Defense expert differs on origin, cause of 2016 Wayland fire
BATH — A Steuben County court jury is expected to begin deliberations Tuesday in the trial of Iryn Meyers who is charged with second-degree murder and first-degree arson for the Feb. 15, 2016, fire that killed David N. O’Dell in Wayland.
After defense and prosecuting attorneys make their closing summations starting at about 9:30 Tuesday morning, and Judge Joseph W. Latham reads the law that must be applied to each of the 11 counts in the indictment against Meyers, the 12-member panel will get to work, deliberating in a small room on the third-floor of the county courthouse in Bath.
Iryn Meyers has pleaded not guilty to all charges, which, in addition to second-degree murder and two counts of first-degree arson, include insurance fraud, attempted insurance fraud, making a false written statement for filing and conspiracy.
Joseph Meyers, Iryn’s husband, was tried in May in connection with the same February 2016 house fire on New Galen Road that killed O’Dell. A county court jury deliberated for less than four hours before convicting Joseph Meyers of first-degree murder, two counts of first-degree arson, conspiracy and several lesser charges. He was sentenced in June to spend 23 years to life in state prison.
During seven days of testimony in the Iryn Meyers trial, the jury heard from more than three dozen witnesses, was presented with better than 100 exhibits and viewed multiple hours of video surveillance footage. Prosecutors allege that Iryn and Joseph Meyers conspired to burn down O’Dell’s house to collect more than $140,000 in insurance payouts on policies on O’Dell’s life, the house (which was owned by Iryn Meyers), and Iryn Meyers’ possessions in the house.
Although O’Dell had sold the house to Iryn Meyers, he retained life-use of the residence, as long as he remained in the home.
The prosecution claims that the deadly plan went into full motion two months before the fire, in December, after a Wayland health officer refused to declare the house unlivable and the town codes officer told Joseph Meyers that it would take at least $50,000 in renovations before the house could be sold.
Earlier in the trial, state Fire Inv. James Ryan testified for the prosecution, telling the jury that he believes the fire was intentionally set in the basement of the two-story, wood-frame structure, near an inoperable wood-burning furnace.
Ryan said he discovered ignitable liquid patterns on the exterior of the furnace, convincing evidence, he said, that the fire began in close proximity to the apparatus.
A key defense witness offered a different view Monday morning. Nicholas Tochelli, a private investigator and fire science expert from Pittsford, testified that he could not determine a cause of the fire.
During questioning by defense attorney David Hoffmann, Tochelli disputed the prosecution’s theory of the deadly inferno that leveled the structure and killed the 60-year-old O’Dell, a long-time friend and employee of Joseph Meyers at Loon Lake Services in Wayland.
Tochelli told the jury that he “can’t rule out” an accidental cause for the fire or a different origin point for the blaze.
Most of his analysis is based on the fire reports generated by Steuben County Fire Inv. Joseph Gerych and Ryan, the state investigator, Tochelli said.
“I personally would call this an undetermined fire,” he testified.
Tochelli’s most forceful testimony was directed at Ryan’s theory on how and where the fire started. He seemed to rule out the wood furnace or the immediate area around it, saying there should have been much more soot visible in the photographs of the destruction and greater smoke damage from the blaze.
“I don’t think the fire started near that wood-burning furnace,” Tochelli testified.
As for the burn patterns on the outside of the furnace, Tochelli said he is not convinced that they were the result of direct fire, testifying that intense heat could also have caused the markings.
While acknowledging that fire rises upward and outward, Tochelli told the jury that the fire could have started above the basement, with the cellar fire damage coming about when the first floor collapsed.
During a lengthy, deliberate cross examination by District Attorney Brooks Baker, Tochelli acknowledged that he relied on defense attorneys for all the information he received. He admitted that critical aspects of the criminal investigation, including the surveillance video from Loon Lake Services, Iryn Meyers’ statements to investigators in which she stated the fire was set deliberately in the basement, jail telephone recordings, insurance documentation and the couple’s financial outlook, were not shared by defense attorneys.
“There is quite a bit there that I don’t have,” conceded Tochelli, referring to a six-inch thick, three-ring binder containing the entire State Police evidence files.
But Tochelli, a former police investigator, stood by his analysis and report.
“I believe I had enough (material) to perform what I did,” he said.