Woman ordered to stand trial in fatal boarding house fire

PITTSBURGH (AP) - A woman must stand trial in a boarding house fire that killed its owner and two other residents, even though her confession outlining how she allegedly started the blaze differs from scientific evidence found at the scene, a judge ruled Friday.

Latoya Lyerly, 44, is charged with criminal homicide and arson in the Feb. 17, 2016 blaze. The fire killed the home's owner, Derlyn Vance, 73, and two residents, Calvin Turner, 56, and Gerald Johnson, 68.

Pittsburgh police Detective Artie Patterson testified at a preliminary hearing that Lyerly told her she lit paper coffee filters and used them to ignite kitchen chair cushions and a couch.

Lyerly told police the residence was filled with "prostitutes, drug use and a lot of demons" and that unspecified voices told her "everybody in that house was evil and had to die, especially 'Daddy'," which was her nickname for Vance, Patterson testified.

Detective Michael Burns, an arson investigator, said during Lyerly's preliminary hearing that he determined the fire was started by someone who poured gasoline or kerosene around a mattress in the room where Lyerly slept and on some adjacent stairs that led to the second floor, where all three victims were found dead.

Assistant Allegheny County Public Defender Andrew Capone argued Lyerly shouldn't stand trial on three counts each of criminal homicide and aggravated arson, among other charges, if her alleged confession didn't match the physical evidence.

"If the Commonwealth rests its case on her statement, they can't have it both ways," Capone told City Court Judge Dan Butler.

But Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini said Lyerly's confession was sufficient to send the case to trial and said it didn't match the physical evidence only because it was "self-serving."

Another bizarre detail emerged when Pellegrini read autopsy reports during the hearing. Although Vance died of burns, he also had been shot in the head. Pellegrini didn't explain or comment on that revelation, and Capone declined to comment. He didn't dispute or question the report's contents during the hearing.

Lyerly also allegedly told Patterson that she was "being dramatic" when she acted distraught and spoke to news reporters covering the fire as she returned from a store she walked to after fire started.

"She starts running, throws her hands up, and fell in the middle of the street," Patterson said, adding Lyerly was yelling, "Daddy, daddy!" Lyerly confessed to telling a friend "she should have won an Oscar" for her performance, Patterson said.

Detective Christopher Kertis, who first interviewed Lyerly, said he thought she was faking her reactions at the scene.

"Honestly, it was like a show," she testified, noting Lyerly was making crying sounds but "there were no tears coming out."

Lyerly first told Kertis she left before the fire started, then later - but before her final confession to Patterson - acknowledged accidentally setting the fire by dropping a cigarette on her mattress, which is where the arson investigator determined the fire started.

Lyerly had lived in the boarding house for about three weeks and earned money by cleaning and cooking for Vance. She told Kertis they had argued the night before when she refused to turn down her radio.

"She told him she was going to burn the house down," Kertis said.

Lyerly remains jailed without bond.


This story has been corrected to show the detective said Lyerly claimed to have set the fire using paper coffee filters, not paper cups.

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