Meadville Tribune

Local News

May 14, 2014

Accused killer's defense: Police have the wrong guy

MERCER — The murdering and burning of Cochranton-area businessman David A. Dignall was no accident, according to the Mercer County District Attorney’s Office and the team defending Ralph L. Young against murder charges.

The point-blank shotgun shooting of Dignall in the back and subsequent burning of his body was the culmination of a thought-out plan, Assistant District Attorney Daniel W. Davis said in his opening statement Wednesday at Young’s trial.

“Whoever did this committed premeditated first-degree murder,” defense attorney Alexander H. Lindsay Jr. said in his opening.

However, Young was not that man, Lindsay said.

Young, 46, of Franklin is charged with first- and third-degree murder, arson and abuse of a corpse for allegedly shooting Dignall, 58, of French Creek Township, pouring a flammable liquid on him and setting the body and Dignall’s van on fire Dec. 20, 2012, on Hollobaugh Road in French Creek Township, Mercer County, just south of Cochranton. Dignall was co-owner of Dignall’s Auto Parts in downtown Cochranton along with his brother, Dennis Dignall.

Prosecutors allege the killing was the result of a dispute over the fate of a 35-acre property near Franklin that had belonged to Nancy Young, Young’s mother. David Dignall and his wife, Alice, who is Ralph Young’s sister, bought the property from Nancy Young and were charging Ralph Young rent to live there.

The charges against Young are the result of tunnel vision by state police investigators, Lindsay said.

When a Dignall family member told police about the family property dispute that David Dignall, Young and others were involved in, “for all practical purposes, this investigation was over,” Lindsay said.

Investigators did not follow up on a report of a second vehicle at the scene, footprints around the scene or the presence of two other people’s DNA found on items at the scene, Lindsay said in his testimony. They also did not test Young’s clothing for the presence of some sort of fuel or gunshot residue, Lindsay said.

And, when police interviewed Young, they did “some very unusual things,” Lindsay testified. They told Young lies to scare him, alleging they found his fingerprints at the scene and he was seen there, Lindsay said.

“They tried to break him,” Lindsay said, adding that Young responded he wasn’t there.

Young had nothing against his brother-in law, Lindsay said. “My client liked him.”

Shortly after Mercer County Common Pleas Court Judge Christopher J. St. John rebuffed Lindsay’s latest attempt to keep DNA evidence out of the trial, Lindsay tried to sway the seven-woman, five-man jury on the subject.

If the prosecution argues that the presence of Young’s DNA on a plastic jug containing fuel found at the scene is supposed to prove he was there, then what about the DNA of two other people found on the jug, jug cap and work gloves also found at the scene? Lindsay asked.

The jury was taken by bus to Cochranton to see the family auto parts store and Hollobaugh Road.

Testimony opened with Dignall’s mother, Ruth, who works at the store, saying her son left the store just after 5 p.m. Dec. 20 after receiving a telephone call.

Dignall’s friend Jeffrey K. McMaster testified that he left work in Crawford County at about 4:45 p.m. On his way home, at Old Route 322/Cochranton Road in French Creek Township, he saw a man “standing around like he was pacing and milling around.”

The man was about 6-feet tall, lanky, with “scruff” facial hair and wearing dark blue Dickies-like work pants, a plaid shirt and a ballcap, McMaster said.

Prosecutors showed McMaster a shirt and pants. He said they looked like what he saw the man wearing.

On Hollobaugh Road, McMaster said he came up behind Dignall’s teal-blue Ford Aerostar. Dignall pulled onto a gas well road and turned around to head the way he had come, said McMaster, who then drove home.

Stanley Hilliard testified he was driving to his parents’ home in French Creek “slightly after 5.”

“I saw a man at the end of the (Hollobaugh) road, kind of pacing back and forth,” Hilliard said. “I thought it was strange. It was really cold and rainy, and he was just hanging out there.”

He testified he also saw a minivan he knew was used by Dignall’s auto parts store.

After picking up a blanket from his parents and conversing briefly, Hilliard said he left, heading back the way he had come, on Old 332/Cochranton Road. As he drove past Hollobaugh, he said he could see the Dignall minivan nose to nose with a midsized car, a fire between the vehicles, and a man standing between the vehicles.

Hilliard said he called his parents’ house to inform whoever was home at the time of what he saw, thinking there could be a problem at the Hollobaugh farm, which the family maintains. He then drove home.

The time was 5:20 to 5:30 p.m., he said.

Hilliard’s brother, Stewart Hilliard Jr., testified he was home — he lives with their parents — when Stanley called. Stewart testified that he grabbed a fire extinguisher and headed to Hollobaugh Road, finding only the minivan and something in front of it on fire. Stewart said he wasn’t sure if brush or rubble was burning and told a 911 dispatcher it might be a body.

Stewart said he emptied the extinguisher but was not able to put out the fire. He added that he could not get closer than five or six feet of the fire because of the heat, even though it was raining.

Stewart said he did not see any tire tracks or footprints at the scene.

Testimony resumes today.

Joe Pinchot writes for The (Sharon) Herald, which, like The Meadville Tribune, is owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.

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