Gerych: Fire scene was 'black hole" of destruction, limiting evidence

BATH — A Steuben County fire investigator testified Friday that “we were not honestly able to determine what caused” the house fire that claimed the life of 60-year-old David N. O’Dell Feb. 15, 2016, on New Galen Road in Wayland.

Fire Inv. Joseph A. Gerych wrapped up the first day of testimony Friday afternoon in the second-degree murder trial of Iryn B. Meyers. He told a county court jury that local investigators listed “undetermined” under the cause of the overnight fire, which leveled the two-story, wood-frame house on a frigid winter morning. But Gerych also testified that his "undetermined" finding didn't preclude subsequent investigations from pinpointing the cause of the fire.

In addition to the murder count, Iryn Myers, a native of the Philippines who is in her late 30s, is on trial for two counts of first-degree arson, insurance fraud, attempted insurance fraud, conspiracy and falsifying business records. She has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

Gerych was also a prominent prosecution witness earlier this year in the trial of Joseph Meyers, Iryn’s husband, who a Steuben County jury convicted of first-degree murder, arson, conspiracy, attempted insurance fraud and related charges in the death of O’Dell, his long-time friend and employee. He was sentenced to spend 23 years to life in state prison.

The Iryn Meyers trial began last Tuesday with jury selection. That process was completed late Thursday afternoon, with 12 jurors and four alternates sworn in before Steuben County Court Judge Joseph W. Latham. The 16 jurors include nine men and seven women.

The prosecution began presenting its case Friday morning after an opening statement in which District Attorney Brooks Baker called O’Dell a “perfect victim, a perfect friend,” who “died in the house he loved” to satisfy the defendant’s selfish quest for “money” and “big dreams” of a new home on the New Galen Road property.

Prosecutors say Joseph and Iryn Meyers conspired to collect some $140,000 insurance proceeds after burning down the house and killing O’Dell. Prosecutors say Iryn Meyers was the beneficiary listed on the policies, which were for life insurance on O'Dell, house insurance, and renter's insurance for personal items Mrs. Meyers stored on the property. 

“One person stood to directly benefit” from the fire and O’Dell’s death, Baker said. “That person sits right there — Iryn Meyers.”

Gerych said the “black hole” fire consumed nearly all of the evidence, complicating efforts to trace the origin of blaze.

“It’s quite difficult (to investigate) because so much of the stuff is destroyed,” Gerych testified during direct questioning by Baker.

Gerych told the jury he has investigated “well over 450 fires.” He said some potential causes of the New Galen Road fire could be eliminated. He ruled out an incoming electrical service fire, saying the service box and its surrounding wall were among the least damaged areas of the house, meaning they burned for a shorter length of time and could not have been the origin site, in his opinion.

He said the same of a first-floor propane heater, testifying that its location also sustained less damage compared to the rest of the house and could not have been the source of the fire.

But Gerych’s investigation was unable to pinpoint the exact origin of the blaze. He testified that the fire likely started in the basement, near a wood-burning furnace, or directly above that spot, in the first floor kitchen. But he added that “fire generally burns up(ward).”

Gerych testified that O’Dell’s badly charred body was found in a “chair or recliner” on the first floor, but “teetering” toward the basement.

Gerych said this fire investigation, like similar probes he has led, involved securing the scene, documenting the damage with photographs, interviewing witnesses, debriefing firefighters, and establishing the layout of the structure.

He said his tests did not detect any traces of an accelerant.

The defense faced a tricky dilemma in its cross-examination of Gerych. On one hand, the nine-year veteran of the Steuben County Fire Service classified the blaze as “undetermined” — a finding the defense welcomes because it undercuts the prosecution’s arson theory.

On the other hand, Gerych was front and center in a fire and murder investigation that defense attorney Brenda Smith Aston in her opening statement characterized as sloppy and rushed.

“I want you to remember this time period,” Aston said to the jury. “Eighteen minutes. That’s how long it took (investigators) to jump to conclusions. Nobody solves a murder in 18 minutes.”

That statement signaled the defense approach. Accept Gerych’s “undetermined” finding for the cause of the fire, but raise doubts about his investigative choices. Aston asked Gerych if he had collected the electric box, or preserved the propane heater for further investigation.

“I had no reason to try and secure it,” Gerych responded.

She also questioned him about the wood-burning furnace in the basement, asking why it was not covered by a tarp or removed from the scene altogether for further investigation.

“I had no reason to put a tarp on it or to remove it,” Gerych said.

“Was it left out to the elements and the public for five or six weeks before another investigator secured it?” Aston asked.

“It was left right there, yes,” Gerych answered.

Gerych testified the furnace was found with its door ajar, and appeared as if it had not been used for some time. The furnace was removed at the request of a state fire investigator in April. That investigator, who found that the fire was set intentionally, is scheduled to testify later in the trial.

During direct examination, Gerych said the state of the fully engulfed structure when it was discovered by a passerby at about 4:40 a.m. on Feb. 15, 2016, was consistent with a fire that had been burning for three or four hours.

On cross, Aston, chief Conflict Defender for Steuben County, asked Gerych if it was also possible that the fire had been burning for only about 2 hours, since approximately 2:30 a.m. She noted that he had earlier testified that a fire can double in size every five minutes. He said that the fire could only do that much damage so quickly with an aid of an accelerant.

Earlier during direction questioning by Baker, Gerych recounted his initial interview with Mrs. Meyers on the morning of the fire, conducted as crews worked to knock down the final hot spots in the rubble. He said he talked to Mrs. Meyers for about ten or 15 minutes. She explained that she had been living in the house with O'Dell, helping to take care of him, making sure he took his medicine, and doing the house work. She told the investigator that O'Dell complained of mental problems, telling her that he was hearing voices that urged him to burn the house down.

Asked to describe Mrs. Meyers' demeanor, Gerych said she was "stone cold. No emotion."

Gerych testified that an interview with Joseph Meyers that morning covered much of the same ground, including about O'Dell hearing voices, but Mr. Meyers was "visibly upset, crying," Gerych said.

More on opening statements

Aston reminded jurors that they had taken an oath to be fair and impartial, stressing that as Mrs. Meyers sits before them at the beginning of the trial, she has the presumption of innocence.

"She is placing her trust, her future, in your hands," Aston said.

Aston described Mrs. Meyers as an abused spouse and the main earner in the marriage. Iryn, Aston said, worked hard to support her family in this country, as well as relatives still living in the Philippines. Of her union to Joseph Meyers, Aston said Mrs. Meyers' marriage "has not been a fairy tale."

Aston suggested that Mrs. Meyers' confession, which the prosecution said was recorded and will be played for the jury, is unreliable, and possibly was coerced.

"We want you to decide if her statements were true and voluntary, or was she tricked," Aston told jurors.

For his part, Baker said "evidence will paint a very clear picture" of what happened. The district attorney insisted "all her rights were protected."

"You'll see that her confession fits with the evidence," Baker added.

First on scene

Perkinsville Fire Chief Walter Drum Jr. testified to the devastation wrought by the fatal blaze. Drum, who was the first emergency responder to arrive at the fire, said a chimney remained upright, but almost everything else was "down on the ground."

"There was no saving it at all," he added.

Drum said firefighters were fairly certain that there was a victim somewhere inside the structure, but he testified "there was no way to get in there" until the fire was brought under control.

Drum described O'Dell's remains as "very badly burned. One of the worst I have every seen."