Superior Court upholds guns ruling

Messner lost access to firearms after his case for burning cabin

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has upheld a Huntingdon County judge’s decision not to return several firearms to a defendant who was sentenced in 2016 for setting his neighbor’s cabin on fire.

Huntingdon County President Judge George N. Zanic sentenced Todd Eric Messner, now 47, to 18 to 36 months in prison, followed by four years’ probation.

Messner entered a no-contest plea to a charge of reckless burning or exploding.

A Superior Court panel last week reported that Messner was granted immediate parole, and state court records show the judge urged Messner to continue with mental health treatment.

Last March, Zanic heard a petition presented by Messner to return the firearms that state police seized during their investigation of the fire.

Police seized two shotguns, a rifle and a handgun among other weapons.

The judge ruled that Messner’s arson offense precludes him from owning or possessing firearms, but Messner, through his Altoona attorney, Jason M. Imler, requested that the firearms be returned to his wife, Alda, who claimed ownership of two of the weapons, or that he be permitted to “relinquish” the weapons to an uncle, Thomas Moffat Jr.

The defense challenged Zanic’s decision, claiming the court had “abused its discretion” by declining to return the firearms to Messner or members of his family.

Superior Court Judges John T. Bender, Anne E. Lazarus and Correale Stevens denied the petition because neither Mrs. Messner nor Moffat, who testified during the hearing, demonstrated ownership of the guns.

The Superior Court judges stated, “We initially note that neither Mrs. Messner, nor Mr. Moffat, filed their own petition for the return of the firearms to their possession; instead, (Messner) simply named them is his motion for the return of the property.”

The appeals court pointed out that, in his opinion, Zanic “clearly disbelieved Mrs. Messner’s testimony that two of the guns belonged to her, stressing that she produced no documentation to prove her ownership of those weapons.”

The higher court judges stated that it was up to the trial court judge (Zanic) to determine credibility of the witnesses.

In his argument, Messner also stated the guns were family heirlooms and that Moffat be allowed to retain the weapons for future generations.

Zanic concluded that Moffat in his testimony “did not even suggest he owned the firearms, let alone prove any ownership interest in that property.”

While the Superior Court judges said they appreciated Messner’s argument that the guns were family heirlooms, Messner did not properly transfer the ownership of the guns.

The judges stated Messner had 60 days from his conviction on July 14, 2016, to transfer the firearms to Moffat, but he waited until Dec. 20, 2016, to file the request to transfer ownership.

“We cannot conclude that the trial court abused its discretion by denying the motion,” according to the appeals court’s opinion.

Messner was arrested in January 2015 when, according to news reports at the time, he took several bottles of gasoline and firearms from his home and told his wife he was going to burn down the mountain and kill his neighbors.

The cabin was damaged, but no injuries were reported.