Woman tells police she set Homewood blaze because home ‘filled with demons’
February 18, 2016 9:12 AM
Latoya Lyerly is comforted after arriving at the scene in Homewood.
Firefighters work the scene of a fatal house fire on North Lang Avenue in the Homewood North section of Pittsburgh.
Firemen try to reach the second floor of a house on North Lang Avenue in Homewood.
At least one person was killed this morning in this house that caught fire on North Lang Avenue in Homewood.
A firefighters tries to gain access to the second floor of the house on North Lang Avenue.
By Michael A. Fuoco and Andrew Goldstein / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A 42-year-old woman told Pittsburgh homicide detectives that she heard voices early Wednesday saying it was her “mission” to kill everyone inside the Homewood house she shared with several other people because the residence “was filled with demons.”
Latoya Lyerly said she then bunched up and lit paper coffee strainers, using them to set fire to a chair on the first floor of 1517 N. Lang Ave. and to a couch in the first-floor bedroom where she stayed.
After the fire began to spread, Ms. Lyerly told detectives, “she grabbed her coat, opened the front door, locked it and then walked away from the residence,” according to an affidavit supporting her arrest. Arson investigators also told detectives that an arson dog detected accelerants at several spots on the first floor of the residence.
Killed in the two-alarm fire were three men, including the home’s owner, Derlyn Vance, 73, according to the affidavit and verified to reporters by his sister, Michelle McIntosh, 57, of Sheraden. The Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office said later Wednesday that it had not confirmed Mr. Vance’s identity.
The office did confirm the names of the other two victims — Calvin Turner, 56, and Gerald Johnson, 68.
Ms. Lyerly was expected to be arraigned overnight on three counts each of homicide and aggravated arson and single counts of endangering persons, endangering property and causing or risking catastrophe. She faces a preliminary hearing Feb. 26 at 10 a.m.
Mr. Vance was known to allow people down on their luck to live in the three-bedroom, three-story wood-frame home from time to time.
Police said Ms. Lyerly had been living there for about three weeks after being kicked out of the YMCA in McKeesport. Court records show that Pittsburgh police arrested her in November on a charge of endangering the welfare of children. She is awaiting trial.
She told detectives she referred to Mr. Vance as “Dad.” She said others living there were Mr. Turner, Mr. Johnson and someone by the name of “Queenie,” although that person was not further identified.
Ms. Lyerly said she had no money, so Mr. Vance would pay her to cook and clean for him. She told detectives that the night before the fire, she was cooking spaghetti and hamburgers and cleaning for Mr. Vance. At some point during the night, she said, Mr. Vance began arguing with her because a radio was playing too loudly.
“Lyerly stated that the argument got heated and at some point … she told [Mr. Vance] she was going to burn the [expletive] house down,” Detective Christopher Kertis wrote in the affidavit. After the argument, Mr. Vance went upstairs, she remained downstairs and both went to sleep. She set the fire after waking up around 6 a.m., the affidavit said.
Ms. McIntosh said her brother “was a good man, and he tried to help out a lot of people. He just didn’t like to see people down and out.”
Sarah Machado, 44, of Homewood can attest to that.
“I wouldn’t be sober now if it wasn’t for him,” she said Wednesday outside the burned-out home. Three years ago she was “strung out” on heroin and crack, she said.
“I met him in a grocery store and he gave me $20 for food,” she recalled. “I was staying in abandoned houses and doing shady stuff and he said, ‘Girl, that is no way to live.’
“He offered me a place to get a shower, to get food, to stay. He gave me a chance when no one else would.”
She said she’s off drugs now and would never forget the kindness. “He’d open his door to anybody. He helped people out.”
Bob Cravener of New Kensington knows that, too. He saw a video of a fire-destroyed home on TV news Wednesday morning and knew it was his friend Mr. Vance’s home.
He and his wife rushed to the scene, but all he could do was stare in despair at the house where he said Mr. Vance helped those who were down on their luck with a place to stay, some food, clothing and even some cash.
“He was a nice human being who helped other human beings through rough times,” said Mr. Cravener, who met Mr. Vance in 2010 through a mutual friend. The two men hit it off and became friends, working together as “scuffling” mechanics, working on cars on North Lang.
But it was Mr. Vance’s kindness and empathy for everyone that touched Mr. Cravener.
“He was a model of a modern-day Jesus,” Mr. Cravener said of the man he described as like a brother or even a father to him. “He was the friendliest person to anyone in need.”
City Fire Chief Darryl Jones said firefighters were initially dispatched at 6:21 a.m. for a smoke alarm at the house next door to where the fire occurred.
A 21-year-old resident there said his younger brother was awakened by the smell of smoke. He investigated and found thick brown smoke seeping through windows on the side of the house closest to the burning structure. He and three other occupants escaped unharmed.
While firefighters were responding to that dispatch, Chief Jones said, 911 received a call at 6:28 reporting a fire at 1517 N. Lang. Firefighters arrived two minutes later to find fire throughout the three-story structure. A second alarm was called in at 6:32 a.m.
Firefighters entered the structure to knock down the blaze and search for occupants. That’s when they discovered two of the victims on the second floor, Chief Jones said. Another victim was found on the third floor.
Public safety spokeswoman Emily Schaffer said firefighters were initially unaware that anyone was inside the house and found out only when they discovered the bodies on the second floor. The body of the third victim was found later as firefighters were performing a secondary sweep of the house, she said. All three were pronounced dead at the scene.
Detectives said that while they were assisting at the scene, Ms. Lyerly arrived about 9:15 a.m., became visibly upset and told officers she lived on the first floor. She was taken to headquarters, where she was interviewed by detectives.
Michael A. Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-263-1968. Andrew Goldstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1352. Staff writer Jonathan D. Silver contributed.