Teen was beaten
Woman charged with assault after death of daughter on Mother's Day
Brittany Legler died with a cauliflower ear and a scarred lower lip.
The 15-year-old Millcreek Township girl suffered 14 wounds to her head. Her young body was covered with more than 200 bruises.
Investigators now blame her adoptive mother for the abuse that occurred before Legler died of cardiac arrest.
Lisa M. Iarussi, 35, of 554 Polito Drive, moaned in a hoarse voice barely audible above the squeaking of the wooden chair as her body rocked forward and back in an arraignment before Millcreek Township District Justice Paul Manzi on Wednesday.
Iarussi was charged with aggravated assault, child endangerment and reckless endangerment.
Investigators said they don't know yet if the punches, slaps, strikes and hair-pulling they accused Iarussi of inflicting on Legler actually caused the teenager's death.
More testing is needed in order to determine the manner of Legler's death on May 9, and more charges could be filed as a result of those tests, Erie County District Attorney Brad Foulk said.
Legler, a developmentally disabled girl who attended McDowell Intermediate High School, had been in Iarussi's care for more than four years after the child was formally adopted by Iarussi in January 2001, said Legler's grandmother, Sandra Pollard.
Pollard's son, Robert Pollard, and his ex-wife, Rose Johnson Pollard, lost custody of their six children after their separation, Pollard said. Three of the children were later reunited with Rose Pollard, while relatives adopted two others and Iarussi, a childhood friend of Rose Pollard, adopted Brittany, Sandra Pollard said.
Millcreek police Detective Sgt. Dan Goodman and Detective Cpl. William Detisch accused Iarussi of repeatedly abusing Legler for months.
The criminal complaint filed in the case listed the abuse as starting Jan. 1, 2003, which Foulk said was set based on information provided to investigators by people interviewed in the case.
The abuse continued until the morning of May 9, when paramedics found the girl in cardiac arrest at her home, 554 Polito Drive.
Investigators would not elaborate on the nature of the injuries Legler suffered, and how they prompted a crew from the Millcreek Paramedic Service to rush to the mobile home.
The affidavit of probable cause that was filed in the case said Millcreek police officers were called to the residence to assist paramedics with a fall victim.
Sandra Pollard, who didn't learn of Legler's death until a social worker told her about it on May 12, said she questioned Iarussi on two occasions about what had happened and was given different stories.
Pollard said Iarussi first told her that Legler was riding her bicycle about two weeks before her death and fell over the handlebars, hitting her head on the cement. Iarussi said Legler was taken to Saint Vincent Health Center for treatment, Pollard said.
The next time they talked, Pollard said, Iarussi told her Legler was injured about a week before her death when she fell while playing outdoors with Iarussi's other child. Iarussi said Legler was taken to Hamot Medical Center for treatment, Pollard said.
According to police, paramedics noticed that Legler had suffered a number of bruises and other injuries, and they called Millcreek police.
Detectives were called later when Legler died at Hamot and her body was turned over to the Erie County Coroner's Office, Detisch said.
Coroner Lyell Cook said he could not discuss Legler's medical condition and did not know if Legler had a heart condition that would explain her being in cardiac arrest.
Cook said a number of tests are being performed to help give a better idea of what led to Legler's death, and those tests will take at least four to six weeks to complete.
A lengthy autopsy conducted by Erie County forensic pathologist Dr. Eric Vey documented Legler's numerous injuries. They included numerous bruises to the arms, legs, hands and feet; bruising around the eye, nose and kidney area; cuts to the head; and a patterned bruise to the knee that was possibly made by a shoe, the affidavit stated.
"I think it's pretty apparent on its face that the actions and trauma allegedly inflicted on this young lady were horrific," Foulk said.
Iarussi repeatedly claimed her innocence as she was taken into Manzi's courtroom to face the charges Wednesday morning, telling Manzi and police over and over that "I didn't do this" and swearing to Foulk that she never touched Legler.
Iarussi said at one point that she knew of some bruises on Legler's back and head, but was not aware of the extent of her injuries.
"Why do you people accuse me of being Charles Manson? You people don't know me to say this," she said in court.
Foulk argued for Manzi to set bond at $100,000, given the severity of the charges and the possibility of Iarussi being a flight risk.
Foulk also told Manzi that Iarussi had reportedly contacted some witnesses in the case and stated that there would be "reprisals" if they cooperated during the course of the investigation.
Iarussi replied by saying, "There are people out there who have enemies. Everyone does."
Manzi set bond at $250,000.
Iarussi's other child has been removed from her home. Another woman who lives at the residence, whose name was not released, declined comment Wednesday.
TIM HAHN can be reached at 870-1731 or by e-mail.