Adoptive mother gets up to 14 years
Judge not swayed by Iarussi's sobs and apologies for child's beatings
Lisa Iarussi beat her mentally disabled adoptive daughter. She pulled her hair. She left the 15-year-old girl covered in bruises and the kind of tough knotty scars that boxers get.
But she never meant for her to die.
Iarussi sobbed those apologies Thursday in Erie County Court as Judge Ernest J. DiSantis Jr. sentenced her to serve seven to 14 years in state prison for beating Brittany Legler for more than two years, until the point the child's heart gave out and she collapsed and died.
"I feel very ashamed," Iarussi said, shaking and weeping into the court microphone.
"Oh God, I didn't want her to die. ... I swear I didn't," Iarussi said.
"I take complete responsibility. I am sorry. I am sorry, Judge DiSantis," she said.
Iarussi's tears quickly subsided, however, when DiSantis announced the sentence. As a sheriff's deputy led her out of the courtroom moments later, no trace of her earlier emotion was visible.
DiSantis told Iarussi that everyone is casting around for someone to blame. But he said the blame largely lies with Iarussi, who was entrusted with the child's care after abuse forced Legler out of her own family setting.
Legler was "tickled pink" to live with Iarussi, DiSantis said. But after the adoption, Iarussi's anger got "totally out of control," he said.
"The child was beaten and pummeled to a point that is unfathomable," the judge said.
Thursday's sentence came after Iarussi, 35, pleaded no contest in October to charges of aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child. With the plea, Iarussi did not challenge evidence she severely injured Legler by pulling her hair and striking her in the head, back, face, kidneys and legs.
The beatings caused Legler to develop cauliflower ear and left more than 200 bruises. They occurred over more than two years, between January 2002 and May 9, 2004, the day Legler collapsed and died in Iarussi's home in the 500 block of Polito Drive in Millcreek Township.
Paramedics discovered Legler in cardiac arrest May 9 when responding to a report of a child fall victim.
Iarussi's housemate at the time, Linda Fisher, told investigators that she and Legler were wrestling each other at Iarussi's command moments before Legler collapsed.
Fisher, who also pleaded guilty in the case and is awaiting sentencing, said Legler's last words were, "I'm tired."
Erie County Coroner Lyell Cook ruled Legler's death a homicide in August. Cook said the "stress of the brutality and the threat of physical abuse," coupled with Legler's congenital heart defect, caused her to suffer a fatal heart attack. Cook's homicide ruling meant he believed Legler died at the hands of another person.
Prosecutors opted not to file a homicide charge because under the circumstances, the most they could have charged was involuntary manslaughter, a misdemeanor charge that is usually filed in connection with traffic fatalities. Aggravated assault is a more serious felony charge.
Iarussi's cruel treatment of Legler outraged Legler's biological relatives, who appeared in court Thursday to confront Iarussi and the system that some said failed her.
Iarussi's arrest warrant and other information in Legler's case indicate that Millcreek Township School District officials had repeatedly reported suspected abuse of Legler to Erie County Office of Children and Youth employees before her death.
Both the prosecutor and Legler's father, Robert Pollard, alluded to this in Thursday's hearing.
"I feel she did not deserve to die because of the system failing her," Pollard said.
Legler's paternal grandmother, Sandra Pollard, said: "All Brittany wanted was love. All she got was fear and pain and rejection."
Legler's mother, Rosa Pollard, made no appeal for her daughter. She showed the judge pictures of her other children instead and told him that they now ask about their sister.
Afterward, she wept that the sentence was not fair.
"This is all I got left of my daughter," she said, holding Legler's ashes in an urn.
Iarussi's lawyer, Kevin Kallenbach, asked the judge to remember Iarussi's remorse. "Lisa has had a very difficult life," he said. "She was very affected by the death."
First Assistant District Attorney Robert Sambroak Jr. successfully appealed to DiSantis to sentence Iarussi in the aggravated range — the most severe sentence range under state sentencing guidelines.
Sambroak said life gave Legler no breaks.
"Everybody failed her — her family, the system, this defendant," Sambroak said. "Nobody deserves what this child went through.
"I am asking you, you are the only one left to give her any justice. It is a shame she has to get it after she is dead," he said.
LISA THOMPSON can be reached at 8701-802 or by e-mail.