A deadly Winter Haven house fire that reportedly ended the life of a resident named Donald Merkley has now been confirmed by police as being intentionally set.
Police in Polk County recently arrested Jerry Johnsey (left, below), 18, and Byron Lasiak, 16, in relation to the 67-year-old’s January 11 death after Lasiak allegedly relayed to another party that he had a hand in murdering the older man. According to the younger teen’s account of the incident, as transcribed by Elite Daily, Johnsey was said to have invited his 16-year-old accomplice to accompany him to Merkley’s residence in hopes of robbing him after previously linking up with the now-deceased victim through a Craigslist via the site’s adult encounters section.
2 Polk County teens have been arrested & charged with the murder of 67 Y/O Donald Merkley of Winter Haven. pic.twitter.com/bmGu0WIr46
— Christopher Boyd (@CMB_News) February 11, 2017
“[After] the two arrived at Merkley’s home and were greeted by him,” WFLA-8 adds, “Merkley [reportedly] grabbed Johnsey’s private area, and the two went to a bedroom, leaving Lasiak in the living room.”
Lasiak then said that an audibly noticeable commotion between the two lovers caused him to enter the older man’s bedroom for his friend’s safety.
“When he walked in, police say Lasiak saw Johnsey choking Merkley with a belt,” the WFLA-8 post states.
Upon further questioning, Lasiak relented and admitted that he was actually the one in bed with Donald Merkley as a distraction, while Johnsey set up his move. Futhermore, as Merkley was being choked by Johnsey, Lasiak purportedly grabbed a nearby baseball bat and struck the victim several times in the head, effectively knocking him out. After Merkley went down, the two teens then scourged his home to hunt for riches, but came up shorthanded by finding just $2.75.
“Johnsey then allegedly told Lasiak that he would kill his entire family if he told anyone what had happened,” the Sheriff’s Office adds.
After dropping Lasiak off at his family’s home later that afternoon, Johnsey phoned his the younger from his residence and remarked that he had doubled back to the scene of the crime to douse Merkley in gas, and set him and his Winter Haven home ablaze to cover their tracks.
Before Lasiak stepped forward, fire officials from Polk County initially believed that the flames had been caused by a small electrical heater that Merkley possessed inside of his home. Both Lasiak and Johnsey were seized by police on February 11 and charged with separate counts of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit robbery, and robbery with a weapon.
In accordance with his additional action, Johnson also received an arson charge for his involvement.
Despite the young ages of both Johnsey and moreover Lasiak, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd believes that the belated Donald Merkley wasn’t looking for underage sex when he interacted with the pair.
“I don’t think he was a pedophile,” he expresses.
“I think he was [solely] after sex and he got a lot more than he bargained for.”
Furthermore, Judd also suspects that law enforcement would have eventually come to the truth of the matter on their own.
“It came together sooner because this kid’s conscious was eating him up and he confessed,” he said, “and we appreciate it.”
Even though his own words led to his capture, a family friend of Lasiak’s found his violent activities hard to accept.
“He is innocent,” Nicole Ruston adds. “We have known him for years [and] he is not that kind of kid. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Jerry Johnsey is currently awaiting judgment at Polk County Jail, where he sits without bail. Bryan Lasiak, meanwhile, was booked into the Juvenile Assessment Center to be detained for his involvement in the murder of Donald Merkley. Family members of the deceased have not publicly commented on his death or the controversial event that led to him meeting his end, but a past arrest record reveals several previous captures for minor crimes.
[Featured Image by Polk County Sheriff’s Office]