Teens charged with murder after killing man who responded to Craigslist ad
What cops say began as a twisted scheme to con a 67-year-old man out of cash allegedly ended with his death at the hands of two Florida teenagers.
Deputies from the Polk County Sheriff's Office this week arrested 18-year-old Jerry Johnsey and 16-year-old Byron Lasiak as part of the investigation into the death of Donald Merkley at his Winter Haven home in January.
Authorities claim the teens plotted to engage Merkley sexually then extort money from him by threatening to reveal he had sex with a minor.
But their plan went awry when Merkley wound up dead, and instead of money, the teens now each face a murder rap.
According to the Polk County Sheriff's Office, Merkley was found dead after a fire at his Winter Haven home January 11.
When authorities arrived that morning, Merkley's body was found, badly burned with a baseball bat lying nearby among charred debris.
The bedroom Merkley was located in was completely burned. At the time of investigation, nothing appeared to be suspicious inside of the residence, police wrote in their report.
Weeks later, however, cops say they received a tip about a possible witness to Merkley's murder. That witness, according to their report, was 16-year-old Lasiak.
Lasiak reportedly told cops that his acquaintance of four years, Johnsey, began talking about a man he'd met on Craigslist around Christmas break. Johnsey reportedly said the Craigslist ad was something to do with "men meeting men."
On January 10, Lasiak said he accompanied Johnsey to the victim's home after Johnsey said he planned to rob the man, the report says.
According to the report, Lasiak told authorities that during the encounter with Merkley, Johnsey began to choke him before allegedly wrapping a belt around the victim's neck.
Lasiak reportedly told police that Johnsey told him to grab nearby baseball bat.
"He said the bat was leaning against a wall," the report reads. "He got the bat... 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."
In a subsequent interview with Johnsey, police say the 18-year-old confirmed Lasiak's version of what happened January 10, adding that he choked Merkley after demanding he stop engaging in sex with Lasiak "because he was only 16 years old."
Johnsey reportedly then told investigators that he and Lasiak rummaged through the victim's belongings and stole $2.75 in change from the kitchen counter.
"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," police quoted Johnsey as saying.
Johnsey and Lasiak were charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit robbery and robbery with a weapon. Johnsey also faces an arson charge.
Lasiak is being held in a juvenile detention facility in Bartow. Jonsey was booked into the Polk County Jail and is being held on no bond.