By Keith Gushard
Accused killer Richard A. Houy apparently went to great lengths early Saturday morning to convince authorities at the Crawford County jail in Saegertown he still was alive, though he apparently died hours before.
Corrections officers found Houy, 68, of Cambridge Springs dead in his jail cell hanging from an air vent shortly before 7 a.m. after he failed to appear for the morning’s head count of prisoners, according to Pennsylvania State Police at Meadville who investigated the death along with the Crawford County Coroner’s Office.
Houy apparently had killed himself almost five hours earlier, according to Scott Schell, Crawford County coroner, who ruled the death a suicide. Houy died from asphyxiation from ligature hanging, and Schell placed the time of death at around 2 a.m.
Houy was charged by Pennsylvania State Police with killing Gerald Van Dyke, 55, of the Union City area in September after allegedly admitting 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.
Schell said Houy left behind a note for his wife and family, but Schell wouldn’t comment on its contents. Warden Tim Lewis of the Crawford County Correctional Facility said the note had been turned over to Pennsylvania State Police, but its contents weren’t released.
“It was well-planned. He made his bed to look as though someone was sleeping in it,” Schell said of Houy’s death. “He used items he had in the room to make it look like a person laying under the blankets — a pillow, trash can, cardboard.”
Houy was housed in a handicapped-accessible cell — one that is larger than a normal cell, Schell said. The handicapped cell has its toilet offset from the door with handrails on two of the walls, he said.
A corrections officer may view the 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.
“Video surveillance (from the jail) shows that the corrections officers made their rounds — they’re checked every half hour,” Schell said of checking on prisoners. “There was no reason to suspect there was something other than someone in their bed.”
There are no video cameras in individual cells because it would be considered an invasion of privacy under the law, according to Schell as well as Lewis and Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz.
“We can’t have a camera in every cell,” Schultz said.
Houy fabricated a ligature, or knot, from a bed sheet, put it around his neck and tied the device to an air vent within the cell, Schell said.
“He suspended himself from the ventilation system and was found in kind of a standing, crouching position,” Schell said.
Schell explained just six pounds of pressure on each of the two carotid arteries within the neck can cause a person to pass out. When a person passes out, gravity then pulls on the body’s weight then increases pressure on the carotid arteries and the person suffocates, Schell said.
No autopsy is planned on Houy, Schell said.
“We’re going to run toxicology (tissue, blood and body fluid samples),” Schell said. “We don’t have any reason to do an autopsy. There was enough evidence in there to indicate that he had planned this. We’re not expecting to find anything.”
Houy was discovered in hanging in his cell by a corrections officer after Houy failed to appear for the 7 a.m. breakfast and head count, Lewis said.
Lewis said Houy housed was in a larger, handicapped-accessible cell, but didn’t require it.
“Those cells are used by the general population unless they’re needed (for a handicapped inmate),” Lewis said.
Lewis agreed with the investigators’ assessment of Houy’s death.
“It was well-planned,” Lewis said. “He had used cardboard from rolls of toilet paper and notebooks and the trash can to make it look like he was still in bed.”
“The corrections officers 100 percent did what they were supposed to do,” Lewis said. “He was checked every half hour. He made it appear he was laying in bed.”
Lewis said Houy was not on suicide watch and apparently gave no prior indication of his intentions to kill himself.
Houy had been screened by Primecare — jail’s medical provider — when he was booked into the jail on Sept. 26 on the homicide and other charges, Lewis said. 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 where he was being held without bond.
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 the remains by Dr. Eric Vey, a forensic pathologist, found Van Dyke died from a ruptured aorta pierced by a hunting arrow. The head and heads still have not been recovered.
Houy was scheduled to have a preliminary hearing Nov. 26 on state police charges of first degree murder, abuse of a corpse, tampering with or fabricating evidence, and false reports to law enforcement officials in connection with Van Dyke’s death.
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 an interview with police on 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.
But, Tina Skelton, Houy’s daughter, had a different version of events in her Sept. 25 interview with police, according to the affidavit.
Approximately three weeks prior to Van Dyke’s disappearance, Skelton had told Van Dyke she wanted to end an approximately 10-year relationship with him, 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.
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.