Andrew Dys

Suspect pleads guilty in rape, kidnapping of Winthrop student

Merrilled Christopher Stewart
Merrilled Christopher Stewart

A Charlotte man pleaded guilty Tuesday to abducting and raping a Winthrop University student in 2011.

Merrilled Christopher Stewart, 27, pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct and kidnapping. Under a negotiated plea deal, a judge sentenced him to eight years in prison.

Stewart’s plea came just before attorneys were set to begin selecting a jury for his trial. The victim did not wish to address the court Tuesday.

Police have said Stewart kidnapped the then-20-year-old Winthrop student from her apartment building at about 2 a.m. Dec. 14, 2011. The apartments are located next to the Winthrop campus but are privately owned.

The victim told investigators the man put a kitchen knife to her side and forced her into her car. She said the man then made her drive to another apartment complex nearby and ordered her to get undressed.

Police say the attacker raped the woman for nearly 20 minutes and ran away.

After the woman reported the incident to Safe Passage, a service for victims of sexual assault, officials released a police sketch of the assailant but did not identify possible suspects.

Police re-opened the rape case after a student was sexually assaulted outside a campus building on Nov. 1, 2014, within minutes of which Winthrop police made an arrest. Later, police officials said there were some similarities in the two cases but did not give details about the ongoing investigation.

Prosecutors said Tuesday that DNA collected after the assault matched Stewart.

Stewart’s case went to trial last month, but a judge declared a mistrial after bailiffs escorted Stewart toward a holding cell in view of the trial jury. Jurors are typically not allowed to see a defendant brought into or out of court to avoid any potential prejudice created by seeing the defendant in handcuffs or being escorted by police.

Stewart is a convicted sex offender from North Carolina who also has a criminal record in Chester County. He has been jailed since July.

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