PITTSBURGH (AP) — A woman said a boarding house was “filled with demons” before she set it on fire, killing the owner and two other residents, according to a criminal complaint.
The suspect, Latoya Lyerly, also told investigators she had argued about the volume of a radio the night before Wednesday’s fire and had threatened to burn down the house, police said.
Lyerly, 42, remained jailed Thursday on charges of criminal homicide, aggravated arson, arson, and causing or risking a catastrophe.
Lyerly told police she’d been living at the house for three weeks after getting kicked out of a YMCA in McKeesport. She said the owner paid her to cook and clean for him since she had no money, and they quarreled as she cooked spaghetti and hamburgers on Tuesday, according to police.
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Lyerly also told police she argued with the home’s owner over the volume of her radio. The argument became “very heated and at one point during the argument Lyerly stated that she told (the owner) she was going to burn the (expletive) house down,” according to the complaint.
Lyerly is charged with three counts of criminal homicide in the deaths of the home’s 73-year-old owner, Derlyn Vance, and two other residents, Gerald Johnson, 68, and Calvin Turner, 56. The medical examiner ruled they died of burns and smoke inhalation.
After telling police about the argument over the radio, Lyerly first claimed that she had walked to a market to buy soda and cigarettes sometime after 6 a.m. Wednesday and was hanging out on the corner when someone told her about the fire, the complaint said.
WPXI-TV showed Lyerly crying and collapsing into the arms of emergency responders at the scene.
Police said Lyerly eventually changed her story to say she lit a cigarette that caught her bed on fire. She told police she got scared and ran out of the house without alerting the other residents or calling 911, according to the complaint.
According to the complaint, she later said, “The residence she was living at was filled with demons and that everyone inside the residence was involved in drugs and sex.”
Neighbors and former residents described the home as a safe haven, saying its owner often helped out people down on their luck. “He takes care of people, any kind of way,” neighbor Peggy Wilson told WPXI.
Sarah Machado, 44, said she was using heroin and crack cocaine before she was taken in by the home’s owner three years ago.
“I met him in a grocery store and he gave me $20 for food,” Machado told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I was staying in abandoned houses and doing shady stuff and he said, ‘Girl, that is no way to live.'”
Lyerly told police she heard people walking in other parts of the residence and “then began hearing voices telling her to carry out her mission.” Lyerly told police she set fire to paper coffee strainers and used them to set fire to a chair and then to a couch in her bedroom.
Arson investigators confirmed the fire began in various spots on the first floor of the home, including Lyerly’s bedroom — but they also said dogs sniffed out some kind of unspecified fuel, the complaint said.
This story has been corrected to say that the suspect told police the boarding house was “filled with demons,” not that she claimed to be filled with demons.