On the night 17-month-old Patrick Nicholas Lerch died of methamphetamine poisoning, his mother went with her boyfriend to a local Circle K at 10:15 to buy Polar Pops and cigarettes.
Patrick was left behind in the rat-infested basement of a two-story home on St. Leger Avenue in Akron’s Goodyear Heights neighborhood.
At 10:45 p.m., another man living there called 911 to report that Patrick wasn’t breathing.
Less than an hour later, the child was pronounced dead at Akron Children’s Hospital.
Testimony from Summit County’s chief medical examiner showed Patrick most likely was dead two to three hours before the official pronouncement.
Prosecutors cited those sequential facts Monday afternoon to explain the jury’s guilty verdicts against the mother, Heather M. Lerch, 21, on one count of murder, two counts of involuntary manslaughter and three counts of child endangering.
The panel of six men and six women reached its decision at 12:30 p.m., after less than three hours of deliberations.
As the jury filed into the courtroom of Common Pleas Judge Tom Parker, one woman was crying, with a hand over her face, and another was holding back tears with a tissue clutched in her left hand.
None wished to speak afterward while silently leaving the courthouse.
Bruises as evidence
Assistant county Prosecutor Gregory Peacock said the state felt the most compelling evidence “was that there were so many injuries on Patrick, and [Heather] admitted she knew there were burns on him, but she still left him in that environment.”
The child had bruises from head to toe, Peacock said.
“The other thing is, he was dead for a couple of hours prior to the police being called,” Peacock said. “Then we have her at Circle K at 10:15, and 911 was called at 10:45.
“From that, you can decipher that Patrick had been dead when she left the house. It’s evidence showing she had to know what was happening.”
Lerch sat next to her attorney, with her head lowered, as Parker read the decision. Minutes later, she was escorted out of the courtroom in handcuffs, weeping, by three sheriff’s deputies.
Although Lerch was convicted of the most serious charges, she was found not guilty of one count of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the related charge of illegal manufacturing of meth.
The jury also found her not guilty of one count of aggravated possession of drugs and one count of illegal possession of drug paraphernalia.
Sentencing on Sept. 25
Parker ordered a pre-?sentence investigation and set sentencing for Sept. 25.
Under Ohio law, Lerch faces a mandatory sentence of 15 years to life, Peacock said. Parker has discretion, because of Lerch’s other convictions, to add to the time she must serve before she can be considered for parole, he said.
Lerch’s attorney, Brian Pierce, declined to comment with her sentence pending.
From the outset of the Feb. 26 crime, when the child was taken from the Goodyear Heights home by an emergency squad, police said there was a working meth lab in the basement.
Lerch’s boyfriend, Randy Legg, and his older brother, Ronald Legg, were arrested with her and were indicted in connection with the death. Their trials are pending in Parker’s court.
The fourth co-defendant, 25-year-old Allen R. Kostra, testified at Lerch’s trial last week. He said he and co-defendant Ronald Legg cooked meth in the basement of the home and used it virtually all weekend before Patrick’s death.
Kostra said he was addicted to the drug to such an extent he had not slept in close to three days.
He pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, child endangering and manufacturing meth. Under the plea deal, he agreed to testify against Lerch and the others in exchange for an 11-year prison sentence.
In Kostra’s two hours on the witness stand Thursday, he told the jury he never saw Lerch cooking or doing meth at the St. Leger home. He said she spent most of her time there on the upper floors with Randy Legg.
Akron police Detective Gary Shadie, who is assigned to the department’s juvenile unit, said after the verdicts that Lerch’s involvement was preventable.
“That’s the saddest thing,” Shadie said. “It’s something that didn’t have to happen. I would hope this would be a lesson to people in general, that there are dangers of methamphetamine and dangers for having your children around it.
“And, hopefully, this unfortunate accident in which Patrick lost his life will save some other children’s lives somewhere down the line.”
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or firstname.lastname@example.org.