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May 24, 2013

Widow says land dispute behind local man's killing

FRENCH CREEK TOWNSHIP Mercer County — Ralph L. Young wanted to build some kind of ministry on the family property where he grew up in Franklin.

His sister, Alice Dignall, wasn’t sure what kind of ministry he had planned, but she and her husband, David A. Dignall, were against it.

The siblings’ mother had deeded the property two years ago to Alice and her husband and they allowed Young to live there rent-free.

Then in September, their mother told the Dignalls she wanted the property back to her so she could put it into a trust and the ministry could move forward, Mrs. Dignall said Wednesday.

The Dignalls believed the plan was Young’s, not the mother’s, and the family met in October to discuss the request, Mrs. Dignall said.

“He was manipulating mom,” Mrs. Dignall said at her brother’s preliminary hearing. Police said Young killed David Dignall in French Creek Township Dec. 20 with a shotgun blast and then burned his body.

Young is charged with first- and third-degree murder, reckless burning, possession of incendiary material and abuse of a corpse.

At the family meeting, Mrs. Dignall said she and her husband offered to pay the $50,000 for the 35-acre property that they had verbally agreed to pay to the mother two years ago. She said her siblings — with the exception of Young —  encouraged the mother to take the money, concluding it would give her a financial cushion.

Dignall had cashed in his retirement savings to have the money available, his wife said.

Young very loudly told his family that he believed Mrs. Dignall was the “spirit” of their father, who controlled his children through money, and that she was doing the same thing, Mrs. Dignall said.

The next morning, Young showed up at the Dignall’s French Creek Township home at 28 Blair Lane and asked, “What do you expect of me now?” Mrs. Dignall said.

Dignall told him he would have to pay $300 rent, cut the grass and shovel snow, with a lease beginning Jan. 1, she said.

Young later accepted a copy of the lease and paid rent.

The day of Dignall’s death, Young called his brother-in-law shortly after 5 p.m., testified state police Cpl. Douglas R. Maxwell, discussing an interview with Young that occurred a day later and a review at that interview of his cellular telephone.

Young told police he wanted to catch Dignall at the Cochranton business Dignall owned with his brother, Dennis, Dignall’s Auto Parts, to ask about brake pads. Young said he left Franklin at about 4:30 p.m., drove to Hollobaugh and Cochranton roads in French Creek and tried to call Dignall. When Young could not get his brother-in-law, Young drove home, Maxwell said Young told him.

“He indicated to us he did not get out of his car,” Maxwell said.

After the interview, police gave Young a ride home. At the scene, police were waiting for a search warrant to arrive, and Maxwell and Young continued small talk.

“He asked me what the statute of limitations on murder was,” Maxwell said. “To me, the question seemed odd, in light of the situation we were dealing with.”

At the interview, Young was wearing a blue plaid shirt-jacket and blue pants, Maxwell said. The clothing, which was seized by police, is significant because it matches the description of someone seen standing at Hollobaugh and Cochranton shortly before authorities were notified that someone had been found dead there.

Jeffrey McMaster, a friend of Dignall’s, said he was headed home from work when he drove behind the teal-colored van he knew Dignall to drive, although he never saw Dignall in it. As he passed Hollobaugh and Cochranton, McMaster saw a man “milling around.” The man was about 5 feet 10 inches to 6 feet tall, wore dark blue pants and a plaid, flannel shirt, McMaster said.

He said he took note of the man because it was raining heavily and chilly.

McMaster said he does not know Young and could not identify him from a photographic lineup for police.

He said the Dignall van pulled onto a gas well road. As he was passing it, McMaster said he saw the van’s brake lights go on as if it were going to back up.

McMaster said he drove on home.

At 5:15 to 5:20 p.m., Stanley Hilliard drove past the intersection and saw something on fire. Two vehicles appeared to be facing each other with something burning between them, he said.

Hilliard said his parents look after a farm on that road, so he called his mom, told her what he had seen, and continued driving home.

Hilliard’s brother, Stewart Hilliard Jr., went to look, and found a charred, teal van with something burning in front of it, thinking it might be a brush pile.

After turning a fire extinguisher on the blaze, he realized it was a human and called for help, he said.

Trooper Terry Geibel, a criminal investigator who arrived at the scene about three hours later, said he could see tracks in the grass indicating that another vehicle had been in front of Dignall’s van. He also found two milk jugs outside the van, one containing home heating oil and the other red-dyed diesel fuel, the coloring to indicate taxes had not been paid on it and that it could only be used for off-road use, such as by farm equipment, he said.

Young’s DNA was found on the milk jug containing fuel, Geibel said.

A collapsed jug of fuel also was found in the van, apparently melted from the heat, Geibel said. The interior of the van was burned and the windows were blackened, he said.

A makeshift torch – a stick with cloth wrapped around it – also was found outside the van, he said.

The body, identified by the Crawford County coroner, a friend of Dignall’s, was badly burned. When the body was rolled over to be placed in a body bag, blood “poured” out of the back, Geibel said.

A hole in Dignall’s back was about the size of a quarter, he said. With an autopsy showing that Dignall died of a shotgun blast to the back, he was shot at “very close” range, Geibel said.

A neighbor alerted police to the property dispute and suggested speaking to Young, Geibel said.

Cpl. Daniel Herr testified that police found a diesel fuel drum in a barn on Young’s property, 16-gauge shotgun ammunition and a 410-gauge shotgun.

Test results from the shotgun pellets and wadding found in Dignall’s body have not come back, Geibel said aid.

Young’s attorney, Alexander H. Lindsay Jr., said the case against his client has too many holes. Family squabbles are common, no one positively identified the man seen in the road and there was no evidence of personal animosity between Young and Dignall, Lindsay said.

The description of the man’s clothing and presence of diesel fuel and shotgun shells in a home “would apply to half the people in Mercer County,” he said.

The DNA evidence “sounds good until you learn there is other DNA on that jug,” Lindsay said.

Giebel testified two other DNA profiles, which have not been identified, were discovered on the handle.

“The evidence if you put it all together, is very speculative,” Lindsay said.

Assistant Mercer County District Attorney Dan Davis said the evidence places Young at the scene at the time Dignall died. They had had a disagreement and, as a product of that disagreement, the beginning of the lease period was approaching, Davis said.

Young had access to diesel fuel and a shotgun, Davis added.

District Judge D. Neil McEwen said the circumstantial evidence is supported by the DNA evidence, and DNA is something Young does not share with half the people in Mercer County.

McEwen held all charges for the Mercer County Court of Common Pleas. Young was returned to Mercer County jail.

Pinchot is a reporter with The (Sharon, Pa.) Herald, which, like The Meadville Tribune, is owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.

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