Brittany's troubled world
She was silent, but her body told tale of abuse
JULE GARDNER and Ed Palattella
She was "just a tiny little thing," an adolescent girl who watched the same movies over and over. "Spirit," an animated film about a wild stallion seeking a home in the Old West, was one of her favorites.
She liked animals and being outside. She liked to draw, people mostly.
And she liked to smile and laugh, though her energetic demeanor faded as she got older.
Over time, Brittany Legler changed.
Those who knew the developmentally disabled 15-year-old said her personality turned more quiet and withdrawn after Jan. 1, 2001, when she was adopted by Lisa M. Iarussi, the woman accused of beating her in the 17 months leading up to her death on May 9.
Brittany Legler didn't tell anyone she was abused, said teachers and others who knew her. But her body told another story.
Old bruises were covered by fresh ones. The coroner counted more than 200. She had 14 wounds to her head; her cauliflower ear looked chewed up and scar tissue covered part of her lower lip.
At the funeral home, people who knew Legler didn't recognize her.
"I nearly turned around and walked out," said a teacher who taught Legler in elementary school and often ate lunch with her at J.S. Wilson Middle School.
"I thought I was in the wrong room," she said. "That was not Brittany."
Legler's former foster mother looked into the casket and saw a thin face, one she was not familiar with.
"There was so much of a change," the foster mother said, "that I couldn't look anymore."
She also said she noticed a change in Legler's most recent school photograph, taken in the fall of 2003. Compared to previous photos, Legler looked skinny and gaunt, the foster mother said.
"I really thought, 'She just looks awful,'" the foster mother said.
At the funeral home, Legler's natural maternal grandmother, Rose Burroughs, turned away in sorrow. She had last seen Legler in late 2000. Now she was viewing her dead body.
"I was so looking forward to seeing her when she was 18," Burroughs said. "That was my hope. Then to go to a funeral home and see her in a coffin. No grandmother wants to see her granddaughter in a coffin.
"Her face wasn't Brittany's face."
The cause of Legler's death is still under investigation. Iarussi, 35, is in the Erie County Prison on $250,000 bond, awaiting a June 23 preliminary hearing on the felonies of aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child and the misdemeanor of recklessly endangering another person.
Investigators are waiting on the results of postmortem tests to determine the cause of Legler's death. They are also looking into whether Legler, like two of her cousins, suffered from a congenital heart defect, and whether that disorder contributed to her collapse at Iarussi's mobile home on May 9.
Iarussi's housemate said Legler fell into unconsciousness during a forced wrestling match in which Iarussi struck Legler and the housemate with a hairbrush. Legler died a little more than an hour later.
Iarussi said she had nothing to do with Brittany's injuries. In an interview with the Erie Times-News, she blamed Legler's injuries on other women she said had lived with her and Legler.
"There were times when I shoved her and there were times when I cracked her and pushed her," Iarussi said from the Erie County Prison. "But I would never hit her or use a fist on her. Never. That is not true."
The police believe otherwise.
'A very, very happy little girl'
The girl in the casket once rode horses and enjoyed dogs and liked to swim.
Although Brittany Legler wasn't always exactly bubbly, she had happy times, say those who knew her.
"She was a very, very happy little girl. She was always smiling at me," said Rosa Pollard, Legler's natural mother. Brittany was known as Brittany Pollard until Iarussi adopted her and she took on Iarussi's maiden name of Legler.
Pollard said she last saw Legler in late December 2000. Once Iarussi adopted Legler, Pollard said, she was never able to visit her again.
Legler was in foster care for more than a year before the adoption. She thrived in foster care in some ways, said a teacher who was close to her.
"The only bit of happiness I ever knew Brittany to know was with (her foster mother)," said the teacher, speaking of the time she knew Legler.
Like several other people interviewed by the Erie Times-News regarding the Legler case, the teacher asked that her name not be used because of the pending criminal prosecution of Iarussi.
Legler's foster mother took her on her first vacation, to Atlantic City, where they stayed in a hotel. Legler visited a seal rescue clinic on the Atlantic Ocean, and was enthralled. She gave the teacher interviewed for this story a small souvenir whale and talked about the trip for days.
"She just loved things like that," the foster mother said of going to the ocean.
Legler went camping with her foster family. She had her own room. She wore nice clothes and her foster mother got her a new pair of glasses.
Legler liked to help her foster mother cook, and she learned how to plant a garden. The foster mother, who said she has taken care of more than 100 foster children for more than 20 years, said Legler "was just someone who walked around smiling, and it didn't take much to make her happy.
"She was just one of those kids that followed me around like a puppy dog," the foster mother said. "There are four children who were my favorites, and she was one of them."
But Legler was sometimes unhappy, too. She didn't understand why she had to be taken away from her mother and five siblings.
"When I knew Brittany, it was when she lost her family and that was hard for her," the teacher said.
Legler started in the Millcreek Township School District's "life skills" program at Belle Valley Elementary School. The program, which has no grades or grade levels, is for children with an IQ of 70 or less.
At age 11 or 12, students are transferred to a life-skills class at J.S. Wilson Middle School and McDowell Intermediate High School. If they complete the program, they graduate from McDowell High School.
Legler was "borderline" mentally retarded, said the teacher, who said she has more than 26 years of experience with mentally disabled children.
"With Brittany, it was more about environment. If she was in the right one, I think she would do really well," the teacher said.
At Belle Valley, Legler and her classmates would leave school in a van twice a week. They'd go horseback riding, which Legler enjoyed, or swimming at McDowell. They'd go bowling or roller skating or to the grocery store to learn what things cost.
Legler didn't have close friends among her peers, the teacher said.
"You have to understand that some of these kids don't have the capabilities other kids do," she said. "She didn't have an experience of chit-chatting or being a little girl. And she didn't exactly have a home where she could take her friends."
But Legler liked her teacher. "She never left my side. Wherever I was, she was there."
Legler liked to draw pictures. In a lot of them, her teacher was a stick figure with wild, curly hair. Legler liked to draw her teacher's white, fluffy dog, too, which she met at outings at the teacher's house in Millcreek.
The teacher knew Legler's home. The teacher said she visited Legler two or three times after Iarussi adopted her in January 2001. Iarussi and Legler lived with Iarussi's daughter, Abby Iarussi, 8, in a mobile home park off West Sixth Street near Waldameer Park.
The teacher said she was not invited inside the trailer. She said Legler talked to her outside on the steps or in the driveway.
After the adoption, the teacher began to notice changes in Legler.
"She started to be a little more unkempt and she was more withdrawn, I'd say," the teacher said.
Although not Legler's teacher at J.S. Wilson, the teacher taught classes there. She said that when Legler would see her, Legler would yell her name and run from one end of the school to the other.
"She wanted her hug. We're not supposed to be real touchy-feely with the kids, but the principal kind of looked the other way. Brittany was pretty needy," the teacher said.
The two had lunch together nearly every day. That's when the teacher noticed the biggest changes in Legler.
"She was becoming distant," the teacher said. She said Legler was often absent from school with what were described as "ear infections."
'Something was wrong'
After the adoption, "it was a deterioration," the teacher said. "We started to see the withdrawal."
But the teacher didn't see signs of abuse. "If I did, I would have reported that right away."
A teacher's aide who knew Legler said she did notice bruises, but not many. The aide, who also requested her name not be published, said she twice reported bruises on Legler's arms to the school nurse. The aide said she got to know Legler after Legler and her life-skills class advanced to McDowell Intermediate High School.
The aide, who also visited the funeral home, said she has since learned that most of the bruises and signs of abuse reported by the school occurred after the aide left in November 2003.
School officials made numerous complaints about suspected abuse of Legler to the Erie County Office of Children and Youth, or OCY, according to the arrest warrant for Iarussi and interviews with school officials and investigators. OCY is conducting a confidential internal investigation of how its caseworkers handled the case.
At school, in the aide's classroom, Legler was "very sensitive," the aide said. "She would take things to heart and get upset sometimes. But if she liked you, she was a bit clingy. She was right on my tail wherever I went."
Legler talked to the aide about Iarussi's natural daughter and drew pictures of her.
Legler was a better reader than some of her classmates. She could print, but was not adept in cursive writing.
She was in a tier of "higher functioning" life-skills students, the aide said, and had a good work ethic. She often volunteered to help prepare food and clean up in the cafeteria, which were part of the life-skills curriculum.
"The thing about Brittany was her appearance. To look at her, you would know that something was wrong with her," she said.
"She was so thin. She was just a tiny little thing, and she wore these huge glasses. I remember in swim class, you'd have to tie her suit to her, literally tie it in a knot, because it was so big. I'd ask her if her mom could get her a new suit and she'd say that her mom would, but she never did," the aide said.
Although Legler was thin, the aide didn't know another child who could eat like her. "Holy smokes! I don't know where she put it. She'd eat her lunch and she'd have to be told that, no, she couldn't eat what was left over on other people's trays. She definitely could eat, then I started wondering if she was eating at home."
Iarussi's housemate, Linda Fisher, said Legler did eat at home, and described Legler's appetite as a "garbage can."
She ate whatever she was served and always cleaned her plate, said Fisher, who lived with Legler and Iarussi for two years. Fisher is cooperating with the police in the case against Iarussi.
'All she knew was abuse'
At home, Legler didn't play much, Fisher said. She said Legler often said she was tired.
"She didn't have much energy," Fisher said.
She might color with Abby Iarussi and quietly draw pictures, Fisher said. Mostly, she said, Legler watched TV and movies. Her favorite was "Spirit," but she also liked "Shrek" and watched "SpongeBob SquarePants" and "Full House" on TV.
Sometimes Legler would just sit and stare at the carpet or the kitchen table, Fisher said. "We'd tell her that whatever she was looking at wasn't going to move or talk," Fisher said. "But she would just keep staring."
At McDowell Intermediate High School, Legler jumped to do some tasks, but would sometimes get sullen and put her head on her desk, the aide said.
"You'd have to say, 'C'mon, Brittany. Pick your head up now,'" the aide said. "You didn't know what she was thinking about. Now I wonder.
"She would laugh and tell stories, but I don't want to say that she was a happy, cheerful girl.
"She was withdrawn. I would say depressed, just, like, down, although you could get her out of it with some effort."
The aide said she was in shock when she found out about Legler's death. "I felt so bad when all this happened," she said.
The teacher who knew Legler in elementary and middle school said Legler's death has caused her to question her work in special education.
"I nearly quit," she said. "You see what we're up against."
"I can't get why this little girl had to suffer so much. All she knew was abuse," the teacher said. "I question that adoption placement. It wasn't a good placement.
"At the funeral home, I saw Brittany's natural mother and her brother and her two sisters. They were well-dressed and then you think: Why did Brittany have to go through this?"
Adoption took Brittany from mother's life
After she put her oldest daughter up for adoption, Rosa Pollard always thought she would see her again.
Pollard had hoped the adoption of her daughter Brittany would be open, particularly because Brittany's adoptive mother, Lisa M. Iarussi, had been Pollard's friend since childhood.
But Pollard never visited with Brittany after the adoption on Jan. 1, 2001. The next time she saw her daughter was at the funeral for Brittany, who died May 9.
Ten days later, police arrested Iarussi on charges that she beat Brittany Legler — she took on Iarussi's maiden name after the adoption — for 17 months leading up to Brittany's death.
"After she got Brittany," Pollard said of Iarussi, "she pulled Brittany away from us."
Pollard said child-welfare officials prompted her to give up Brittany for adoption because of concerns she was unable to raise all of her six children on her own. Of Pollard's six children, she kept three, relatives adopted two and Iarussi adopted Brittany, who was 15 when she died.
Pollard said she made regular attempts to contact her daughter after the adoption, but she said Iarussi never let her see her in person.
"It was like she never wanted us to be in Brittany's life," Pollard said.
She said she last spoke to her daughter when she telephoned her at Iarussi's residence to wish her a Merry Christmas in 2003. Pollard said she spoke to Legler briefly, telling her, "Mom loves you and misses you a lot," though she said her daughter did not give much of a response.
"She was scared," Pollard said.
Pollard said she feels as helpless now as she did then. She said she never knew her daughter was abused because she never saw her after the adoption.
"She didn't have to go through what she went through," Pollard said. "I wish I could have been there to help her.
"If there is anyone out there being abused, please report it. Please report it, for Brittany."
JULE GARDNER, can be reached at 870-1714 or by e-mail.
ED PALATTELLA, can be reached at 870-1813 or by e-mail.