Ex-mother-in-law: Fire suspect suffers from mental illness
February 19, 2016 12:00 AM
Latoya Lyerly was arrested by Pittsburgh police on homicide and other charges related to intentionally setting the blaze.
By Michael A. Fuoco and Andrew Goldstein / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wednesday morning, Argie Lyerly of East Liberty sadly watched the televised images of flames roaring through a Homewood house in which three men perished.
Officials were investigating the fire, but Ms. Lyerly feared she already knew what they had yet to learn.
“When I saw it was on North Lang, I thought, ‘Latoya did it.’ I knew it, I knew it.”
That evening, intuition became reality — Latoya Lyerly, 42, her ex-daughter-in-law whose life, she said, had been ravaged by mental illness, was arrested by Pittsburgh police on homicide and other charges related to intentionally setting the blaze.
Killed were residents Derlyn Vance, 73; Calvin “Carwash” Turner, 56; and Gerald Johnson, 68. All three died of smoke inhalation and burns, the county medical examiner’s office said.
Mr. Vance, the owner of the home at 1517 N. Lang Ave., was known as a kind soul who helped those experiencing hard times by providing them with food, clothes, a place to stay and even some cash.
Such was the case with Latoya Lyerly, who often was homeless and had a string of evictions for non-payment of rent and other infractions. Mr. Vance opened his home to her after she was evicted from the YMCA in McKeesport about three weeks ago, police said. Mr. Vance paid her to cook and clean for him and gave her a place to stay.
On Tuesday evening, the two argued because Mr. Vance said she was playing the radio too loudly, she told detectives. She added that she told him she would “burn the [expletive] place down.”
They went their separate ways to bed. Early Wednesday, Ms. Lyerly said, she awoke and “voices” told her it was her “mission” to kill everyone inside the house because the residence “was filled with demons.” She then set the home ablaze and left, she told detectives.
Argie Lyerly said Latoya Lyerly suffers from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. “I’ve known her for over 23 years and she’s had mental health issues the whole time. Her biological mother had mental health issues her whole life and is institutionalized.
“She was a foster child and her foster mother died. Latoya did have a rough time. I think things had just gone too far with her this time, unfortunately.”
Argie Lyerly said Latoya Lyerly “has been in and out of Western Psych[iatric Institute and Clinic] and Mercy Behavioral Health and homeless shelters.” She’s on psychotropic drugs “but sometimes she doesn’t take them. When she’s on her medications, she’s focused.”
Latoya Lyerly is divorced from Argie Lyerly’s son, Eugene, and the couple have a son, Tatche Lyerly, 22. Latoya Lyerly also has a 5-year-old daughter, Venae Moore, from another relationship, but Argie Lyerly secured permanent legal custody of the child in January 2015 because of Latoya Lyerly’s mental health.
In November, Pittsburgh police said, Latoya Lyerly, who then was staying in a McKeesport homeless shelter, jumped out of a car driven by Argie Lyerly in Homewood and took Venae. Police quickly arrested her and recovered Venae unharmed. Latoya Lyerly is awaiting trial on a charge of endangering the welfare of a child in that incident.
As for Latoya Lyerly’s mental status lately, Argie Lyerly said, “I knew she was frustrated, that she was at the end of her rope. She asked me to stay here on Monday and I told her ‘no.’
“She was just heartbroken by a lot of things, I’m sorry she snapped like that. She was a violent person, period.
“[Mr. Vance] tried to help her, but Latoya just snapped. I feel badly, as I’m sure everybody does.”
Sarah Machado knew Mr. Vance and Latoya Lyerly — she credits Mr. Vance’s kindness with helping her get clean from drugs and she knew Ms. Lyerly from the neighborhood and rents a room in a Homewood house where Ms. Lyerly once lived.
Ms. Machado said Ms. Lyerly was evicted from there because she threatened to burn down that house — the last straw for the landlords.
“She would not go by very simple rules: respect people, stay away from other people’s stuff, noise level, that sort of stuff,” Ms. Machado said. “That just made it very, very unpleasant for people here.”
Ms. Machado said she found Ms. Lyerly to be “volatile. I avoided her like the plague because she’s … just a general, overall unpleasant and very unpredictable person to be around.”
Ms. Machado said Ms. Lyerly had stayed at Mr. Vance’s home before.
“He would give second chances, third chances, fourth chances, so it doesn’t surprise me,” she said.
“I think one of his greatest gifts and one of his biggest faults was that he refused to see anything but good in people, and I feared that something like this would happen, to be perfectly honest.”
Mr. Vance’s family seems to be in a forgiving mood.
Said his sister, Michelle McIntosh, 57, of Sheraden: “I don’t like the act of what she did to my brother but as a Christian myself the word of God says that we have to forgive, and that’s what our family is doing. We’re praying for her family — not only has she affected her family, but she’s affected our family as well. We are standing together as a family and trying to get through this difficult time.”
Michael A. Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-263-1968. Andrew Goldstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1352. Madasyn Czebiniak contributed.