Housemate talks of abuse
Witness says she, teenager were attacked with hairbrush on day teen died
The housemate of the woman accused of beating Brittany Legler is cooperating with detectives, giving them a key source of inside information as they investigate the 15-year-old's death.
The housemate, Linda Fisher, told detectives that she and Legler were both victims of abuse at the hands of the defendant, Linda M. Iarussi, Legler's adoptive mother, whom police charged after Legler's death on Mother's Day, May 9.
The day of Legler's death, Iarussi assaulted Legler and Fisher by using a hairbrush to beat them on the head and body, Fisher told detectives, according to a search warrant in the case.
Fisher said the assault occurred at Iarussi's Millcreek Township residence, where paramedics later in the day found Legler unconscious and in cardiac arrest, according to the warrant and other records in the case. Legler never regained consciousness before she died.
Fisher and other witnesses also told police that Iarussi regularly abused Legler, who attended special-education classes at Millcreek's McDowell Intermediate High School. The witnesses told police the suspected abuse "was in the form of striking, shoving, kicking, pulling hair, knocking to the ground and forcibly holding Legler on the ground," according to another search warrant.
"Statements also included the fact that Iarussi was wearing sneakers when she would kick Brittany in the legs," according to the warrant.
"This is consistent with patterned bruises to the outside of both the left and right knees" of Legler.
Millcreek police used the search warrants to seize two pieces of evidence: a purple hairbrush, about 8 inches long, that investigators took from Iarussi's residence on May 28; and Iarussi's sneakers, which investigators seized Tuesday from the Erie County Prison. The police want the sneakers "for comparison purposes to the bruises on the legs of Brittany Legler," according to the warrant for the sneakers.
Investigators in the warrant for the sneakers also said Fisher told police that Iarussi at one time had been in the possession of handcuffs. However, the warrant shows that police found no handcuffs at Iarussi's residence.
And in a court order in the case, police obtained all school records for Legler, "to include medical and special-education records.
"Iarussi, 35, has been held at Erie County Prison on $250,000 bond since her May 19 arrest on charges of aggravated assault, endangering the welfare of a child and recklessly endangering another person.
Her preliminary hearing, initially set for Tuesday, has been rescheduled for 9 a.m. June 23 at the office of Millcreek District Justice Paul Manzi.
Millcreek police allege that Iarussi, who adopted Legler in January 2001, abused Legler from Jan. 1, 2003, until Legler's death. An autopsy revealed more than 200 bruises to Legler's head and body, a scarred lower lip and a cauliflower ear.
The police are investigating whether the suspected abuse contributed to Legler's death. The Erie County Coroner's Office will rule on the cause of death once it receives the results of routine tests on Legler's heart, lungs, kidneys and other internal organs, Coroner Lyell Cook said. He said he hopes to receive those results early next week.
As they also await the test results, Millcreek police have collected evidence through the search warrants, which Detective Cpl. William Detisch and other detectives obtained from Manzi. The warrants describe Fisher, the housemate, as living at Iarussi's mobile home at 554 Polito Drive. Property records show that Fisher owns a trailer at 553 Polito Drive in the same mobile-home park, which is north of West Sixth Street just east of Waldameer Park.
Fisher's telephone number is unlisted, and she could not be reached for comment. Iarussi's lawyer is Kevin Kallenbach, an assistant public defender, who could not be reached for comment Thursday.
At her arraignment on May 19, Iarussi repeatedly declared her innocence and said she knew of some bruises on Legler's back and head, but was not aware of the extent of her injuries. Iarussi's friends later blamed students at school for Legler's injuries.
The paramedics who treated Legler the day of her death showed up at Iarussi's residence for a report of a child fall victim, according to the arrest warrant for Iarussi. According to the search warrant for the sneakers, police officers arrived at 5:42 p.m. and met with Iarussi.
Iarussi told the officers that Legler and Iarussi's birth daughter "were playing outside when Legler fell over unconscious, possibly striking her head on a cement stairway during the fall," according to the warrant.
The paramedics drove Legler to Hamot Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead at 6:42 p.m., according to the warrant. The criminal investigation soon developed.
According to the warrant: "Doctors and the responding deputy coroner, Dennis Suscheck, observed a large amount of bruising to Legler's body, which was not consistent with the facts related to her injury, and an autopsy was ordered."
ED PALATTELLA can be reached at 870-1813 or by e-mail