Iarussi to face trial
Witnesses say impatience, anger provoked mother to abuse teen
Brittany Legler sometimes had a hard time answering her adoptive mother.
As a consequence of that and other difficulties, witnesses said, the mentally disabled 15-year-old was punched, had her hair pulled, and was beaten with a hairbrush, struck with a metal spoon, thrown against a wall, handcuffed to a bed and subjected to other abuse over two years and five months before her death May 9.
The abuse came at the hands of the adoptive mother, Lisa M. Iarussi, the witnesses testified Tuesday at Iarussi's preliminary hearing.
They characterized Iarussi as an impatient and angry mother who used force to deal with Legler, while Legler was trying to cope with a mental disability and her teenage years. The witnesses also said they never reported Iarussi's conduct before Legler's death because they feared Iarussi.
One witness, Sue Litzenberg, recounted how she saw Iarussi get angry because "Brittany wasn't understanding the word 'why.' " Litzenberg said Legler was unable to give Iarussi a quick answer about why she did something.
Iarussi pushed Legler out of the bathroom and slammed her into a wall, Litzenberg said. She said Legler, frightened, told Iarussi: "OK, Mommy, I answer. I answer."
"That's pretty much how Lisa would get Brittany to answer," Litzenberg said.
The testimony of Litzenberg and two other women, plus medical records and other evidence, were enough for a magistrate on Tuesday to order Iarussi held for trial.
Millcreek Township District Justice Paul Manzi, who presided over the 90-minute preliminary hearing, said the Erie County District Attorney's Office presented enough evidence to support three charges against Iarussi: the felonies of aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child and the misdemeanor of recklessly endangering another person.
The prosecution is waiting on the results of postmortem tests to determine whether homicide charges are also warranted.
Legler died at the hospital about an hour after she collapsed at Iarussi's mobile home at 554 Polito Drive, near the entrance to Waldameer Park, on May 9. Investigators have yet to pinpoint what caused the death of Legler, whose relatives have a history of a heart defect.
Legler was in special-education classes at McDowell Intermediate High School. One of her teachers has described her as "borderline" developmentally disabled.
As is typical for defendants at preliminary hearings, Iarussi, 35, did not testify Tuesday. Handcuffed and wearing a tan prison jumpsuit, she cried softly before the hearing and took notes on a legal pad during the proceeding.
Though Iarussi was quiet during the hearing, the prosecution used her words against her. Millcreek police Detective Cpl. William Detisch briefly testified about three recorded statements Iarussi gave to the police, as well as the numerous telephone calls she made to detectives in the days after Legler's death.
Detisch said Iarussi blamed Legler's bruises and other injuries "on kids at school, blamed it on a bike accident." Those explanations did not account for the 211 bruises Legler suffered, including 27 to her head, face and neck, as well as a broken rib, said the prosecutors, District Attorney Brad Foulk and First Assistant District Attorney Robert Sambroak Jr.
Iarussi's court-appointed lawyer, Kevin Kallenbach, asked questions that indicated he is pursuing two lines of defense: either that others injured Legler, or that Iarussi was simply disciplining Legler, and had nothing to hide because she used corporal punishment on Legler in front of others, including the three witnesses.
"She didn't try to conceal, try to hide it from people," Kallenbach said in court. "She did it in front of people."
Kallenbach questioned each of the witnesses — Litzenberg, Cynthia Snyder and Kathy Daley, all one-time friends of Iarussi — about the behavior of Iarussi's former housemate, Linda Fisher, who also has been arrested in the case.
Fisher faces the charges of endangering the welfare of a child and simple assault, and she has told investigators that, moments before Legler collapsed, she and Legler were engaged in a wrestling match under orders from Iarussi. Fisher was not a witness Tuesday, but she will testify at trial, Sambroak told Kallenbach in court.
The three witnesses who testified Tuesday blamed Iarussi for the abuse.
Each witness said she had either lived with Iarussi or visited her mobile home regularly from January 2002 until Legler's death. Daley said she saw Iarussi punch Legler five to 10 times in 2002 after Iarussi got in a dispute with Legler over Legler's menstrual period and her underwear.
"Brittany was screaming, crying, 'No Mommy, no Mommy,' " Daley testified.
Snyder, the second witness, said Iarussi struck Legler and had her handcuffed to a bed because Iarussi thought Legler was not listening to her.
"She would continue to hit her because she wasn't doing anything right," Snyder testified.
Like Daley before her, Snyder said Iarussi threatened to hurt her if she went to the police.
Witness Sue Litzenberg testified that she also feared Iarussi and did nothing to alert police despite seeing Iarussi strike Legler and handcuff her to a bed by her legs.
"I would tell her to stop, to let me take care of it, because I knew Lisa had a bad temper," Litzenberg testified.
Litzenberg said she has known Iarussi for 20 years, including when Iarussi baby-sat Legler as a child. Iarussi ended up adopting Legler because of Iarussi's one-time friendship with Legler's biological mother. The adoption occurred after Legler's biological parents separated and their children were put into foster care.
Kallenbach, Iarussi's lawyer, asked Litzenberg if she ever saw Iarussi mistreat Legler when the girl was a child. Litzenberg said she never did. But she quickly added that she saw the relationship between Iarussi and Legler deteriorate after Iarussi adopted her in August 2001.
"Lisa was good with her, when she didn't have her 24/7," Litzenberg testified. "Lisa didn't have the patience for Brittany on a 24/7 basis."
ED PALATTELLA, can be reached at 870-1813 or by e-mail.