WINTER HAVEN (FOX 13) - When Donald Merkley's home on Timberline Road West went up in flames last month, fire investigators blamed the blaze on a faulty space heater. Now detectives say the fire was set to cover up Merkley's murder.
According to detectives, Merkley went on Craigslist looking for sex. That's where he met 18-year-old Jerry Johnsey. Investigators say Johnsey and a 16-year-old buddy, Byron Lasiak, went over to Merkley's home to rob him.
"I don't think he was a pedophile," said Polk Sheriff Grady Judd. "I think he was after sex and he got a lot more than he bargained for. He got a red hot deal."
The break in the case came after a Lisiak told a friend what happened and she contacted the Polk Sheriff's Office. Detectives say the teens confessed.
They say when Merkley and Lisiak were involved in a sexual act, Johnsey put the older man in a chokehold, then used a belt to strangle him. Lisiak told investigators he used a bat to hit Merkley.
The following day, Johnsey spread gas all over and lit up the house.
Despite the fact that investigators say Lisiak admitted to the crime, a family friend could not believe it.
"He is innocent," said Nicole Ruston. " We have known him for years, he is not that kind of kid. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Detectives say the teens did get away with what they came for, money. But all they could find was $2.75.
Johnsey and Lisiak are now charged with first-degree murder.