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Allegheny

Homewood woman who set fire that killed 3 gets up to 36 years in prison

Megan Guza
| Monday, April 30, 2018, 3:21 p.m.
First responders attend to a witness at the scene of a house fire on North Lang Avenue in Homewood on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
First responders attend to a witness at the scene of a house fire on North Lang Avenue in Homewood on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016.

Derlyn Vance's family voiced concerns when he welcomed Latoya Lyerly into his Homewood home in early 2016, but they knew he always did what he could to help someone in need.

Three weeks later, Lyerly started a fire in the North Lang Avenue home, killing 72-year-old Vance and two other men.

Lyerly told police she'd been out to kill demons in the house when she started the blaze. On Monday, she pleaded guilty to three counts of third-degree murder in front of Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Donna Jo McDaniel.

McDaniel sentenced Lyerly to 18 to 36 years in prison for each count of murder, sentences to be served concurrently.

The Feb. 17, 2016, fire also killed Gerald Johnson, 68, and Calvin Turner, 56. More than a dozen family members of the three men packed the courtroom for the hearing.

"Despite our feelings of not wanting him to let (Lyerly) stay with him at his house, he wanted desperately to help her," said Lynda Hall-Johnson, Vance's daughter. "He stated several times that she … had been misunderstood and with a little love and patience she would be OK."

Hall-Johnson lamented the loss of her father, who she called her first love and best friend.

Lyerly, now 45, also pleaded guilty to five arson-related charges and one count of risking a catastrophe.

Her attorney asked the judge to consider that she'd spent her childhood in foster care and had allegedly been sexually abused. He said she suffers from bipolar disorder and hallucinations.

Dressed in a red Allegheny County Jail jumpsuit and using a cane to walk, Lyerly apologized to the families.

"It can't bring them back," she said. "But I do want to say I'm sorry."

Michelle Dixon, Vance's younger sister, said their family accepts Lyerly's apology. She said she believes the criminal justice system failed Lyerly and thus failed the men's families as well.

"We just want to make sure that she gets the help that she needs, and we accept her apology," she said.

Vance had lived in the home for years and often opened his doors to those needing a place to stay. He'd owned an auto shop for decades and loved helping people, his sister said. He wasn't in the auto repair business for money.

"He would fix your car for a home-cooked meal, a hug, in exchange for helping him around the shop or for free," Dixon said. "He always said that his purpose in life was to help others, and he did that until his last breath here on earth."

Dixon, through tears, said her older brother was burned so badly in the fire that the family was forced to have a closed-casket funeral.

"We were not able to see his face one last time," she said.

Investigators determined the flames started on the first floor and spread from there, and an accelerant was used.

Lyerly initially told investigators the fire had been an accident, though she later admitted to starting it on purpose. She told detectives the home was filled with demons, according to the complaint outlining the charges against her. She said she began hearing voices that told her to kill everyone in the house.

Tia Belvin, Turner's daughter, said her father was the glue that held their family together.

"In my eyes, he is the foundation of everything great about me," she said. "The most respectable attribute my father possessed was the ability to give without taking. Even if he was having a bad day, he would share a smile with a friend or stranger."

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519, mguza@tribweb.com or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.

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