Meadville Tribune

December 30, 2013

Van Dyke murder, Conneaut Lake Park court drama stories No. 3, 2 in year's biggest

Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE — Continuing today, The Meadville Tribune presents the most important Crawford County-area news stories of 2013 as voted upon by you, the readers. Weeks ago, we asked readers to narrow down about 25 of the year’s stories to a top 15, and the following are the results.

The stories voted Nos. 15 through 4 ran on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Today, we’ll provide Nos. 3 and 2. The top story runs on New Year’s Day, Wednesday.

3. Van Dyke murder, Houy hanging

A Cambridge Springs area man who admitted to killing his daughter’s boyfriend and dismembering the body ended up taking his own life at the Crawford County jail in Saegertown.

Richard Houy, 68, of Cambridge Springs was found dead in his jail cell by corrections officers on Nov. 2. Houy was found dead hanging from an air vent shortly before 7 a.m. after failing to appear for the morning’s head count of prisoners.

Houy apparently went to great lengths to convince authorities at the jail he still was alive though he apparently died hours before on that morning. Houy’s death was ruled a suicide from asphyxiation from ligature hanging, according to Scott Schell, the Crawford County coroner, who placed the time of death at around 2 a.m. Nov. 2.

Houy was charged by Pennsylvania State Police with killing Gerald Van Dyke, 55, of the Union City area in September. Houy admitted to the crime in an interview with state police. Van Dyke’s headless and handless remains were found stuffed inside a barrel in a wooded area near Houy’s Rockdale Township home in late September.

At the time of his death, Houy was housed in a handicapped-accessible cell at the county jail. The handicapped cell is larger than a regular jail cell, has its toilet offset from the door a cell with handrails on two of the walls, Schell said.

A corrections officer may view the cell’s bed directly by looking through the door window of the handicapped-accessible cell, Schell said, but the toilet is not in direct view. The air vent was above the toilet area, he said.

Schell called Houy’s suicide well-planned with Houy making his bed to look as if someone was sleeping in it. Houy used items he had in the room to make it look like a person laying under the blankets including a pillow, trash can and cardboard.

Video surveillance from the jail showed corrections officers made their rounds as required every half hour checking on prisoners.

There are no video cameras in individual cells at the county jail because it would be considered an invasion of privacy under the law, according to Schell, Warden Tim Lewis and Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz.

Houy was booked into the jail on Sept. 26 on homicide and other charges filed by state police for Van Dyke’s death. Houy was kept under observation for more than 24 hours before being moved into the general population area, Lewis said.

Houy allegedly admitted to killing Van Dyke during an interview with state police the night of Sept. 25 and was booked into the Crawford County jail in Saegertown on Sept. 26.

Van Dyke’s headless and handless remains were found inside a barrel in a wooded area of Rockdale Township near Houy’s home on Sept. 28. Van Dyke had been missing since Sept. 14.

A Sept. 30 autopsy done on Van Dyke’s remains found Van Dyke died from a ruptured aorta pierced by a hunting arrow. The head and heads still have not been recovered.

On Sept. 15, Van Dyke was reported missing to state police by Tina Skelton, his long-time live-in girlfriend; and Skelton’s parents, Houy and his wife, Sandra Houy, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in the case.

In a police interview Sept. 25, Houy admitted disposing of Van Dyke’s body in French Creek after killing Van Dyke at Houy’s Rockdale Township property, the search warrant affidavit said.

However, Skelton, Houy’s daughter, had a different version of events in her Sept. 25 interview with police, according to the affidavit.

Skelton had told Van Dyke she wanted to end an approximately 10-year relationship with him — approximately three weeks prior to Van Dyke’s disappearance, the affidavit said. Skelton and Van Dyke weren’t married but jointly owned a 26-acre property and home at 15251 Smith Road in LeBoeuf Township, Erie County, according to the affidavit.

Skelton told police Van Dyke had not been seen since 9 a.m. Sept. 14 when Van Dyke drove away from the home the two shared, the affidavit said.

Skelton told police that she went to her father’s home the evening of Sept. 14 and Houy admitted to her to killing Van Dyke earlier that day at Houy’s home, according to the affidavit. Skelton told police her father may have used a chain saw to dismember Van Dyke’s body before placing the remains in either a wooden box or barrels inside Houy’s barn, according to the affidavit.

2. Trustees of Conneaut Lake Park in court

The board that oversees operations of Conneaut Lake Park amusement park found itself in court this fall as the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General filed a petition to oust the group.

The issue hasn’t been fully resolved as 2013 comes to a close with attorneys for both sides due back in Crawford County Court of Common Pleas in January 2014.

In October, Attorney General Kathleen Kane petitioned county court to oust the current Trustees of Conneaut Lake Park for allegedly failing to properly care for the amusement park.

Trustees of Conneaut Lake Park is the corporation that oversees the public trust that owns the amusement park. The original Trustees of Conneaut Lake Park are volunteers who were appointed by President Judge Anthony Vardaro. The Trustees then select candidates whenever there are openings.

Kane’s petition asks county court to compel the Trustees to show why the court should not: permanently remove all current Trustees and directors of Trustees; appoint a new board to govern the affairs of Trustees going forward; and order any other relief which the court deems appropriate.

In the filing of the petition to remove Trustees of Conneaut Lake Park, the petition alleges: The board failed to take advantage of business opportunities that would have generated more revenue; that Trustees steered business away from Hotel Conneaut; and that these incidents and failure to insure Dreamland Ballroom and The Beach Club represent “serious breaches of their (Trustees) fiduciary duty.”

According to the court petition, the damage inflicted on Conneaut Lake Park includes failing to insure against the structural loss due to the fire at the Dreamland Ballroom on Feb. 1, 2008, and the fire at The Beach Club on Aug. 1 this year; and failing to exploit opportunities and/or promote the best interests of the park.

Trustees were ordered by the court to turn over copies of all financial records it has for the amusement park to Kane. The records are under review by the state and the two sides are due back in court before Vardaro on Jan. 27, 2014.

However, Trustees of Conneaut Lake Park are fighting the state’s petition.

In a petition response filed by Trustees on Dec. 19, the Trustees claim that there was no money to insure Dreamland Ballroom or the Beach Club. Trustees blame the financial problems on past owners and managers of the park as well as the current operator of Hotel Conneaut, whom they claim has failed to pay up though their written contracts.

In the response, Trustees admit the sitting board of directors in 2008 didn’t carry fire insurance on the Dreamland Ballroom as well as not having fire insurance on the Beach Club. However, in both instances, Trustees deny failing to have fire insurance violates Trustees’ fiduciary duty under Pennsylvania law.

The Trustees said they “did not have sufficient funds with which to pay such insurance as no revenue centers had been put in place yet” at the time of the Dreamland Ballroom.

And, according to the Trustees, “poor cash flow made it impossible to maintain fire insurance on the Beach Club.”

Park Restoration LLC, which has lease agreements with the Trustees to operate the Beach Club and Hotel Conneaut, was to maintain fire insurance, according to the Trustees’ response.

Park Restoration owes the Trustees thousands of dollars in back payments, according to the Trustees’ response. Trustees claim Park Restoration owes more than $20,000 in back rent and unpaid expenses required to be paid under a lease agreement. The Trustees also claim Park Restoration owes Trustees $38,327.62 for failing to pay on a management agreement it has with Trustees.

Trustees deny the board has breached any of its fiduciary duties, including when it turned down business opportunities offered in the past.

The deals were rejected by the board after considering the viability and profitability of the offers, according to the Trustees.

The Trustees said the majority of those opportunities came from Park Restoration.

“The rejection of those business opportunities was a direct result of the conduct of Park Restoration ignoring and outright defying its contractual obligation to pay the Trustees under its agreements,” the Trustees claim.

Meanwhile, Park Restoration officials disagree the firm owes any money to Trustees and, instead, Park Restoration believes it is owed $2,000 to $3,000 by the Trustees.

Park Restoration officials claim Park Restoration would pay for work done at the Beach Club and Hotel Conneaut for the Trustees, then settle accounts at the end of the year.

In its response to Kane’s petition, Trustees deny failing to pay property taxes was willful or intentional conduct by the board, but instead inherited a tax burden when the board was appointed in 2007.

The park owes more than $850,000 in overdue property taxes interest and penalties to Crawford County, Summit and Sadsbury townships and Conneaut School District dating back to the 1990s.

The Trustees also deny they committed any financial irregularities and asks that Kane’s petition be dismissed.