Ed Meyer

Akron police and the Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office are investigating Sunday night’s death of a 17-month-old toddler as a suspected homicide.


Meanwhile, a Barberton woman said Tuesday that she called Summit County Children Services two weeks ago to report that the boy’s mother, Heather Lerch, 20, was taking him to live with her boyfriend at a suspected drug house and that she feared for the child’s safety.


Patrick Nicholas Lerch was found unresponsive in his crib Sunday night at a two-story home in the 500 block of St. Leger Avenue in the Goodyear Heights neighborhood.


Akron Police Lt. Rick Edwards said a working meth lab was found in the basement of the home during an investigation by responding officers.


The boy, who was taken by an emergency squad to Akron Children’s Hospital, was pronounced dead at 11:17 p.m., according to the medical examiner’s report. A medical examiner’s investigator, Justin Benner, reported finding “apparent bruising” on the child’s body in the hospital’s emergency room.


Kimberly Clark of Barberton said she called Children Services on Feb. 13 and told the agency that Heather Lerch was taking her son to the house on St. Leger.


“I called Children Services the day she left and said she was leaving with that baby to go to a drug house,” Clark said in an interview Tuesday. “They did nothing even though they already had a case on her from the homeless shelter.”


Clark said she and her husband, a relative of Lerch’s mother, had taken in Lerch and her son Dec. 4 because they felt sorry for them and feared they would have nowhere to stay for the holidays.


Lerch and her son had been living for several months before that at Harvest Home, a homeless shelter for parents and children on North Prospect Street in downtown Akron, Clark said.


After reading about Patrick’s death in Tuesday’s newspaper, Clark said she felt she had to alert someone about her attempt to get the child to a safe environment.


“I wanted my voice to be heard,” Clark said.


Lerch and the boy came to live in Akron in late August or early September, Clark said, after leaving their previous home in South Carolina. Clark said Lerch told her she had to leave there “to get away from her abusive boyfriend.”


Agency’s response


John Saros, executive director of Children Services, confirmed the agency had received calls from Clark, and before that, from residents at Harvest Home in November.


A woman who said she lived at the shelter for several months last year and knew Lerch and her son also contacted the Beacon Journal to report her referral.


Tumekia Williams, who later sent a cell phone photo of Patrick to the newspaper, said a lot of complaints were made to the agency about Lerch.


“She used to slap Patrick, and we all saw it. We felt he was going to get taken, but they never did. She was terrible,” Williams said of Lerch.


Saros said the referral from Harvest Home received a “full investigation.”


“We took a look at the care of the child, the mom’s situation, what support [services] she had in the situation, and after not only investigating it, but doing an internal review, came to the conclusion that the allegations were unsubstantiated,” Saros said Tuesday.


He said the agency did “a great deal of work” on the Feb. 13 complaint from Clark, including a complete safety assessment of the St. Leger living arrangements and what he described as a “panel review” of the case.


“We were in the process of following up on all that. There was no evidence of any drugs, meth lab or anything like that,” he said.


Saros said Lerch “was cooperative with us and indicated that she had every desire to continue caring for her child.”


He said he understands why Clark is upset.


“I mean, I’m upset by this case, OK? This one is really troubling when you have a 17-month-old toddler who the workers described as a beautiful child, who they absolutely thought was being cared for by his mom,” Saros said.


“We are in a great deal of angst over this case, yesterday and today, with the revelations here.”


Saros said he suspects “something very extraordinary happened here, something unexpected. We still don’t fully understand what has happened to this child.”


Summit County Medical Examiner Lisa J. Kohler released her agency’s preliminary investigative report, listing Patrick’s death as a “suspected homicide,” after a Beacon Journal public records request.


Mother interviewed


Medical examiner’s investigator Benner interviewed Lerch for the report, saying she told him Patrick often ran and fell. Lerch also was interviewed about possible drug use in the home.


“She doesn’t know of anyone using or doing drugs and denied any use herself. She stated she only drank on special occasions,” Benner wrote.


Edwards said Lerch and her son lived on St. Leger with her boyfriend, Randy Legg, 19, his brother Ronald Legg, 22, and another man, Allen Ray Kostra, 24.


All four were arrested on multiple felony drug charges and were taken to the county jail Sunday night, Edwards said. He said they remained in custody Tuesday and could face additional charges in connection with Patrick’s death.


Ronald Legg, who also was charged with probation violations for receiving stolen property and theft, had 10 previous arrests by Akron police, Edwards said.


Kostra was charged additionally with contempt of court in a theft case, jail records showed. He had six previous arrests by Akron police, Edwards said.


Officers and an emergency squad responded to the St. Leger residence after receiving a 911 call from an unidentified man living there.


“A little baby boy is not breathing. He stopped breathing,” the man told the dispatcher.


A woman could be heard crying in the background of the recorded call.


“He went to sleep, and now we can’t get him to wake up. He won’t breathe or nothing,” the caller said.


Five minutes and seven seconds after the call began, the emergency squad arrived.


Kohler said the autopsy investigation is continuing. The cause and manner of death will not be official until toxicology tests are completed in several weeks, she said.


Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at emeyer@thebeaconjournal.com.