A Logan Township man accused of setting his house and a two-story, detached garage ablaze Sunday is in the middle of a prolonged divorce, police and attorneys said Monday.
Edward W. Houck, 50, of 981 Frankstown Road was arraigned Monday morning on charges of arson, aggravated assault, risking a catastrophe, resisting arrest and recklessly endangering another person stemming from Sunday's fire that Houck allegedly told Lakemont Fire Department Chief Tom Sral he had set.
Houck is in the Blair County Prison in lieu of $35,000 cash bail. He was arrested on Sunday outside his home located on a spacious, gently-rolling hill after Logan Township police found gasoline and diesel fuel had been intentionally placed throughout the house and garage.
Houck and his estranged wife were to go on Wednesday before a master who was to hear evidence and make a decision on how property was to be split in the divorce, attorneys said.
Logan Township Police Chief Ron Heller said Houck will be facing more charges.
Houck, who allegedly cut lines to two large fuel oil tanks in the basement of the home, was soaked in a flammable liquid when he was arrested, police said.
Houck was taken to Altoona Regional on Sunday after complaining of back pain. At the hospital, police read Houck his rights and questioned him, but he denied any involvement in setting the fire and said he didn't know what caused it, police said.
Houck allegedly tried to thwart firefighters' efforts to reach the home by blocking his driveway with his vehicle and a downed tree, police said, and he was armed with a .380-caliber Ruger handgun when he walked up to police at the scene. Police said Houck had a beer in his hand, appeared intoxicated and ultimately struggled with police.
Heller said the investigation, which includes the state police fire marshal, is continuing.
"The gun he had on him wasn't registered to him, so we'll be amending the charges," Heller said, adding Houck was not permitted to possess a handgun because of a mental health commitment last year. Heller also said numerous guns owned by Houck remain unaccounted for.
Houck's arrest papers offer a glimpse of his state of mind on Sunday. Police said Houck called his brother, Harry Houck, on Sunday and told him Sunday was "going to be the day it all ends." Police said the brother told investigators Houck was depressed because of his upcoming divorce, and a neighbor told officers that Houck walked up to him on Sunday and said he wanted to thank him for being a good neighbor and to say goodbye.
The neighbor said Houck was drinking beer, which he said was not typical, and after Houck said goodbye, he walked back over to his property and began cutting down a row of pine trees.
On Monday, Heller said police were still not sure of Houck's intentions in cutting down the trees, but doing so allowed him to see emergency responders arriving at the scene.
Houck's estranged wife's attorney, Joel C. Seelye, suggested Monday that because the fire and hearing were so close in time, it could have been a motive for Houck to burn down the house in which he lived. But Seelye said he couldn't speculate what led Houck to destroy the home.
According to Houck's estranged wife, Deborah, the couple had been separated for nearly three years, but the two were still battling over how to divide the marital assets.
Houck's attorney, Jeffery A. Muriceak, confirmed there was a hearing scheduled - it has now been canceled - but he said he hasn't had contact with Houck for several days and would not comment on Houck's recent frame of mind.
When asked if the divorce was contentious, Muriceak said the couple has been separated for a long period of time.
On Monday afternoon, a protection-from-abuse order against Houck was filed in Blair County prothonotary's office. The temporary order was granted by Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle. In the request for protection, Deborah Houck said her husband mentally abused her and threatened to harm her and her family. The PFA signed by Doyle bars Houck from harassing or threatening his wife and prohibits him from contacting her.
Houck's wife said Sunday that he intentionally burned down the house, and she pointed out he was carrying a loaded pistol when police arrived. She said he had threatened suicide.
Six months ago, she said he left a threatening message on her phone stating, "I'm outside: How does it feel to know you are going to die?"
Seelye said that at one stage of the divorce proceeding, Houck's ownership of a gun became an issue but no further action was taken after he said that he had sold the weapon.
He also said the fire complicates the attempts to settle the marital issue involving assets.
Houck is due to appear before Magisterial District Judge Steven Jackson on Thursday for a preliminary hearing.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458 and Phil Ray is at 946-7468.