Two Polk County teenagers now stand as accused killers. Investigators with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office say a Craigslist “Men-seeking-Men” ad led to a robbery plot, then murder and arson.
Deputies say the calculated crime unfolded at 67-year-old Donald Merkley’s Winter Haven home in January, but only Monday arrested 16-year-old Byron Lasiak and 18-year-old Jerry Johnsey, who are accused in a deadly scheme.
Based on 10News crime guidelines, we don't normally name juveniles, but are doing so because of the severity of these crimes. Both teens are facing felony murder charges.
Investigators say the teens planned to show up at the victim's house, get him engaged in a sex act with the 16-year-old, then extort him for money. Deputies say the scheme went sideways, winding up with the victim dead and the house torched to cover up the crime.
“It's cold-blooded. It’s sick. They’re both old enough to know better,” said neighbor Brooke Warner.
Warner rushed in to try to save Merkley, but it was too late.
“The fire was too major by that point,” she said.
The fire consumed the house, but detectives believe Merkley was killed the night before.
At first, fire investigators thought a faulty space heater was to blame. Nearly a month later, a tip came in from a friend of Lasiak, who said he witnessed the murder.
“Byron definitely said something, because we made him say something. You’re not going to keep that away from people. He's a 67-year-old man. He deserved to live. He did not deserve to die that way,” said Lasiak’s friend, Alexis Ruston. She added, however, that she doesn’t believe Lasiak had a hand in the murder.
“Byron is not that type of kid,” she said.
Lasiak claims that Johnsey, had hooked up with the victim before through a Craiglist personal ad, and stopped by the house to rob him, saying "he needed a quick $2000."
Investigators believe the group had been having a consensual threesome, but when the victim wouldn't stop the sex act, Johnsey strangled him with a belt.
Each teen blames the other for hitting the victim in the head with a baseball bat and leaving him to die.
Johnsey admits to deputies to returning the next morning alone, dousing the house and the victim with gas and starting the fire.
“It's upsetting to think anyone, especially someone that young, could be so evil. To have a plan, to carry out like that, to be able to commit something like that? I don't know how anyone can do any of that,” said Warner.
Investigators say Johnsey took $2.75 off the kitchen counter - a far cry from the $20,000 he had hoped to find. Yet the scheme cost Merkley his life.
The state attorney is deciding whether 16-year-old Lasiak will be charged as an adult.
Right now, both teens are in jail without bond.
Here is the full affidavit from the sheriff's office.