Shuster-Joyce top 2018 headlines
The ending of the Shuster family’s hold on the local congressional seat and the arrest of an Altoona man for the killing of his wife were among the top local stories of 2018.
The Mirror’s news staff voted in mid-December on the top stories from a ballot that contained 34 prominent local news items. The following is a look at the top stories, as chosen by the Mirror news staff:
1. Shuster steps down; Joyce
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, announced his intention Jan. 2 to step down at the end of his term, ending a 17-year House career and a more than four decades of a Shuster in the seat.
Shuster’s surprise announcement led to a scramble to fill the local seat — which after a new congressional map unveiled Feb. 20 reshaped Blair County’s district and gave it a new number — the 13th District.
The first Republican to officially seek the seat was Art Halvorson, a Manns Choice businessman and developer who had run against Shuster three times over two election cycles.
State Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr. announced his intention to run about two weeks later.
Other Republicans throwing their hats into the ring included: Travis Schooley, a Franklin County engineer; House Majority Leader and State Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, who later dropped out after the new congressional map was unveiled; Somerset County farmer Max Merrill, who dropped out in mid-March; state Rep. Steve Bloom of Carlisle; retired Army Col. Douglas Mastriano; former Marine Benjamin Hornberger; Bernard Washabaugh II of Franklin County; and last but not least, Altoona dermatologist Dr. John Joyce.
Democrats Brent Ottaway, Adam Sedlock, Susan Boser and Todd Rowley announced plans to run for the seat. Sedlock and Boser dropped out after the new congressional map was unveiled, and Rowley dropped out for a lack of signatures leaving Ottaway unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
Joyce — who had the backing of Shuster and his father, former Congressman Bud Shuster — defeated seven opponents and won the May 15 Republican primary by capturing 22 percent of the vote.
Joyce, capturing 70 percent of the votes, easily defeated Ottaway in the Nov. 6 election and will take the oath of office as congressman from the 13th District on Thursday.
2. Copley arrested
Michael D. Copley, 30, was arrested Oct. 18 for the killing of his wife, Catherine Copley, in December 2015. Catherine Copley remained missing until her body was found in June 2016 in a garage behind a vacant house in Altoona.
Altoona police investigators pointed out a lack of emotion by Copley several times in an eight-page affidavit of probable cause filed in the case, which began in December 2015 as a missing person case and became a murder investigation after 29-year-old’s decomposed body was found in the garage.
It was more than just his demeanor that police say indicated that Copley killed his wife sometime after Dec. 9, the last time Catherine’s family said anyone saw her alive.
As police laid out the evidence against Copley in the charges, they painted a picture of a husband who killed his wife, hid her body and then lied to investigators when he tried to explain his whereabouts at the time she disappeared on Dec. 10, 2015.
Witnesses also told police that Copley started seeing another woman within a week of Catherine’s disappearance and that woman later told police that not long after his wife vanished, Copley told her that he had killed her.
Police indicated cellphone data put Copley in the area of the garage where his wife’s body was found the night she disappeared and that it could not place him where he had told detectives he had taken the car he had borrowed that night.
Police also pointed out that Copley earlier was arrested and charged with pulling down his wife’s missing-person fliers before her body was found. And after the body was discovered on June 8, 2016, Copley didn’t call investigators to ask about the case.
Michael Copley was serving a sentence in Blair County Prison for a March assault when Altoona police charged him for his wife’s killing. He is charged with criminal homicide, aggravated assault, burglary, criminal trespass, criminal use of a communication facility, all felonies, as well as misdemeanor conspiracy to abuse a corpse and to tampering with evidence.
Copley’s preliminary hearing is now scheduled for Jan. 11.
Meanwhile, a former Altoona woman accused of helping hide Catherine’s body was returned to Blair County to face charges.
Samantha J. Musselman, 30, of Beatrice, Neb., was arraigned on charges of concealing evidence, conspiracy in abuse of a corpse, conspiracy in tampering with evidence and obstruction stemming from her alleged role in the homicide case.
According to charges filed by Altoona police, Musselman was heard making comments to Copley about how police would never find his wife’s body.
3. Higgins’ downfall
On April 4, Bedford County District Attorney William Higgins, 43, was arrested and accused of using his position to help multiple women avoid arrest and even jail in exchange for sex. Others received more lenient sentences.
“This is unconscionable conduct by a district attorney — someone whose job it is to uphold the law, not to obstruct it, not to advise people to lie in the process. Yet, that’s exactly what he did,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said during a press conference at the Bedford County Courthouse.
Higgins turned himself in for arraignment on 31 misdemeanor charges that included 11 counts of obstruction of law enforcement, nine counts of intimidation of a witness, six counts of hindering prosecution, three counts of recklessly endangering another person and two counts of official oppression.
The case against Higgins spanned several years as state police gathered evidence that culminated in a statewide investigative grand jury that heard testimony from several women who said they had intimate relationships with Higgins and that he actively helped them navigate rocky legal waters when they appeared as defendants in Bedford County Court.
The charges spotlighted alleged misconduct with three women, all who were involved in dealing drugs, according to the affidavit of probable cause filed by state police investigators.
Higgins waived his right to a preliminary hearing. He also resigned as district attorney.
In August, Bedford County President Judge Thomas Ling accepted a plea bargain and sentenced Higgins to eight years’ probation, four months wearing an ankle bracelet, 1,125 hours of community service and a $9,700 fine. Higgins is also to undergo alcohol, sexual addiction and mental health counseling.
The former DA pleaded guilty in May to numerous misdemeanor counts for abusing his position to gain sexual favors from female drug dealers for overly lenient sentences or to avoid arrest and for compromising the identities of multiple undercover informants.
The plea bargain offered by the Office of Attorney General guaranteed no incarceration and no filing of felony charges. Supervision and fines were up to the court’s discretion.
4. Altoona school board still at odds
In April, the Altoona Area School Board awarded construction contracts for a high school project that had been developed and debated for 2.5 years.
The total cost is projected at $87.3 million, or $633,000 under budget, said construction manager Damien Spahr. With a 5-4 vote, the board moved to begin construction of a new building on an intramural field on Seventh Avenue and renovating the other high school building.
Board President Dutch Brennan, Vice President Wayne Hippo, Kelly Irwin Adams, Rick Hoover and Bill Ceglar voted to award the general construction bid for the high school renovations and additions to J.C. Orr and Sons Inc., with several other contractors getting bids for specific work.
Board members who voted against moving forward with the project were Sharon Bream, Ron Johnston, Dave Francis and Ed Kreuz.
The plan that was chosen and developed over years was a renovation of the current A building, construction of a new B building, demolition of the existing, 90-year-old B building and construction of a new intramural field at the site of the demolished school.
To the five-member majority, the project is the solution to an outdated, 90-year-old high school building as well as the solution to overcrowded elementary school buildings and the “golden ticket” for educating students for jobs in the 21st century. To the other four board members, $88 million is too heavy of a price for Altoona taxpayers.
The board has remained split and almost every vote on any topic dealing with the project has been 5-4, with the same members voting as they did for the contract awards. At times the split ignites animosity among members.
One of the five members who supports the project said he feels like he can’t open his mouth without a board member from the other side being overly confrontational.
The four board members who voted against the project say they’ve been called “liars” and “cheats” by a few from the majority.
As the year came to an end, further debate was being held on whether to demolish the B building.
On Dec. 3, board members examined the costs and details of repurposing the high school structure slated for demolition, with some still backing demolition and others voicing support for maintaining the building. Maintaining the B building presented concerns about updating utilities and other features, and added operational costs for both utilities and maintenance personnel.
Some of the concerns included re-establishing electrical services, adhering to more stormwater requirements, adding a new boiler plant, replacing the roof and covering extra operational costs for both utilities and maintenance personnel.
A district resident’s suggestion at a November meeting to consolidate multiple district services at the B building prompted board members to again look at the logistics of keeping the structure. Programs that could be placed in the B building would be the tax office and adult education, district registration offices, special education, storage facility, central receiving operations and an alternative education program.
5. Soggy weather
Mother Nature dumped a lot of rain on the area during 2018 leading to several incidents of flooding.
On July 30, hours after heavy rain flooded several homes, Patton officials told residents to evacuate because of fears of a dam breach.
Water from rain-swollen Little Chest Creek flooded parts of the borough. But hours later, residents learned they weren’t out of danger — the Chest Creek dam was in jeopardy of breaching.
On Aug. 3, flooding caused “minor” damage to four properties from water in basements in Logan Township with the water rising as high as 24 inches in a couple of homes.
The damage was to furnaces, water heaters, washers, dryers and carpeting. Problems were concentrated mainly along Baynton and Windrose avenues in Lakemont, with some issues also along Mountain Avenue above Valley View and Claybrook Drive near Ruskin Drive.
On Sept. 10, firefighters with large military-style brush trucks assisted in 10 or more voluntary home evacuations in Blair County, especially in Frankstown Township.
Members of Geeseytown, Saxton and Portage volunteer fire companies performed a number of water rescues in the Linds Crossing area of Frankstown Township as residents sought to get out of the floodwaters.
Some schools dismissed early as superintendents feared rising water levels throughout the afternoon would prevent safe passage home for students. Only Altoona Area and Spring Cove school districts had full school days in Blair County.
The scene was the same in Bedford County, as relentless rain from remnants of Tropical Storm Gordon and a frontal boundary soaked the region. Bobs Creek overflowed its banks, closing local roads and inundating homes located along its banks in the Reynoldsdale area.
Larry McAleer of McAleer’s Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning Inc. called Sept. 10, the day of the flooding, the “busiest day of his 42-year career,” commenting on the “relentless” downpour. He said his business got calls from 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. from people who had floodwaters covering their heaters and furnaces in their homes. McAleer said his staff assisted people who have never experienced flooding in their residences until that day.
Rain also caused havoc for Penn State University.
Record rainfall on campus caused the university to close all grass parking lots for the Nov. 24 game with Maryland, most of them for the Nov. 10 game with Wisconsin and some of the lots for two other games.
As of Dec. 2, University Park had received 59.87 inches of rain. The old record was 59.30 inches.
6. Child pornography and prostitution
A robbery investigation in Altoona expanded to child pornography after alleged comments by a suspect during questioning.
Stephen Apostolu, 30, of 439 Third Ave., was taken into custody June 4 by Altoona police after he allegedly confessed to robbing his roommate of $400 in late May. But statements he allegedly made to Altoona police Detective Cpl. Terry Merritts during questioning had police looking into whether Apostolu is also tied to child pornography.
Altoona police Lt. Jeffrey Pratt said that during an interview with police, Apostolu said he was high on methamphetamine when he robbed his roommate and claimed he was affiliated with the Latin Kings street gang, had an extensive criminal history and had an addiction to child pornography.
On June 13, two people were charged on dozens of felony charges as part of what Altoona police have said is an ongoing investigation into a possible child pornography, child prostitution and methamphetamine ring.
Angela P. Meadows, 35, of 1203 S. 27th St., Apt. 1B, and Joshua P. Dickson, 31, of 1318 Second Ave., were charged with 63 counts each of felony endangering the welfare of a child.
Also on June 13, Altoona police arrested 35-year-old Amy M. Brosch after she was questioned by investigators about allegations that Apostolu used drugs and money to get access to underage girls in order to make child pornography.
Charges against Brosch include criminal conspiracy, sexual exploitation of children and child pornography-related charges.
On July 5, Apostolu was arraigned on 40 felony charges that include trafficking in minors, criminal conspiracy to filming a child sex act, possession of child pornography and sexual exploitation of children, along with other sex crimes, in connection with photos and a video of a 16-year-old girl taken in April.
In the video and about 15 pictures found by police on a flash drive, Apostolu’s girlfriend, Kara S. Tornatore, 28, is shown naked, kissing the girl and fondling her breasts. Tornatore was taken into custody by Pasco County, Fla., sheriff deputies, where she had gone to stay with family after Apostolu’s arrest on a robbery case.
On July 17, Apostolu was arraigned on 12 additional charges stemming from an alleged case of child pornography involving a 17-year-old victim.
The additional charges are first-degree felony unlawful contact with a minor, trafficking in minors, criminal solicitation for child pornography, conspiracy to make child pornography and two counts of recording sex acts involving children.
In early August, state police and Altoona police filed additional charges against Apostolu and Tornatore, in connection with two additional girls, ages 15 and 16.
On Aug. 31, Apostolu was ordered to face trial on more than 56 felonies.
Magisterial District Judge Ben Jones found police and prosecutors have enough evidence to send four cases involving four girls between the ages of 15 and 17 against Apostolu on to Blair County Court.
On Oct. 19, Tornatore waived her right to a preliminary hearing on charges of child pornography, statutory sexual assault and corruption of minors after she appeared briefly before Magisterial District Judge Ben Jones.
7. Lansberry suit
In late December, for the second time this year, a U.S. district judge dismissed a civil rights lawsuit brought by an Altoona father on behalf of the estate of his son, who committed suicide in May 2017 after allegedly being bullied while attending classes at the Altoona Area Junior High School.
The youngster, Wyatt Lansberry, the son of Marc Lansberry, returned home from school on May 18 “after a particularly brutal day of bullying” and took his own life, according to the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Johnstown.
The Lansberry family charged Altoona Area School District officials with failing to address an endemic bullying problem that affected not only Wyatt, but many other students in the school.
U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson, however, while issuing a searing condemnation of the bullying problem in the Altoona Area School District, calling conditions “appalling,” concluded that the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia and other circuit courts across the nation have repeatedly held that school districts and their employees cannot be held liable for bullying or violence committed student-upon-student.
Legally, Gibson ruled, the Lansberry family through its Altoona attorneys, Steven P. Passarello and Daniel Kiss, failed to show the youngster’s constitutional rights were breached.
The lawsuit contended that AASD knew the youngster was the target of bullying but that it had a “policy” or “custom” of ignoring what was happening throughout the district.
It claimed employees were not properly trained on how to react to bullying and that the 12-year-old was subject to in-school assault, harassment, as well as messaging on his computer.
Gibson found that, “Courts within the 3rd Circuit have confronted (such) claims in the context of student-on-student bullying and have consistently found that the plaintiffs (victims) failed to allege the violation of a constitutional right.”
8. Bilak, Helsel sentenced
The two men involved in the April 2017 fatal ATV crash in the Blue Knob area that claimed the life of Mikayla Dawn Focht, 18, Hollidaysburg, received state prison sentences.
Trenton Ross Bilak, 24, of Everett was sentenced on charges of homicide by vehicle, accidents involving death or personal injury and reckless driving by Blair County Judge Timothy M. Sullivan to consecutive terms in the state prison system totaling 8.5 to 17 years. The prison sentence is to be followed by two years’ probation.
During the early morning of April 14, 2017, Bilak was speeding away from a teenage drinking party in a wooded area of Greenfield Township.
His ATV was being followed by a Jeep driven by Jacob Ralph Helsel, Duncansville, just two months past his 18th birthday.
Bilak was traveling along Knob Road in the Blue Knob area when four deer ran in front of the ATV. The vehicle struck two of the deer, throwing both riders off and catapulting Focht more than 200 feet.
As the teenager laid on the road, police believe that Helsel’s pursuing Jeep, upon seeing Bilak standing over the victim in the roadway, swerved out of control, running over her body and into a utility pole.
The two men didn’t go to a nearby home to summon help. Instead they left the scene, traveling to a friend’s house possibly a mile or two away.
Bilak changed his clothes, then parked his ATV at the home where it could not be seen. Bilak and Helsel then drove to a garage, supposedly for repairs, but the real purpose was to hide Helsel’s damaged vehicle.
They got into Bilak’s truck and returned to the scene to pick up parts of Helsel’s vehicle that remained at the scene of the accident.
Two hours after the accident, the body was still lying on the road, but by that point a motorist had stopped to investigate and summon police.
The woman realized the teen was deceased and she saw Bilak and Helsel standing nearby, but they said nothing.
Instead, they threw the parts of Helsel’s vehicle in the back of the truck that Bilak was driving.
Helsel also was charged with accidents involving death or personal injury and tampering with evidence. In a separate hearing Sullivan sentenced him to serve four to eight years in a state correctional institution.
9. Mariner East 2 pipeline halted
The controversial Mariner East 2 pipeline project was halted temporarily in early January.
On Jan. 3, construction permits issued for the cross-state natural gas pipeline were suspended by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Under an order, employees of Sunoco Pipeline LP, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, were to cease construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline.
The suspension order, signed by DEP Acting Executive Deputy Secretary Ramez Ziadeh, alleged that Mariner East 2 work violated rules established in both the state Clean Streams Law and Title 25 of the Pennsylvania Code.
The 300-plus-mile pipeline will pass through Blair, Cambria and Huntingdon counties.
Sites in Blair County’s Woodbury Township and Huntingdon County’s Tell Township are referenced in the suspension order.
The order stipulates that construction will not be allowed to resume until Sunoco officials meet a new set of stipulations.
On Feb. 8, the state Department of Environmental Protection said the project could resume but ordered project developers to pay a $12.6 million civil penalty for violating terms of DEP construction permits.
On Aug. 3, Ellen Gerhart, 63, of Trough Creek Valley Pike, a longtime Mariner East 2 pipeline opponent, was sentenced to spend two to six months in jail after a Huntingdon County judge found her in indirect contempt of court for violating a previous order allowing construction of the pipeline through her property.
She had been charged with violating a court-ordered injunction by entering a construction right of way.
10. Medical marijuana facilities
The Altoona area got its first medical marijuana dispensary in mid-November. Herbology opened the dispensary at 514 E. Pleasant Valley Blvd. in the Rosehill Plaza, nearly a year after the state first indicated the site was selected.
Meanwhile, locations in Bedford and Cambria counties were among 13 medical marijuana grow/processing facilities approved in a second round of permitting.
The permit recipients, announced July 31, included Green Leaf Medical LLC, which received approval for the former Seton plant along Horton Road in Saxton, and Hanging Gardens LLC, which was approved for Iron Street in Johnstown.
Green Leaf Medicals, based in Maryland, operates under the slightly different name Green Leaf Medical LLC, and has a growing facility in Frederick.
Company officials have estimated it will cost about $12 million to set up the Saxton facility, which will include both growing and processing technology.
CEO Philip Goldberg said it likely would take six months before the facility is operational.
Goldberg said the Saxton facility eventually could employ about 100 people.
Goldberg said his company plans to hire local employees and to train them at the Frederick facility.
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.