After four years of living with mysterious circumstances surrounding Laurie Merritt’s death, family members now demand answers. They don’t mind if police and prosecutors get upset with their insistence. People who loved the 51-year-old Wilkes-Barre mail carrier will tell you law enforcement owes them and not the other way around.
Four years is simply too long to wait for simple answers to simple questions.
For example, did Merritt suffer a cut under her eye before she died in Wilkes-Barre General Hospital following the April 14, 2014, fire in her home?
Daughter Kristin Merritt says she will never forget seeing that cut — a “straight slice under her left eye” — when she stood with her mother’s body in the hospital to say goodbye. Five other people at the hospital also saw the cut, Kristin said.
Luzerne County Coroner Bill Lisman, who attended Merritt’s autopsy, said in a telephone interview Tuesday he doesn’t recall a cut beneath Merritt’s eye.
“Do you know how many bodies I’ve seen since then?” he said.
If such a cut existed the pathologist who conducted the autopsy would have mentioned it and noted the wound on the autopsy report, Lisman said. Such a gash would have played a part in determining the manner of death, which Lisman said he does not know. Kristin Merritt said Lisman told her no trace of blunt force trauma appeared on her mother’s body. Lisman said he does not remember telling her that but does not disagree that he did.
No member of Laurie Merritt’s family has seen the autopsy report.
Lisman said even if he has legal discretion to release the autopsy report – and he’s not sure he does – he will not release or discuss the report with anyone except law enforcement officials as long as an open investigation is underway. Lisman said he has not talked about the case with anybody in law enforcement in more than two years.
Lisman, who said he was present at the scene of the fire, “presumes” Pennsylvania State Police officers photographed the fire scene and have possession of those photographs. Autopsy photographs also are in PSP hands, he said. Lisman said he has not seen any photographs of the fire or the body.
Troop P Wyoming state police officials refused to confirm or deny if they have fire scene and/or autopsy photographs.
PSP Spokeswoman Deanna Piekanski said in an email, “The case you inquired about is an open investigation within the Wilkes Barre Police Department. We do not comment on other departments (sic) cases that we supplement only. I refer you back to the Wilkes Barre Police Department.”
As of now, nobody in law enforcement is officially calling Merritt’s death a homicide. But Merritt’s brother, Joe Walkowiak, said his sister lived in fear of a man with whom she once shared a years-long domestic relationship. She said he stalked her, Walkowiak said. Somebody slit the tires on her car about a month before she died, he said. She felt terrorized and had obtained and filled out an application for a handgun permit that he found on her dresser after her death, he said.
Kristin also remembers her mother’s abuse at the hands of the same man. Once, she said in a recent interview, when all three were living together, she came home to find the man had locked her mother in the bedroom. Controlling, verbally abusive and violent, Kristin said the man tore the telephone cord out of the wall when Kristin tried to call police. Another time, one night when Kristin was getting ready to go out, her mother stood in the bathroom doorway while they were talking.
“I asked her what I was going to do when he finally killed her,” Kristin said.
Her mother didn’t react to her question because they had discussed this deathly possibility before, she said, and the grisly question didn’t surprise her mother.
Lisman said he would order a coroner’s inquest if District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis suggests one should be convened. Lisman said he conducted a similar inquest four years ago with the help of the district attorney’s office. State law allows any county coroner to assemble a six-person jury for an inquest if the coroner is unable to determine the cause and manner of death following the autopsy.
Cause of death means the medical reason a person died – in Merritt’s case, smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide. Manner of death explains the circumstances of death: Natural, accident, homicide, suicide or undetermined.
Contrary to what the two Wilkes-Barre detectives (now both retired) assigned to the case initially believed, toxicological tests found no drugs or alcohol in Merritt’s system, Walkowiak said. Lisman said officials even ordered extra toxicological tests that came back negative.
Investigators have ruled out suicide.
Lisman first determined the manner of death to be accidental. After PSP Deputy Fire Marshal Ron Jarocha determined the blaze to be intentionally set, Lisman changed the official manner of death to “pending an investigation.”
Ordering a new investigation makes sense.
So does a coroner’s inquest.
A better look at Laurie Merritt’s death is long overdue.
Steve Corbett is a longtime journalist in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Reach him at [email protected]