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Legler case takes medical turn


Coroner probes whether congenital heart defect involved in death of teenager


The Erie County Coroner's Office is exploring whether Brittany Legler suffered from a congenital heart defect, and whether any such disorder contributed to the 15-year-old's death.

The coroner's investigation will help detectives determine whether they will file a homicide charge against Legler's adoptive mother, Lisa M. Iarussi.

But even if investigators decide not to file a homicide count, Iarussi would still face the charges pending against her to date: aggravated assault, endangering the welfare of a child and recklessly endangering another person.

The Coroner's Office is looking into the possibility of a heart problem because of Legler's family history, according to court records the District Attorney's Office filed Tuesday.

The records show that Coroner Lyell Cook is focusing on the case of Legler's cousin, 13-year-old Sarah Ann Vincent, who died unexpectedly on Dec. 18, 1999, after she collapsed at home during a fight with one of her sisters.

Vincent went into full cardiac arrest before her death, according to the coroner's report. An autopsy revealed that Vincent suffered from a mildly underdeveloped right coronary artery, a condition known as mild congenital hypoplasia.

Eric Vey, M.D., Erie County's forensic pathologist, ruled the hypoplasia helped cause Vincent's death. The fight, which involved hair-pulling, "had absolutely nothing to do with the death and was simply coincidental," according to the coroner's report.

Vey in that report also recommended that Vincent's "first-degree relatives" get medical attention to determine if they suffered from the same heart problem.

A medical exam of one of Vincent's sisters showed that the sister also suffered from hypoplasia, according to the court records. The records show the sister "had corrective heart surgery" for the disorder at Hamot Medical Center in April 2000.

The District Attorney's Office on Tuesday got a court order to obtain the sister's medical records. The Coroner's Office wants the records "to compare to the autopsy and other medical records" of Legler, according to the court order.

Cook said in an interview that Vey will use the sister's medical records to help him analyze tissue samples of Legler's major organs, including her heart. The sister's records will give Vey clues on what to look for as he tries to find out whether Legler also suffered from congenital hypoplasia of the right coronary artery.

"We are exploring every avenue we can with this death," Cook said.

He said he hopes to have Legler's tissue samples back from the lab this week so that Vey can analyze them. The Coroner's Office then plans to issue a ruling on the cause of death, Cook said.

As they wait on the findings of the Coroner's Office, detectives with the Millcreek Township Police Department have gathered more evidence related to the abuse charges against Iarussi, 35, who is in the Erie County Prison on $250,000 bond. Her preliminary hearing is June 23.

Legler, whom Iarussi adopted on Jan. 1, 2001, was found unconscious May 9 at Iarussi's residence at 544 Polito Drive in Millcreek. Legler never regained consciousness before she went into cardiac arrest and died an hour later at Hamot Medical Center.

Police said an autopsy showed Legler suffered more than 200 bruises to her head and body, a scarred lower lip, a cauliflower ear and other injuries indicative of chronic abuse. Iarussi is accused of injuring Legler from Jan. 1, 2003, until the time of Legler's death.

Police said Iarussi told officers at the scene that Legler was playing outside and fell over unconscious, according to a search warrant in the case. Police in the warrant also said detectives launched an investigation because Legler's bruises and other injuries were inconsistent with a fall.

Police also are looking into whether Legler was involved in some kind of fight in the hours before her death. According to another search warrant in the case, Iarussi's housemate, Linda Fisher, told detectives that Iarussi assaulted her and Legler with a hairbrush the day of Legler's death. The search warrant said Fisher told police that Iarussi used the hairbrush to strike "both of them about the head and body."

Staff writer Lisa Thompson contributed to this report.

ED PALATTELLA, can be reached at 870-1813 or by e-mail.

2004 Jun 9