WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (WFLA) – Two Polk County teens have been arrested and charged with the murder of a Winter Haven man, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
Donald Merkley, 67, was found dead in his home on Timberline Road on January 11 after it was ruled an accidental fire broke out due to a small electric heater inside.
Following an investigation, detectives were able to identify the suspects, Jerry Johnsey, 18, of Auburndale, and Byron Lasiak, 16, of Winter Haven. According to police documents, the two arrived at Merkley’s home and were greeted by him. Reports say Merkley grabbed Johnsey’s private area, and the two went to a bedroom, leaving Lasiak in the living room.
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Investigators say Lasiak heard a commotion going on in the bedroom, and went to see what was going on. When he walked in, police say Lasiak saw Johnsey choking Merkley with a belt, and then saw Johnsey strike Merkley in the head with a baseball bat. Johnsey then allegedly told Lasiak that he would kill his entire family if he told anyone what had happened.
After dropping Lasiak off at his home, Johnsey called and said he had poured gas on the victim and set the house on fire to cover up the crime.
Johnsey and Lasiak have been charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit robbery, robbery with a weapon, with additional charges tampering with evidence and arson for Johnsey.
Donald Merkley has had several prior arrests in Polk County, including for charges of battery and assault.
They are still in custody in the Polk County Jail.
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