LUZERNE COUNTY: The Mysterious Death of Laurie Merritt, & the Incompetence of Wilkes Barre Police

Laurie Merritt was a postal worker, who had for years delivered mail. She loved her job, and by most accounts everybody loved her:

“Everybody loved her,” said Joe Walkowiak. “If somebody was sick on her mail route, she would take them food, take them whatever just to comfort them. Laurie wanted everybody to be happy.”

The major suspect in Merrit’s case is Paul Kosakowski. Paul was Laurie’s live in boyfriend for almost 17 years. The family reports that nobody liked Paul from the beginning:

“From day one, nobody liked him. Not my grandparents, not my aunts and uncles, not her friends,” said Kristin Merritt. “He was very controlling. He didn’t want her to have any guy friends. He was super jealous.” – Daughter of Laurie

Shortly before Laurie was found dead, she had informed her family, that after years of breaking up and fighting with Paul, she was breaking if off for good. Paul moved out, and she started to date.

“She told me she was finally going to start living her life and not worrying about what she does, not caring about what he thought of her now,” said Jeff Walkowiak. (Laurie’s Brother)

Laurie was very close to her brother Joe, and communicated with him frequently. Just prior to her death, after Paul had moved out, is when things began to get extremely creepy. The warning signs were swarming around. Family members of Laurie relay that Paul was “obsessed” with Laurie, and that he wasn’t handling the break up well at all. Creepy behavior was transpiring, but Laurie, after 17 years was accustomed to his controlling and sometimes disturbing behaviors. This break up however, entailed some particularly scary activity:

“She said that she would come home and she would find Paul looking in the windows, he’d be around her house stalking her, and that’s when I said ‘Laurie, something’s not right here,'” said Joe.

There was no cry for help, there were no calls to 911 that have been reported. Whether Laurie thought she could handle it herself, or why Laurie didn’t want to involve police was a mystery.

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“One day she came to me and she said ‘Listen, I’m done, I don’t care,'” said Joe. “She said ‘If I’m dead, Paul killed me.'”

Laurie was found dead in a housefire on April 14, 2014.

She had worked that day, came home, made dinner and called her friend Ken Huhn. She liked to share recipes with him, and she was in the process of giving Ken a recipe when she abruptly had to go. It didn’t seem like a big deal to Ken, and there was no panic that he noted right then in her voice.

That would be the last phone call Laurie ever made.

What happened next was baffling.

The first sign of foul play was noticed by one of Laurie’s neighbor who called 911 after seeing smoke coming from the house.

The daughter was notified shortly thereafter: “My grandmother called me and she said ‘Your house is on fire,’ and I’m like ‘Where is my mom?’ She said ‘We don’t know,'” said Kristin Merritt. “Everybody is calling her, no answer.”

As neighbors gathered in the front yard of Merrit’s home and along the sidewalks, firetrucks and police officers arrived. They entered the house and cleared it. Nobody was home. Laurie’s daughter was insistent they look again.

The next time they entered the house they take the added step of checking the attic, and stumbled upon a hellish scene. Laurie was lying in a crawl space, a “small patch of smoldering flames.” And she was alive, at least when they initially found her. Oddly enough, her cell phone was lying beside her.

 

“She was pronounced dead a short time later of carbon-monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation,” said reporter Sarah Buynovsky.

The Investigation of the Fire:

The family of course was confused, and deeply saddened by the surprising loss. They wanted it answers, and like most victims of crimes, they experienced a range of emotion. Much of it manifested in anger, a sentiment which they still carry today.

They investigation would continue to be botched according to the opinion of the family, as it continues from 2014 to present day, remaining unsolved.

Part of the most cynical evidence in this case involves the access to the attic. The attic has no steps, and is accessible only by ladder. When the firefighters initially entered the house, they found the ladder to the attic leaning against a kitchen door.

While the family was enraged that the attic was never searched during first entry into the house, the fire marshall responded that it was because there were no steps there.

“[Firefighters] told me that they walked in the house, searched the house three times. And I said to them, ‘Are you sure those steps were not down?’ They said ‘Absolutely,'” said Joe.

That’s strange, Kristin says, because it would be impossible for Laurie to disassemble the bottom half of the ladder, set those steps against the kitchen door, then climb back up by herself and get trapped in the attic. It’s almost impossible to get those stairs down once you’re in the attic, so she wasn’t alone,” said Kristin.

On further report of from the fire marshall, even scarier evidence was released: “He determined that it was arson, that there was combustible material in the attic space that had been lit by someone,” said Sarah Buynovsky.

After the release of the fire marshall’s report: Laurie Merritt’s cause of death is changed. “At that point the coroner’s report which was initially that this was an accidental death changed to ‘undetermined,'” said Sara.

In other words, it was arson. Somebody intentionally lit a fire.

The Application for a Gun Permit

The night of the fire, Laurie’s devestated brother searched the home for clues, conducting his own investigative work. During the search he went into her bedroom.

It’s there that Joe claims he finds something that sends chills down his spine.

“She had a gun permit filled out, ready to go,” said Joe. “So she was afraid. She was in fear of something.”

Paul’s Odd Behavior Prior to the Fire

Laurie’s daughter Kristin got a text from Paul shortly before Laurie’s death. Paul advised he had hidden notes in the house, and indeed he had hidden at least a dozen of them.

Laurie’s family says it’s more than “emotional turmoil.” They say Paul refused to let Laurie go and that led to some odd behavior, including a text from Paul to Kristin.

 “We found at least a half a dozen notes. In one of them he wrote, ‘Hi Kris.’ I felt like they were targeted at me, like he was trying to drive me and my mother apart.” – Kristin, Daughter

“So I just told him he was pathetic and left it at that,” said Kristin. “I wasn’t going to give him a reaction. He was just so obsessed with her. Normal people don’t go planting notes in somebody’s house for their daughter to find. It’s really strange.”

The Investigation into Paul Kosakowski

The family’s frustration is largely substantiated by the lack of enthusiasm in which police pursued leads and tips. Paul, who the family suspected killed Laurie, was only interviewed by police on a single instance the day after the fire, and he was almost immedicately cleared as a suspect or person of interest.

Paul Kosakowski insists to cops he was nowhere near Laurie Merritt’s house at the time of the fire.

“I believe it’s that he was at home with his mother, sleeping. That’s what he told the police,” said Kristin.

In fact: Paul Kosakowski has never officially been a suspect or even a person of interest in the case.

Paul in fact theorized to the press and law enforcement that Laurie’s death was a suicide. An odd thing to say, as I have never heard of any case that involved suicide by fire. The family was desperate and the police were not being responsive.

“I told them everything I knew, and they scribbled down on a little notepad. I had notes, I had evidence, and they didn’t take it seriously. They didn’t even keep what I gave them,” said Kristin.

Paul also theorized that perhaps it was Kristin, the daughter, who killed her mother. Paul informed the press that Kristin and Laurie had been fighting in the days leading up to her death. He said that Laurie had been asking Kristin to do household chores, and then complaining to him that Kristin wasn’t getting them done, and that Kristin was lazy.

 

Despite Paul’s public statements to the media about how grief stricken he was over the death of Laurie, Paul never attended the funeral and has had cut off all contact with the family. The Luzerne County District Attorney and Wilkesbarre Police have cleared Paul and never bothered him, except to interview him after the fire one time.

The Incompetency of Law Enforcement in a Botched and Stalled Investigation

The family was excited to learn that the first two detectives who had initially handled the investigation into Laurie’s death were retiring. Perhaps the next generation of Wilkes Barre detectives would be more aggressive in finding answers. They were again disappointed.

The family went public. Like most families of missing persons or unsolved murder cases, they created a facebook page trying to generate leads. Joe told the media that he believes the person who murdered his sister is likely a reader of the page.

The two new detectives conducted a second round of interviews with witnesses. They returned to Laurie’s former home and reviewed the scene of the crime. Then the case went cold again, with little movement or contact with the family.

Adding insult to injury, the wife of one of the detectives began posting on the family’s “Justice for Laurie Merritt” page: “Sometimes the bad people in this world outsmart us and we hit a brick wall,” a woman, who said her husband is one of the active detectives, posted on July 22.

The family of course was enraged. They of course were furious at the botched investigation, and the botched activities of the fire fighters, but then to add insult onto injury, here was the wife of a law enforcement officer publicly defending them.

Walkowiak bristled at the posts and said, “She should be talking to no one.”

The postings were deleted after Walkowiak said family members met with Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis earlier this month. Salavantis said she was unaware of the postings before the meeting and sympathized with the family as they sought a resolution.

“This is an active investigation,” Salavantis said. “It takes time. It’s not an open-and-shut case.”

CITATION

But there was more insulting material that was leaked by police to the media. Police Chief Robert Hughes publicly theorized that Laurie had died as a result of prescribed muscle relaxers combined with alcohol. Essentially, before the toxicology report even came out, Hughes was in the media labeling it as a suicide.

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Because of this assessment, the police were slow in gathering information and conducting an investigation during the initial days following the fire. They thought the toxicology report following the autopsy would solve the case.

But then the autopsy report came out clean, and the chief of police, detectives and law enforcement had already slandered Laurie in the press.

“We had done their job for them by providing them with articles of evidence that they never looked for and they still didn’t make it into evidence,” Kristin Merritt said.

The daughter, who lives in the Wyoming Street home that’s been renovated since the fire, said the family is at a loss as to why police did not follow protocol in the investigation.

“We put trust into the Wilkes-Barre Police Department and they failed us,” she said.

“From day one, we had begged for Wilkes-Barre and the DA to allow the state police in on the investigation because we saw that they weren’t taking us seriously and they would not allow it. Their main focus at this point is covering up shoddy detective work,” she said.

The impression Mike Merritt, Laurie Merritt’s ex-husband and chairman of the Wilkes-Barre city council, said he got from meeting with detectives the day after the fire was they did not want to hear what the family had to say. More than a year later, police have not made any progress in the case and Merritt said it’s because, “they guessed and they guessed wrong. “

CITATION

To the defense of the Luzerne County DA Stefanie Salavantis, she was only involved later on in the case. Perhaps she should have been on the case from the start, because she did take action.

But by the time Salavantis got involved, the investigation had already been ireparably botched. The home on Marcy Street, where Kristin still lives, was not declared a crime scene until nearly a week after the fire, and the pleas to law enforcement to investigate foul play were all but disregarded.

“At the scene of the crime, my family was urging the Wilkes Barre Police Department that something wasn’t right, that they really need to investigate this fire. Coincidence only goes so far,” Michael J. Merritt wrote in an Aug. 14 email.

CITATION

The entire thing was very strange, from the notes left around the house to the attic ladder being detached, particularly the latter element:

“I wrote down from day one who I talked to,” he said, adding he has an inch-thick book of notes.

Among those Walkowiak spoke with is a neighbor who told him she saw his sister crying after an argument with Kosakowski outside the house the day of the fire. The neighbor went over to Merritt who said, “Just pray for me,” Walkowiak said. “That night she was dead,” he said.

How and where Merritt was found in the attic crawl space and the location of a set of folding stairs that connected to the attic door further led the family to believe her death was not accidental.

CITATION

The Crime Scene as the Family Recalls it

The work clothes Merritt went to retrieve were piled near the attic opening. The attic door was open and the folding steps were located in the basement to the side of the stairwell leading from the ground floor.

CITATION

But as I mentioned, what I find most perplexing and cynical about reports on this case is the location of the attic steps. It was physically impossible for Laurie to have climbed into the attic, and then moved the ladder. The ladder to the attic had been relocated to the basement stairwell. There is no other conclusion that could be drawn except foul play.

Why had investigators not initially picked up on this very eerie detail? Immediately any seasoned investigator should have recognized that there was no physical way for Laurie to climb into the attic and remove the steps to another location.

Furthermore, the house was locked and Laurie’s car was parked on the street as opposed to where she normally parked on the driveway.

Nothing about it seemed to make sense. Police waited until the following day to interview Paul:

Police interviewed Kosakowski and he confirmed he spoke with Laurie Merritt the day of the fire. He called and spoke with her at approximately 7 p.m., according to paperwork filed to obtain a search warrant to verify his statements and the location of his cell phone when the calls were made and received.

According to paperwork: Kosakowski said he was at home when he missed a call from Merritt at 10:20 p.m. He returned her call and she told him she was going to the attic to get some things. Kosakowski said he received a call at approximately 11:31 p.m. from John Morris, a next door neighbor of Merritt, alerting him that her house was on fire.

CITATION

Paul had a key to the house, after all he had lived their for 17 years on and off, and the house was locked when the fire was discovered. Additionally, cell phone evidence of Paul’s location during the time period of the fire certainly does not “exonerate” him. He could have easily left his cell phone at home. Anybody who watches enough Dateline knows cell phones can trace a location, perhaps he was cunning enough to plan ahead. Either way, the location of Paul determined by the cell phone records should in no way “eliminate” him as a suspect.

Paul denies ever having a key, which seems very strange to me. Pardon me, it seems like an outright lie.

Paul says he was at home when he got a call from one of Laurie’s neighbors about the fire. He told them to “break down the door.” They attempted, but couldn’t get entry into the house. The firefighters arrived moments later.

What Ken Huhn told Police About the Last Call Ever Made by Laurie

As I mentioned, they were talking about recipes. A recipe for pork chops specifically. Huhn did not recall panic in Laurie’s voice, but he does remember her last words:

He could not recall the name of the detective he spoke with, but remembered being asked one question, “What was the last thing she said to you?” Huhn said she told him Paul was home because she must have seen his headlights in the driveway.

The conversation with the detective lasted a minute or two, he said. “A year and four months later, I still haven’t heard from any law enforcement,” Huhn said.

CITATION

Laurie was buried in her US postal office uniform, and Paul never attended the funeral or contacted the family again.

To date, this eerie case remains unsolved.

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