Legler's final moments
Housemate says she was forced to wrestle with teenager on bedroom floor
Moments before Brittany Legler collapsed, the 15-year-old's adoptive mother struck her in the head with a hairbrush to force her to take part in a wrestling match, the mother's housemate said.
Legler's last words, as the housemate remembered them, were, "I'm tired." Legler died a little more than an hour later.
The housemate, Linda Fisher, 44, told the Erie Times-News that the adoptive mother, Lisa M. Iarussi, ordered Fisher and Legler to wrestle on the floor of Iarussi's bedroom in her mobile home the evening of May 9.
Fisher characterized the wrestling as playful, and said Iarussi directed the match from her bed, yelling "ding, ding, ding" to signal a new round.
But Fisher also said Iarussi used physical punishment to keep the match going. Fisher said Iarussi "whacked us in the head" with an 8-inch purple hairbrush when Fisher and Legler complained of being tired.
Police have seized the hairbrush as evidence to support charges that Iarussi regularly beat Legler in the 17 months before her death.
Iarussi often used the hairbrush to strike both her and Legler, Fisher said. On May 9, she said, she and Legler kept wrestling under the threat of Iarussi's attacks.
Then, she said, Legler collapsed.
"She quit breathing. She was blue," Fisher said.
Fisher said she yelled for Iarussi to call 911. Fisher said Iarussi picked up Legler and tried to shake her awake.
"I said, 'Let it go. Let me take care of this,' " said Fisher, who said she attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation despite not knowing the proper technique.
Paramedics soon arrived, and police got to the scene at 5:42 p.m., according to a search warrant in the case. Legler never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead at Hamot Medical Center at 6:42 p.m. Police arrested Iarussi 10 days later, on May 19.
When detectives arrested Iarussi at her mobile home at 554 Polito Drive, they saw Fisher there as well. She had two black eyes and a swelling bruise on the side of her head, Detective Cpl. William Detisch said.
Fisher, in an interview earlier this week, said Iarussi injured her with the hairbrush. Only now is she starting to recover, Fisher said.
"I would tell her that it hurt and she would say, 'Oh, it don't hurt that bad,' " Fisher said. "This is the first week I've been able to wash my hair without my head being in pain."
Fisher, who has not been charged in the Legler case, is cooperating with the police in their investigation of Iarussi, who is accused of the felonies of aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child and the misdemeanor of recklessly endangering another person. Iarussi is in Erie County Prison on $250,000 bond, awaiting a preliminary hearing June 23.
Police accuse Iarussi of beating Legler from Jan. 1, 2003, until the time of her death. An autopsy showed Legler suffered from more than 200 bruises, a scarred lower lip, a cauliflower ear and other injuries police said point to chronic abuse. Iarussi, 35, adopted Legler on Jan. 1, 2001.
Fisher's comments to the Erie Times-News are consistent with what she has told investigators, according to search warrants in the Legler case. Fisher told detectives Iarussi attacked her and Legler with a hairbrush on May 9, though the search warrants do not mention a wrestling match.
Fisher's statements, both to the Erie Times-News and investigators, also contradict what Iarussi told the police and the news media about what happened to Legler on the day of her death.
Iarussi told police that Legler and Iarussi's natural daughter were "playing outside when Legler fell over unconscious, possibly striking her head on a cement stairway during the fall," according to a search warrant in the case. On the day of her arrest, Iarussi said at her arraignment that she never touched Legler, and she told news reporters that Legler fell from a swing just before she stopped breathing.
Fisher's comments about the wrestling match also shed light on another aspect of the Legler case: the investigation into the cause of death for Legler, who attended special-education classes at McDowell Intermediate High School.
Investigators are waiting for results of postmortem tests to determine the cause of death. Police so far have been unable to link Legler's death directly to the suspected abuse.
The Erie County Coroner's Office is exploring the possibility that Legler suffered from a congenital heart defect, as did one of Legler's cousins. The cousin, then 13, died in 1999 after she suddenly collapsed during a scuffle with her sister, according to the coroner's report in the case. The cousin went into cardiac arrest — just as investigators said Legler did before she died.
No matter how the Coroner's Office rules, and no matter whether the police file a homicide count against Iarussi, she still will face the charges filed against her to date. Police in those counts allege that Iarussi abused Legler, whether or not that abuse directly caused her death.
District Attorney Brad Foulk, whose office will help decide whether to file more charges against Iarussi, declined comment Thursday.
"The investigation is still ongoing," he said.
JULE GARDNER can be reached at 870-1714 or by e-mail.
ED PALATTELLA can be reached at 870-1813 or by e-mail.