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Trailer dispute leads to conviction

HOLLIDAYSBURG — An Altoona man accused of refusing to return a small trailer has been convicted of theft and receiving stolen property.

Thomas J. Yacobucci II, who tried to tell Altoona police in early 2018 that the dispute over the trailer was a civil matter, is slated to be sentenced April 7.

Based on the state’s guidelines, Yacobucci, 51, faces at least a probationary sentence in a decision that rests with Blair County President Judge Elizabeth A. Doyle, who presided during the one-day trial on Wednesday.

Assistant District Attorney Jaydyn Morrison asked the jury for guilty verdicts on both first-degree misdemeanor charges based on testimony from witnesses who said Yacobucci never returned the trailer and when asked to do so, was rude, angry and hostile.

“He was given every chance to do the right thing,” Morrison said in her closing statement.

Defense attorney Robert J. Freeman asked the jurors to question the allegations that developed into criminal charges.

“If anybody had a motive to steal the trailer, it wasn’t my client,” Freeman said in his closing argument.

Witnesses reported that the last time they saw the 5-foot by 8-foot trailer, outfitted with sides and a tool box, was in December 2017, parked in the bay of an Altoona car wash that Yacobucci owned.

Witness Terry Erickson said he got permission, in October 2017, to borrow the trailer from his employer. He said Yocabucci needed it to transport items purchased at an auction.

Erickson said that when he told Yacobucci that he needed to return the trailer to his employer, Yacobucci insisted that Erickson first pay back money and return some cameras.

Erickson told the jury that in February 2018, he paid Yacobucci and returned the cameras, but Yacobucci still wouldn’t give him the trailer and police were summoned.

“He yelled at me to get off his property,” Erickson said.

Altoona Police Sgt. William T. Hanelly Jr. told the jurors that when he spoke to Yacobucci about the missing trailer, Yacobucci told him the dispute was a civil matter between him and Erickson.

“I told him it was a criminal matter and that someone cannot borrow something and just hold onto it,” the police officer testified.

Hanelly also said he advised Yacobucci that he could resolve the matter by returning the trailer or face theft charges.

“He wouldn’t disclose the trailer’s location … and he wouldn’t let us look in the garage,” Hanelly testified.

Yacobucci didn’t take the witness stand in his own defense.

Freeman, in his closing, criticized police for not getting a search warrant to look in Yacobucci’s garage for the trailer.

Hanelly and Altoona Det. Sgt. Terry Merritts said they didn’t have sufficient cause to ask for a search warrant, based on the time that had passed since the trailer was last seen there.

Freeman also asked for a mistrial after reporting to the judge that, during a recess, he had heard Merritts, Hanelly and a third officer talking outside the courtroom, despite a trial sequestration order.

After the officers were quizzed in court about the conversation, Doyle concluded that the exchange wasn’t focused on the case and denied the mistrial request. But with the prosecution’s consent, the judge barred the third officer from testifying to address the potential claim of impropriety.

Wednesday’s jury trial was convened at the direction of the state Superior Court, which vacated Yacobucci’s previous theft conviction, rendered Aug. 23, 2019, at the end of trial-by-judge before Judge Timothy M. Sullivan.

While Yacobucci’s original theft charge was filed as a first-degree misdemeanor, it was later regraded to a summary, an action for which there is no statutory authority, the state court pointed out in its July 2021 opinion.

It also reviewed the case history and found that Yacobucci’s theft offense, after conviction, was changed to retail theft through a consent order, something the state court said is not permitted.

The state court also found that no evidence in the case record indicating that Yacobucci waived his right to a jury trial in favor of a trial-by-judge.

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