‘Great peacemaker, friend:’ Retired GBI agent dies at 52 following battle with kidney disease

ATLANTA — Merlin Ector, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent who survived three kidney transplants, years of dialysis and life-threatening undercover confrontations in a 30-year career, died Thursday, just seven months after he retired from the GBI.

He was 52 years old.

Friends and fellow law enforcement officers knew him as a devoted family man, Christian and youth football coach and a wise-cracking practical joker who used his easy-going, mirthful personality to defuse potentially deadly situations.

“I’ve known Merlin most of his life,” retired GBI Director Vernon Keenan said. “He was an outstanding agent in all aspects. He was truly a genuine man of integrity and maturity. He was often assigned to investigate politically sensitive cases because of his demeanor and thoroughness. Merlin had a way of ‘calming the waters.’”

“What a gentle giant and the epitome of what the American public is wanting and expecting from today’s law enforcement,” said Clarence Cox, past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE).

Ector was the son of Moses Ector, the first African-American named to the rank of inspector, one of the GBI’s top supervisors. But after a stint in the U.S. Army and as a state corrections officer, the younger Ector carved out his own reputation, almost as soon as he started with the agency in 1990 as a narcotics agent working undercover around the state.

“Merlin was a fast thinker in that undercover world,” said Robert Ford, his partner in the early years, who described an episode in Rome. “We pulled up to the house to buy dope,” Ford said, and the suspect almost immediately held Ford at gunpoint. The smooth-talking but genuine Ector talked the gunman down.

Ford said in McIntosh County, an informant stole Ector’s car—a big problem when a suspect’s girlfriend told them a drug dealer was on the way to kill them. But Ector helped talk the woman into driving them away from the scene in her car. Ford said Ector was astute, a voracious reader, but "Merlin had that way of making people feel at ease…always in a good mood, always laughing.”

“He was so natural at it because he was such a real person,” said retired GBI Agent Cecil Hutchins, who recalled Ector playing a drug trafficker with aplomb undercover to help Hutchins nail a dirty police officer.

After he was promoted to special agent, Ector worked a variety of cases in metro Atlanta ranging from murder to healthcare fraud.

GBI Internal Affairs Director Fred Mays said Ector, with street and police contacts across Metro Atlanta, often used his humor to make suspects open up. “They trusted him,” Mays said.

Retired Covington Police Captain Craig Treadwell said he and Ector worked several cases together, one of them an execution-style murder. He says they worked hard to locate an important witness, a drug dealer they knew only by his street name and dangerous reputation. He described waiting outside a liquor store, gun in hand, while Ector went inside to look for the witness, with whom Treadwell soon saw Ector laughing and hugging. It turned out Ector had gone to high school with him. He said they arrested and convicted four men for the murder.

Ector was barely 21 years old when he met the love of his life, the former Antoinette “Toni” Edge, who was working in a video store on Columbia Drive. Ector walked in with a date, took the date home and came back to the store to talk to the woman who would become his wife.

She said other than his work, Ector spent most of his time focused on his family, including daughter Chelsea, now 26, and son Chandler, 24. He began coaching youth football when Chandler was five, but continued for years after Chandler made his school team, with a particular focus on the kids few others, if anyone, believed in.

Ector was still in his 20s when he got his first of three kidney transplants. The story of the third kidney, donated by DeKalb Police Detective Vicinda Crawford in the early 2000s, was featured on WSB-TV and in Jet magazine.

It failed in 2014 and Ector began dialysis but continued his GBI career for another six years.

“He stayed in and did what he did had to do because he loved the GBI,” said Hutchins, “and I’m sure there were other reasons”

Hutchins and Mays, one of his closest friends, both said they often talked late at night to Ector about his strong Christian faith. Hutchins, who is also a minister, said in the final months of his life Ector watched Hutchins' sermons online, since dialysis and COVID-19 concerns curbed his church attendance.

“Merlin was a great peacemaker, friend, co-worker and he truly loved his family,” said Mays, who quoted the Book of Matthew. “'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God'.”

Partly to support Toni as she battled breast cancer, Ector administered dialysis to himself at home in his final months.

“Through his many health challenges, he was still a servant who relied on his inner strength and faith in God to carry him through,” said Cox, who said when he would ask Ector about missing a NOBLE meeting or community project, he often replied by talking about how well his son played that day, or about a shopping excursion with his daughter.

He is survived by his wife and children, father, sister Chekesha Ector-Johnson, brother Jeffery Arnold, sister-in-law Jasmine Arnold, stepmother Claretha Ector, nephews Chad Johnson and Sydney Arnold, and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. He was pre-deceased by his mother, Parthenia Ector.

Visitation will be Tuesday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Gregory B. Levett and Sons Funeral Home on Flat Shoals Parkway in Decatur with a graveside service the next day for family and close friends.