Their view: Tracing Laurie Merritt’s footsteps

Steve Corbett - Guest Columnist

After one last climb to the attic, Laurie Merritt left the world behind.

I recently retraced her final steps.

From the rear of the kitchen in Merritt’s ranch-style home, you start the ascent through a doorway located a few feet from the back door.

Stairs lead to the basement.

To get to the attic, you must first use the broom handle-like wooden pole propped against the wall, reach up and pull down the hatch that lowers the pull-down stairs. The stairs don’t come all the way down. You must attach several removable steps by sliding both sides into the in-place attic ladder. Once the bottom ends of the two side rails are snug against the first step leading to the basement, you can carefully take your first step and climb upstairs. Placing one hand on each side of the metal ladder, you put your foot on the first rung, pull and lift your body weight. At the top, you can step into the small attic above the single-story house, an insulated area bigger than a crawl space in which you can stand and walk around.

Laurie Merritt made that climb countless times.

The night of April 14, 2014, comprised her last.

Family members said in a recent interview that first responders found her body in the attic, where fire and smoke raged. Firefighters and police apparently did not search there at first and initially missed her. Somebody – family members said they do not know who – eventually located her, burned but still alive in the attic. Laurie’s mother said she told firefighters who exited the house that night to look in the basement and the attic after they told her nobody was inside.

Four years later, serious questions remain unanswered about what exactly took place once police and firefighters entered Merritt’s Wyoming Street home in Wilkes-Barre’s North End.

How could firefighters miss her on their first sweep? Was the hatch and ladder leading to the attic closed? Was the hatch open? Were the stairs extended?

Family members said they do not know answers to those questions. Those details, they said, will help law enforcement determine what exactly happened to the 51-year-old mail carrier whose manner of death remains a mystery.

Shortly after the fatal fire, Luzerne County Coroner Bill Lisman ruled Merritt’s death an accident. More than a month later, when a state police fire marshal decided someone had deliberately set the fire, Lisman changed his official ruling to pending investigation.

Merritt’s family members said they believe city police botched the investigation from the beginning.

Among too many other mysteries, family members said officials told them they found the removable stairs required to climb to the attic in the basement, down the long narrow flight of stairs and propped against a wall. How did the removable stairs get to the basement? How did Merritt get into the attic if she didn’t use those stairs? Did somebody remove them after the fire began?

Lisman speculated in a recent interview that firefighters might have knocked the removable stairs down the basement steps in the rush of the fire scene. But family members said the stairs are difficult to dislodge once they are securely anchored into place. Police officials tried and failed to knock loose the steps, they said. If firefighters accidentally or on purpose moved those stairs, did they report and document that fact – especially now the ladder is in question and suspicion of murder increases?

Equally puzzling is exactly how exactly the fire started. Upon what hard evidence did the fire marshal depend to draw his conclusion the fire was deliberately set? Did investigators find accelerant, faulty electrical equipment or other explanations for how the fire started?

And why didn’t Merritt try to escape or call 911? Family members said police told them they found Merritt’s cellphone on the floor beside her body. She also wore a “Bluetooth” telephone device in her ear, they said. Even without the removable steps in place, she could have jumped to safety once she sensed smoke and flame. Why did she stay in the attic?

Family members also said officials told them she did not curl up the way some fire victims do or pull a piece of clothing, a rug or something else over her head to try and protect herself. Family members said officials told them she looked peacefully asleep.

Police acknowledge they did not declare the fire scene a crime scene.

Even with that mistake, did police interview firefighters? Did firefighters provide statements about what circumstances finally led them to the attic? Did firefighters contaminate a possible crime scene? Were firefighters ordered not to talk to members of Merritt’s family, as family members believe they were?

And what about the cut under Merritt’s left eye?

Several family members confirm they saw the cut. Officials said the cut could have or might have happened when firefighters removed her body. Did any firefighter admit to injuring Merritt? Did anybody officially ask firefighters whether they saw a cut or caused a cut?

Is the cut beneath Merritt’s eye mentioned in the autopsy report?

Because Lisman refuses to release the autopsy report, Merritt family members have no way to know if the pathologist who conducted the autopsy overlooked evidence that could help explain the manner of Merritt’s death.

Laurie Merritt’s family, friends and others concerned about the truth in this case have every right to answers to all questions posed in this column.

We can learn only so much by trying to walk in Laurie Merritt’s shoes.

The time has come for police to retrace their own missteps.

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Steve Corbett is a longtime journalist in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Reach him at [email protected].

Steve Corbett

Guest Columnist

Steve Corbett is a longtime journalist in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Reach him at [email protected].

Steve Corbett is a longtime journalist in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Reach him at [email protected].