Family: David O’Dell was generous, loner

BATH — For most people following the murder trial of Joseph A. Meyers, David O’Dell is simply a victim. His name, when read in news accounts or broadcast on the airwaves, comes without context, his 60 years of life forever shrouded by the way it ended, in smoke and darkness on Feb. 15, 2016.

Unless you are a member of the O’Dell family — and it was a big brood (mom and dad, five boys and three girls) — or were one of David’s handful of friends, or knew him as an occasional acquaintance from a lifetime of living in Wayland, you can no longer hear the soft echoes of his voice. You don’t remember that his eyes were once lit with love, especially for his mother Frances O’Dell and an older brother, Jimmy.

David O’Dell’s identify was even hidden in death. After the devastating fire that took his life in the middle of the night some 15 months ago, he was an unidentified body. Sure, his brothers and sisters, along with much of the Wayland community, knew that David was the person who had perished in a fire that left almost nothing from the aged structure upright, a blaze that consumed the home he had lived in since the late 1960s.

Investigators would not put a name with the charred body. It was left to his family and a funeral home, three or four days after he died, to say it was David who was gone. It was David who could no longer speak for himself.

It’s left to family members, like David’s sister, Laurie Mills, and his brother, Phil O’Dell, to tell his story.

“David was a loner, but he would give you the shirt off his back,” Mills said.

“Dave was kind of a loner. He didn’t like being around a lot of people,” agreed Phil O’Dell, who lives in Bath, just a few blocks from the Steuben County Courthouse where Joseph Meyers is on trial for arson and murder in the fire that killed his brother.

Phil O’Dell said long before the New Galen Road home became a scene of horror, it served as the fulfilment of a dream.

“We basically grew up in Hartsville outside of Canisteo, and in the fall of 1968, Mom and Dad bought that house,” said Phil O’Dell, an Air Force veteran who has managed an apartment complex in Bath for some 30 years. “Mom had always wanted her own house because of all those years they rented.

“Well, I don’t know how Dad found the house, but somehow he found this house for sale, very cheap, and they bought it. They got it for $19,000.

“It became the family home.”

Phil O'Dell said David was affected his entire life by a head injury he sustained as a youngster.

“When David was a child, I would say, God, he had to been maybe four or five, he fell down the stairs . . . he slammed his head . . . and that’s why he was slow.

“He wasn’t stupid or anything like that, he was just slow.”

While many of his brothers and sisters moved on and moved to new places, as children do, David stayed with his parents, helping to look after them as the years moved on. Robert O’Dell died at age 68, and Frances O'Dell, who Phil O’Dell called the anchor of the family, passed away at 75.

And the family knew right away who should have the house in the years to come.

“When Mom passed away, all of us kids – because David had always been there for Mom and Dad, lived with them all those years, took care of them and all that – so all the rest of us kids got together and we decided, you know, why don’t we sign the house over to David and let him have it,” Phil O’Dell said. “I’d tell him, ‘David, it’s your home. It will always be your home. We will always be there for you.’”

Phil O’Dell said two of David’s sisters lived with him for a time on New Galen Road, but David lived alone for the most part.

“Our family, we weren’t really close-knit, but we were always there for each other,” Phil O’Dell continued. “You know, we never had family reunions or anything like that. It’s just the way the family was.”

There has been an O’Dell family reunion this month, of a sort. Several members of the family sit side by side, in the first row, just a few feet from their brother’s accused killer, in the third-floor courtroom of Steuben County Court Judge Joseph W. Latham. Whether they are interacting with court deputies, reporters, district attorney’s staff, or even Meyers’ attorneys Chris Tunney and Peter Glanville, they are approachable and friendly.

But it would be foolish to mistake their courtesy for a lack of resolve to see that their brother gets justice.

“I want to know what happened and why it happened,” Mills explained.

Phil O’Dell is more blunt.

“I just want to know why he did it,” Phil O’Dell said of Joseph Meyers, who has pleaded not guilty and denied all charges in connection with David’s O’Dell’s death.

“Everybody loved David, and even (Joseph Meyers) keeps saying that he was David’s best friend, so why? Why would a best friend, why would you kill your best friend?”

Prosecutors call David O’Dell’s death a murder scheme for profit. The district attorney said Joseph Meyers, who was the owner of Loon Lake Services, wanted money to buy a new business and his wife, Iryn Meyers (who has been indicted for second-degree murder, arson, conspiracy and other charges and goes on trial in July ), wanted money to buy a new house.

The murder trial jury has been told, in an opening statement by Steuben County District Attorney Brooks Baker, that Iryn Meyers held insurance policies worth about $140,00, covering David O’Dell’s life, the house and possessions Iryn Meyers kept in the house. Joseph Meyers told authorities, according to police testimony at the trial, that the life insurance was taken out to pay for David O'Dell's funeral if something should happen to him.

“I know money’s the root of all evil, but, my God, it wasn’t even that much,” Phil O’Dell said. There’s nobody else. Everybody knew David. Everybody up there loved David. He helped everybody up there. Nobody else would have had any reason other than what they said, financial.”

On the day of the fire, Joseph Meyers made three statements to a State Police investigator. Those depositions were read to the jury last week. In those statements, Meyers told authorities that David had lost touch with reality, heard voices telling him to burn down the house, expressed suicidal thoughts, and shortly before the fire, stole $40 from a tool box at Loon Lake Services, Joseph Meyers’ business and David O’Dell’s workplace.

Phil O’Dell said those statements are ridiculous and paint an incorrect picture of his brother.

“I don’t believe that because I know for a fact, and my brother told me this himself; he didn’t show it to me, but he told me this himself that he had over $2,000 under his mattress in his bedroom, so why the hell would he have to have stolen from Joe? He wouldn’t have had to. David always had money.”

Phil O’Dell does not believe his brother talked about burning down the family home.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “No, because I talked to him one time about how easy that house would go up, and he says, ‘No. That’s why I’m very careful.

“When he was using the wood burners, he was always very careful. He could smell the smoke, and he would get up and take care of it, so he was extremely wary of any kind of smoke in that house.”

Phil O’Dell said he had never met either Joseph or Iryn Meyers prior to his brother’s death. When they did finally meet, Phil O’Dell said Joseph Meyers offered to pay for his brother’s funeral.

“And I’m thinking why would somebody not even in the family want to do this and even pay for it? It got me thinking, ‘well, something ain’t right here.’”

The funeral home offer wasn’t the only surprise. The family was mystified about the insurance policies. Phil O’Dell said when the family inquired about David’s homeowner insurance, they were told that the house had been deeded over to Iryn Meyers.

The insurance company told the family to make a list of David’s possessions and submit it to the company.

“So I got together with my two sisters who had lived there for a while with David,” Phil O’Dell said.

The $18,000 check for the contents helped the family say goodbye to their youngest brother, the second to die suddenly.

“It paid for the funeral. It paid for the headstone. I got him an absolutely gorgeous headstone,” Phil O’Dell said.

Before his parents died, David lost an older brother he was very close to, Jimmy, who had survived a tour of Vietnam at age 22, but could not survive his return, committing suicide when he was 23, according to Phil O’Dell.

David O’Dell is buried in Loon Lake Cemetery, not far from his brother Jimmy’s grave.

“Because him and my younger brother that had died, they were close,” Phil O’Dell said. “So we wanted David to be as close to him as they possibly could be.”

(Editor's Note: Neal Simon has covered the murder trial of Joseph Meyers of Wayland since jury selection. After four full days of testimony here are some thoughts from the reporter along with his exclusive interviews with family members of fire victim David O'Dell)