When first responders arrived at the Winter Haven, Florida home of Donald Merkley, they believed that an old space heater had been what had set the home ablaze. Inside, the body of Merkley was found, presumed to be dead on account of an unforeseen accident. The Ledger writes,
“A raging house fire caused by an electrical heater killed a man in his home Wednesday morning.
Donald Merkley, of 3353 Timberline Road W., died in the blaze. Merkley, 67, was a union president at International Paper in Lake Wales and worked at the company for 12 years until it closed in 2013.
Late Wednesday, District Medical Examiner Stephen Nelson said he planned to conduct an autopsy Thursday to determine the cause of death.
Thursday, the PCSO said in a release that the State Fire Marshal’s Office determined the fire originated in the living room of the home, and it was caused by a small electric heater placed close to a recliner chair.”
The case was closed shortly after the fatal house fire. Investigators had no reason to believe that Merkley’s death had been anything more than a tragic accident, until a month later when they received a tip from someone claiming that they had information in regards to the death of Donald Merkle.
According to the tipster, a friend of her’s named Byron had told her in confidence that he had witnessed another teen named Jerry Johnsey murder Merkley. He also confided in her that after the murder, Johnsey had returned to the home and set it on fire in order to cover the evidence.
Byron Lasiak was contacted by police after receiving the tip and he agreed to an interview. According to the affidavit, Lasiak told police that Johnsey had been taking him home when Johnsey told Lasiak that he had to stop at someone’s house. The two boys pulled into the driveway of Donald Merkley and Johnsey knocked on the door while Lasiak waited in the car. When Merkley answered the door, Johnsey motioned for Lasiak to come inside with him.
Lasiak says that he witnessed Merkley grab for Johnsey’s genitals and the two went into a bedroom while Lasiak sat in the living room watching television. Approximately 15-20 minutes later, Lasiak said he heard a lot of commotion coming from the bedroom and opened the door to see what was going on. There he witnessed Johnsey strangling Merkley with a belt. Johnsey then grabbed a baseball bat and hit Merkley in the forehead, rendering him unconscious.
Johnsey threatened Lasiak and warned him not to tell anyone about what had occurred at Merkley’s home that afternoon. Johnsey later assured Lasiak that he had thrown gasoline around the house and set it on fire.
During the police interview with Lasiak, Johnsey had called him. Police asked Lasiak to answer the call on speakerphone so they could listen in. During the call, Johnsey admitted he had killed Merkley because he believed that he was a pedophile and thought it was a good way to get a “quick $2,000.” He also told Lasiak that if he ever told anyone about it then he would kill him and his entire family, warning him that he had better take their secret “to his grave.”
This information was enough to consider Johnsey a person of interest and police requested an interview with him. Several days later, Johnsey agreed to cooperate with police.
Johnsey’s statement differed from the story told to police by Lasiak. Rather than sitting in the living room, as Lasiak had stated, Johnsey told investigators that Merkley had entertained the idea of having a threesome with both boys. Merkley then pulled down Lasiak’s pants and began performing oral sex on him. Johnsey said he tried to stop the act because Lasiak was only 16-years-old, but Merkley had refused. Johnsey says he then began choking the man and Lasiak hit him with the bat. Afterwards, both boys rummaged through the home, taking a few items and pouring gasoline found in Merkley’s garage throughout the house. Johnsey told police he then returned to the home the following day, poured more gasoline around the home and on Merkley’s body, and then struck a match, causing the inferno.
After the interview with Johnsey, police called Lasiak back for a follow-up interview and discussed some of the conflicting details of Johnsey’s statement. Lasiak admitted that he knew that Johnsey had been talking with an older man he met through a Craigslist personal ad and had several sexual encounters with Merkley prior to taking Lasiak to his home. Johnsey believed that the scam would net him a cool $2,000, instead all he made out with was $2.75 in change from the counter and a murder charge.
Lasiak admitted that he had allowed Merkley to perform oral sex on him in order to distract him while Johnsey grabbed a belt. Johnsey then strangled Merkley to the point of losing consciousness, while he went to get a bat. Lasiak said he didn’t think about what he was doing, he just grabbed the bat and swung at the man’s head, causing his skull to split open.
“I don’t think he [Merkley] was a pedophile,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd told Fox 13,
“I think he was after sex and he got a lot more than he bargained for. He got a red hot deal.”
Both Johnsey and Lasiak have been charged with first-degree murder. No word on when a court date will be set for the teens.