HOLLIDAYSBURG - A Frankstown Township man who set fire to his home and garage just over a year ago because he was upset over the breakup of his marriage was placed on probation for 10 years on Friday after several people testified his violence that day was out of character.
The defendant, Edward Wilson Houck, 51, also presented the Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle with a letter stating: "I am sorry for what took place. I ask you to forgive me."
Houck initially was charged with multiple offenses including arson, aggravated assault, risking a catastrophe, possession of a prohibited firearm, obstructing emergency services, recklessly endangering other people and several lesser offenses.
In December, he entered a no-contest plea to one count of arson, a first-degree felony, but there was no agreement as to a sentence.
Houck's Hollidaysburg attorney, Theodore Krol, said Friday he was hoping that Doyle would place Houck on probation because he was not only apologetic for his outburst that occurred the afternoon of March 30, 2013, but he also had done his best to pay all of the financial obligations that stemmed from the destruction of his property.
He and his now-divorced wife settled the marital estate, Krol said.
Krol said he negotiated a settlement with the insurance company concerning the damage to the property, and Houck paid the hazmat team that cleaned up the gasoline he had spread throughout the buildings as an accelerant.
Despite all that Houck did to atone for the fire and his actions at the scene that day - which included cutting down trees to block access by emergency personnel and fighting with police as they attempted to disarm him - Krol said probation would be well outside the sentencing range recommended in state guidelines.
He said the standard range called for a 12-18 month prison sentence, and even the mitigated range called for at least six months.
However, a possible probationary sentence was requested and supported by several witnesses, and Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio did not oppose probation.
Several witnesses showed up to support Houck, and Krol made the point that they came on their own, not at his request.
Attorney Michael MaGee said he was appearing as a friend for Houck, not as an attorney.
He said he knew Houck for 36 years, and he told the judge, "I don't see that jail serves any purpose."
He said Houck was not a threat to anyone. He suggested the only person Houck intended to harm that day was himself.
The president and CEO of Delta Health Systems, Keith Crownover, said Houck's actions that day were "out of character.
"I vouch for his character," he said.
Houck has been attending the Altoona Alliance Church, and Pastor Tim McGarvey stated that since Houck's run-in with the law: "He's a changed man, a man of faith. It's not Sunday morning faith. He is generous."
McGarvey said Houck is the type who will give somebody a gift but not want his name associated with it.
Others testified that Houck used to be a robust, strong individual but now has severe health problems, including a back ailment and constant pain.
Witnesses said Houck, who ran a painting business at the time of the incident, was under a lot of pressure because his marriage was ending - against his will - and his father was dying.
"I believe he snapped," said his brother, Harry Houck.
He now attends the Lighthouse Men's Ministry on Saturdays and Pathways Ministry at Grace Bible Church on Sundays.
Houck, who maintains he has no memory of the dramatic events of March 30, 2013, said in his letter to the judge that the stress of his marriage breakup was "overwhelming" and said, "I am not a criminal." He made the point that everybody involved has been made whole financially.
Doyle not only took into consideration the many statements about Houck's character but agreed with doctor's reports that a state prison would not be good for Houck in view of his persistent health problems.
She put weight on the fact that he relied on such a strong religious network, and a condition of his probation was that even if one of his groups is disbanded over the next decade, he must find another group.
Doyle said Houck's action represented "extreme behavior" but noted he has been free on bail for more than 11 months and has no violations.
She had a warning: If he violates his probation, he likely will be sent to a state correctional institution.
Houck's former wife did not appear at the hearing Friday, but her attorney, Joel Seeyle, requested that Houck not contact her in any way, which Doyle included as a provision of his probation.
As for Houck, he will try to get together a crew and restart his painting business, said Krol.
Krol concluded, "Mr. Houck is very grateful to the judge" for the probationary sentence.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.