Now almost four years since his sister’s death, Joe Walkowiak is tired of waiting for answers from authorities.
He’s taking the lead in the investigation.
In a case of life imitating art crafted from the heartache of an unsolved murder, Walkowiak is going public with his frustration with the lack of progress by law enforcement. He’s calling them out in a billboard going up soon along the North Cross Valley. He paid for the billboard himself — he wouldn’t say how much it cost — and is offering a $10,000 reward for an arrest in the death of Laurie Merritt.
Walkowiak, the older brother of Merritt, acknowledged he’s following the lead of the Oscar-winning film, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” in his approach. The movie, taking its cues from a cold case in Texas, tells the story of a woman who resorts to publicly shaming police to solve her daughter’s murder.
“I tried to get three of them. They didn’t have three,” Walkowiak said Friday of his billboard idea.
Instead one asks: “Why no arrests? Why no investigation?” It also blasts the Luzerne County District Attorney and the Wilkes-Barre Police Department, stating: “You did not do your job!!!”
Taking it a step further, Walkowiak said the officers who first investigated and have since retired should be held responsible. “They should take their pensions away for not doing their jobs,” he said.
Walkowiak, who lives in Margate, N.J., said he was critical of the investigation almost from the start after the 51-year-old postal carrier’s unresponsive body was found by firefighters in the attic of her Wyoming Street house around 11:30 p.m. April 14, 2014. Merritt was pronounced dead at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital a short time later the morning of April 15.
Her death was originally ruled accidental, but was changed to pending an investigation after a state police fire marshal determined the fire was intentionally set.
In the four years since, Walkowiak and other members of the Merritt family have been given updates on the case that they’ve complained has proceeded at a painfully slow pace. The updates coincide with the anniversary of Merritt’s death.
“All they do is appease us around this time of the year,” Walkowiak said.
In the past, they were told the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was involved, and investigators used software to open Merritt’s password-locked iPhone found next to her body. Last year, the family was told the death was not a suicide.
“I’m waiting to see what the DA is going to say this year,” Walkowiak said.
In a text message to the Times Leader, all District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis would say about the case is: “It is under investigation.”
Expecting to be disappointed again, Walkowiak said he’s putting up the billboard for a month and offering the reward with the hopes it leads to fresh leads.
“We’re not going to forget my sister,” he said.
The billboard goes up Wednesday facing eastbound traffic heading toward Wilkes-Barre from the West Side and Back Mountain and is on the left side of the roadway just before the Rutter Avenue overpass in Kingston.
The phone number for the reward won’t be activated until April 7.
“If something comes of it, that’s great,” Walkowiak said.