a date for a relative, met a petite young woman at a North Miami Beach Krispy Kreme in August. But the girl was with two men.
They kidnapped the couple and made them drive to an ATM, then to their Plantation home -- where their 14-year-old son was beaten and the family tied up, police say.
Investigators believe the group was responsible for about a dozen similar incidents across Northeast Miami-Dade. One suspect told police he used a number associated with Livelink.com.
''They just thought it was real easy, and they just kept doing and doing it until they got caught,'' said Miami-Dade Detective Sheldon Shapiro.
Charges against several men and the 16-year-old girl have been filed in six cases. Detectives say they are still looking for one of the women, Darlene Medee, 26.
In at least two unrelated cases in Miami, encounters ended in murder.
Merritt, 41, was a manager at Miami's Homeless Assistance Center.
Boykin killed Merritt after the man tried touching him on the ''private parts,'' according to a police report. Merritt's bracelet and rings were missing, the report said.
Boykin has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder. His attorney, Richard Gregg, said Boykin was ''very successful'' at meeting women on the chat lines and believed he was meeting a female that night.
He said Merritt was ``violent and disturbed.''
''My client was defending his life,'' Gregg said.
In an unrelated case less than three months later, Miami homicide detectives found the body of dog groomer Luis Medina -- a gunshot wound to the neck -- inside the Sinbad Motel, 6150 Biscayne Blvd.
Detective Carlos Castellanos tracked down Medina's cellphone records and found the 50-year-old had been talking to Mervin Watty, 19, whom he met through a chat line associated with Megamates.com.
Watty was later found in Medina's car. He also used Medina's credit cards to make an Internet purchase, according to an arrest warrant. Charged with first-degree murder, he has pleaded not guilty.
''Clearly, the users of these phone line services find anonymous intimacy thrilling and titillating. What they don't count on that killers and thugs find the same encounters very profitable,'' said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle. ``Dying for love should only be a metaphor.''