'Accidental' fire in Winter Haven now considered arson; two teens arrested for murder

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. - The deadly house fire that investigators first ruled as an accident now appears to have been a cover up for murder.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office revealed over the weekend they arrested Jerry Johnsey and Byron Lasiak in connection for the murder of Donald Merkley back in early January at his home in Winter Haven.

Jerry Johnsey, 18, of Auburndale, was charged with first degree murder, conspiracy to commit robbery, robbery with a weapon, tampering with evidence and arson. He was booked into the Polk County Jail Saturday morning and is being held without bail. 

Byron Lasiak, 16, of Winter Haven, was charged with first degree murder, conspiracy to commit robbery, and robbery with a weapon. Lasiak was taken to the Juvenile Assessment Center and is being held in the Juvenile Detention Center in Bartow.

The victim, 67-year-old Donald Merkley was found dead in his home at 3353 Timberlane Road W. in Winter Haven after a fire broke out on Jan. 11, a Polk County Sheriff's Office report said.

The state fire marshal initially determined that a space heater started the fire, but the ruling has now changed after the younger of the two suspects, Lasiak came forward and fessed up.

He told investigators that he went with Johnsey to Merkley’s house, intending on committing a robbery. Johnsey knew Merkley through the adult section of Craigslist, and met for sex before.

But this time, that encounter ended with the teens brutally choking Merkley, and then taking turns beating him with a baseball bat, according to Lasiak’s account.

He said Merely went the next day and set the house on fire to cover their tracks.

“He choked him and choked him and choked him out,” said Sheriff Grady Judd. “And Johnsey said he was going to finish him off with a batt.”

The big question: did the state fire marshal’s office miss some red flags and reach a decision prematurely?

A spokesperson for the office insists “accidental” was a preliminary ruling and that the case was not yet closed.

Sheriff Judd also suggests they would have figured it out eventually.

“All of this would have come together. It came together sooner because this kid’s conscious was eating him up and he confessed, and we appreciate it,” he said.

Jon Moore, a spokesperson for the state Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigation, said in a statement, “In an effort to ensure all leads and circumstances were thoroughly assessed, BFAI’s case remained open and actively investigated and in doing so, the Bureau was later able to determine the fire was intentionally set and indeed an act of arson.”

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