An 18-year-old and a 16-year-old have been charged for murdering 67-year-old Donald Merkley, who was found deceased in a January 11, 2017 fire at his home located at 3353 Timberline Road, West, Winter Haven. The State Fire Marshal's Office initially determined the fire was accidental and likely caused by a small electric heater pending further investigation. Subsequent investigation and interviews with the suspects has determined that Merkley was choked and struck on the head with a baseball bat, and that the house was set on fire to cover up the murder.
18-year-old Jerry Johnsey of Auburndale was charged with 1st Degree Murder, Conspiracy to commit robbery, robbery with a weapon, Tampering with evidence, and Arson. Jonsey was booked into the Polk County jail early this morning and is being held on no bond.
16-year-old Byron Lasiak of Winter Haven was charged with 1st Degree Murder, Conspiracy to commit robbery, and robbery with a weapon. Lasiak was booked into the Juvenile Assessment Center and is being held in the Juvenile Detention facility in Bartow.
The following is an excerpt from the affidavits, which are public record, and are self-explanatory:
On January 11th 2017, at approximately 1107 hours, Polk County Sheriff's Office along with Polk County Fire Department responded to a residential house fire at 3353 Timberline Road West, Winter Haven, Florida. Upon their arrival, the fire was extinguished and the victim, later identified as Donald Merkley was located in a bedroom on the North East side of the residence. The decedent was located lying on his back and was badly burned. There was a baseball bat lying in the debris to the left of the victim. The bedroom the decedent was located in was completely charred by the fire. At the time of investigation, nothing appeared to be suspicious inside of the residence. The State Fire Marshal's Office responded to the scene to conduct the fire portion of the investigation. PCSO was advised by lead investigator Detective Monte Taylor of The State Fire Marshal's Office his preliminary findings were the fire appeared to have been started in the living room of the residence, possibly by a space heater. The victim's clothes were taken by the State Fire Marshal's Office to be sent to the laboratory for processing.
On 2/8/2017, PCSO received information that a subject identified as "Byron" witnessed Jerry Johnsey murder the decedent. Detectives made arrangements to meet with Byron on 2/9/2017.
On 2/09/2017, PCSO detectives conducted an interview with Byron Lasiak. Lasiak advised the following: on 1/10/2017, around 1600 hours, he was riding in a vehicle with Jerry Johnsey heading back to his residence. Johnsey told him he (Lasiak) needed to stop by a guy's house on Timberline Road West. They arrived and parked Johnsey's white 2003 Saturn in front of the decedent's driveway. Johnsey knocked on the door and the decedent answered. Johnsey motioned for him (Lasiak) to come inside and he (Lasiak) met the decedent for the first time and shook his hand. He observed the decedent reach out and grab Johnsey's private area, both then proceed to the decedent's bedroom. He then sat on the couch watching an episode of COPS on the television. After about 15-20 minutes he heard a commotion in the bedroom. As he opened the bedroom door, he observed Johnsey choking the decedent with a belt. He freaked out and yelled "what are you doing." Johnsey then picked up a baseball bat and struck the decedent on the forehead. He did not know if the decedent was alive or dead. He advised when they left the residence, Johnsey told him if he ever told anyone he (Johnsey) would kill his entire family. Johnsey then dropped him off at his residence and left the area. He advised on 1/11/2017, at approximately 1000 hours, Johnsey called him and told him not to worry. Johnsey stated he had just poured gas in the house and on the victim, torching the place.
At approximately 1556 hours, while interviewing Lasiak, Johnsey called. Detectives advised Lasiak to answer the call on speaker phone. Lasiak told Johnsey that he did not want to talk because he was upset over the incident. Johnsey stated "about that thing?" Johnsey then stated "I told you not to worry about it and you will forget about it soon," Johnsey said, "I killed that man because he was a pedophile." Johnsey also stated "I needed a quick two thousand dollars and I thought he would have the money, I needed the money quick for my car." Johnsey told Lasiak to "forget about it, he is not going down alone, and he would be an accessory to murder." Lasiak asked Johnsey if he really set the house on fire and Johnsey stated "yes I torched it and poured gas all over the house and the body." Johnsey stated, "The Fire Marshal's Office sucks in Florida and it is a closed case, they said the cause was a faulty space heater. As long as you don't say anything to anyone about this, nobody will ever know." Johnsey proceeds to tell Byron that "if he tells anyone, he would kill him and his family, you better take this to your grave."
Lasiak stated that he is scared to death of Johnsey and that Johnsey calls him constantly and drives by his house. He is worried that Johnsey is going to kill him and his family.
On 2/10/17, PCSO detectives contacted District 10 Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen J. Nelson who had performed the autopsy on the decedent and inquired about the autopsy finding. Dr. Nelson reviewed his file from the autopsy and advised there was no soot found in the trachea or lungs of the decedent which is indicative of the decedent being deceased prior to the fire. Dr. Nelson further advised the decedent's blood and organs did not have a cherry red appearance which is often the case in subjects who have succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Dr. Nelson also noted the decedent had a fracture to the front forehead of the skull and a corresponding fracture on the rear of his skull. These findings are consistent with the version of events provided by Lasiak. At this time Dr. Nelson's findings are still pending toxicology testing.
On 2/10/17, at approximately 1511 hours, PCSO detectives conducted a recorded interview with Jerry Johnsey at the Polk County Sheriff's Office Special Operations Center. Johnsey was located and placed under arrest in reference to this investigation. Search incident to arrest he was found in possesion of cannabis. Prior to the interview Johnsey was advised of his rights according to Miranda. During the interview Johnsey advised the following: he confessed that he planned to "hit a lick" at the victim's residence the night of 1/10/2017. He traveled to the incident location with his friend Byron Lasiak. After knocking on the victim's front door several times, the victim opened the door. Johnsey motioned for Lasiak to come inside and the two (2) entered the residence. All three (3) subjects briefly talked about doing a threesome and then entered into the victim's bedroom. Johnsey stated "[redacted due to content sexual in nature] I told him to stop because he was only sixteen years old". Johnsey advised the victim said I don't care at this point and continued. Johnsey stated "I put him in a choke hold and made him go to sleep." Johnsey stated, "I know how to wrestle and I knew he was out." As he was choking the victim, he told Lasiak to grab the bat that was leaning against the closet wall. At this time Lasiak grabbed the bat and walked around in front of the victim and Johnsey. He asked Lasiak for the bat when Lasiak suddenly swung the bat striking the victim across his forehead. Johnsey said at this time I knew the man was dead. Johnset stated, "We rummaged through the man's house and I found some gas in the garage. I poured gas all over the house and the victim, and then we left." As they were running out of the residence Johnsey took $2.75 off of the kitchen counter. Johnsey advised on 2/11/2017, around 1000 hours, he returned to the residence in his vehicle. He stated he picked the lock to the door and entered the home. Once inside of the residence Johnsey stated "I poured more gas throughout the residence and on the body, and lit a match." He advised after he set the fire, he called Lasiak and said "don't worry about it I just torched the place."
On January 11, 2017, at approximately 1058 hours, Jerry Johnsey, willfully and unlawfully set a fire to the contents of an occupied structure at 3353 W Timberline Road, Winter Haven, FL. The structure is a single story block style house used as the primary residence and owned property of Donald Merkley. Damages to the Structure (and contents) were estimated at approximately 25,000 dollars. Jerry Johnsey admitted in a post Miranda interview on February 10, 2017, to pouring an ignitable liquid to the contents of a bedroom and upon Donald Merkley and then igniting the liquid with an open flame device (match) in an effort to conceal a crime in violation of 806.01 (1)c.
On 02/10/2017 at approximately 1730 hours, Detectives interviewed Byron Lasiak at the Sheriff's Operations Center. Prior to the interview Lasiak was advised of his rights according to Miranda. Lasiak advised the following: He has known Jerry Johnsey for approximately four (4) years. Lasiak said over Christmas break, Johnsey started talking about a man he met on Craigslist. Johnsey said the Craigslist ad was something to do with "men meeting men." Johnsey even told him he (Johnsey) had met with the man. On 01/10/2017, Johnsey started talking about a plan to rob the man he met on Craigslist. On the evening of 01/10/2017, Johnsey and him went to the man's house. He described the man as an "old man." He said Johnsey knocked several times before the man answered the door. Once inside, Johnsey told him to let the man [redacted due to content sexual in nature]. He initially refused but then agreed. [redacted due to content sexual in nature] Johnsey came up behind the man and put the decedent in a choke hold. He thought Johnsey held the man in the choke hold for a couple minutes. He said Johnsey then put a belt around the man's neck and pulled it as tight as he could. Johnsey told him to get a bat that was in the room. He said the bat was leaning against a wall. He got the bat. He said he didn't think about it first, he just hit the man in the head with the bat. He only hit the man once and then gave the bat to Johnsey. Johnsey did not hit the man with the bat. He said the man's head split open and described the split being horizontal across his forehead. He said he froze after all this happened. He said he was scared and knew the man was dead. He described Johnsey wandering around the man's house and rummaging through things. He said when they left, Johnsey took some change off of the man's kitchen counter. He said Jerry called him the next morning at approximately 1000 hours. Johnsey told him he didn't have to worry about it because he just poured gas in the victim's house and on him and torched it.