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UPDATE: Detective discusses drowning of girl, 3: 'This is one that will stay in my memory forever'

 

A 3-year-old girl who drowned in a pool at a Lower Swatara Township residence in July had a tendency to wander away from home — including just three days before her death, when she was found alone eating dirt at the playground at Catherine and Emaus streets in Middletown.

Now, the girl’s mother and uncle face felony charges of involuntary manslaughter and endangering the welfare of children, Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico said at a press conference on Tuesday, Nov. 22.

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Tiffany Graham

“There is nothing more important to protect than the life of a child, and Austin Biller and Tiffany Graham failed to do this, and the child died alone in a swimming pool because of it,” Detective Robert Appleby of the Lower Swatara Police Department told the Press And Journal.

 

“Little Miss Houdini”

On July 31, Austin C. Biller, 18, of Lower Swatara Township, was babysitting the child of his sister, Tiffany M. Graham, 22, of Middletown. It was not the first time he baby-sat the girl, and not the first time the toddler had wandered off — not only from Biller and other family members, but from her mother as well, according to investigators.

In fact, family members called the girl “Little Miss Houdini,” according to Appleby.

“Her mom despite all this kept placing her in these places where she knew she was endangered and not properly supervised,” Appleby said, and that is a key in what led to the charges against her.

On July 31, Graham had returned from work early in the morning and asked Biller to baby-sit. Biller told investigators he fell asleep and when he woke up, the girl was gone from her high chair. He said he searched the neighborhood but didn’t call 911 until later in the day — more than an hour after he first noticed she was missing, authorities said.

Biller lives in the 2000 block of West Harrisburg Pike. The girl was found nearby in a pool at a residence in the 100 block of Wayne Avenue.

Appleby disputes Biller’s account that he searched closely for the girl. Video at 8:53 a.m. shows a child walking toward the pool, and the girl is not seen again. Biller isn’t seen in his car on that road — one of the first he likely would have gone down in searching for the girl, Appleby said — until 9:23, the same time the homeowner of the house with the pool calls 911. Even when Biller is seen on the video, Appleby said, he doesn’t stop to talk to people who are clearly agitated and who are standing outside. Biller drives off. He then calls 911 a few minutes later.

Appleby said Biller’s residence was equipped with a double-key deadbolt at the time the girl got away July 31. That means the door could have been locked from the inside, making it almost impossible for a 3-year-old to get out. But, according to Appleby, the door was not locked because Craig Biller, the father of Graham and Biller, was returning home and did not have a key to get in.

 

Many previous incidents

Just three days earlier, on July 28, the 3-year-old was found by a Middletown highway worker alone eating dirt in the park at Catherine and Emaus streets near the borough municipal building. This occurred when she was in the care of her mother, who lives in the 100 block of North Union Street, Appleby said. 

The highway worker saw the girl on North Union Street. The worker was looking to see if an adult was nearby as the girl cut across North Union Street at an angle. He followed her to the park, and then notified police. Appleby said Graham did not call looking for the girl until 23 minutes after she was found.

Just a few weeks earlier, on July 12, Appleby said, the girl was found alone near the Pennsylvania Turnpike bridge in the area of Donald Avenue, while she was in the care of her biological father. The very next day, Appleby said, Graham returned the girl to the care of her biological father and the very same thing happened — she was found wandering near the turnpike bridge. The biological father was charged in that incident, Appleby said.

“It’s amazing the girl didn’t get seriously injured or killed sooner,” he said.

There have been about six incidents since 2014, Appleby said — although those are just the ones that were reported. The girl was found wandering in the cold several times during that time frame.

Graham and the child’s grandfather, 53-year-old Craig Biller, had been charged previously for endangering her but were ordered to take parenting classes in lieu of charges. 

“Cases involving children, you never get used to and never forget. It’s a shame the neglect this child suffered and her death was completely preventable and should of never happened,” Appleby said. “You learn a lot during the course of an investigation like this, and this was bound to happen to this child and her mother should have taken steps to prevent it from ever happening, but didn’t.” 

Even if she had limited baby-sitting options, Appleby said, “she had been put through a class on parenting … she would have been provided resources.”

“You think she would have taken options to make sure she was safe,” Appleby said.

In a Facebook post on Nov. 17, Graham said: “I never knew such small hands could effect my life so much, and I never knew how much I would miss those hands holding mine in everything we did. I miss you, I love you, and please never leave the place where you’ve always belonged since day one.”

 

Grandfather charged

Craig Biller is charged with hindering apprehension and tampering with evidence. Police said he took the clothing of the 3-year-old girl from the scene of the drowning. 

“I have worked hundreds and hundreds of investigations, and this is one that will stay in my memory forever,” Appleby said. “There is no winner in any of this, no happiness, just tragedy. For me, the healing is making the arrests but it won't bring that little girl back.” 

Austin Biller was placed in the Dauphin County Prison on $10,000 bail. Graham and Craig Biller were released on $200,000 unsecured bail, according to reports.

A tentative hearing date for all three is set for Dec. 22.

 

Homeowner not yet charged

A final decision on whether to charge the homeowner where the pool was located has not been made, Appleby said.

“The way it was set up, it was a danger situation. It was an above-ground pool with steps going right up to it,” he said.

The pool has since been torn down.

“There wasn’t any intent by the pool owner,” he said, adding that the codes officer was involved.

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 November 2016 14:55

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Interviews to replace board member to be held in private

Two Lower Swatara Township commissioners are interviewing candidates to replace board member Tom Mehaffie in private — a process that legal counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association said must be done in public.

Mehaffie, whose term runs through 2017, was elected to represent the 106th District in the House on Nov. 8. He ran unopposed in the general election. He announced Nov. 16 that he is resigning from his seat on the board of commissioners effective Nov. 30. 

Commissioners Laddie Springer and Todd Truntz are holding separate screening interviews with Dennis Fausey, Benjamin Hall and Ron Paul, the three who have applied to the township for the opening. 

Paul told the Press And Journal that the interviews are to be held Nov. 28.

The commissioners agreed that a private interview will make it a more “friendly process” for the candidates, Truntz said. 

“It’s so somebody’s not on the spot in front of the public,” he said. 

All five commissioners verbally agreed to that process during the board’s Nov. 16 meeting.

Public process?

The commissioners did not announce any public meetings where the candidates will be considered. Mehaffie said Springer and Truntz will make a recommendation to the board within the 30 days as provided by law. 

“Our solicitor said it’s OK,” Truntz said of the private meeting with less than a quorum of the board. He added that he confirmed this with another legal expert. 

However, the media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, Melissa Melewsky, said the process for replacing an elected official must be open. 
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“The interviews and discussions should be held at a public meeting,” Melewsky said. “The two appointed council members are acting as a committee, and committees are subject to the Sunshine Act. The law expressly prohibits executive sessions to discuss filling a vacancy in elected office.”

Truntz said following the interviews, the decision will come at a public meeting and the public will have an opportunity to comment. Jon G. Wilt, vice president of the commissioners, and Commissioner Michael Davies will have the opportunity to ask questions during the public meeting.

“The process of filling a vacancy should be as public as the typical election process,” Melewsky said. “The public is entitled to know who is seeking to fill an elected office and their qualifications. When council members step into the shoes of voters, they must conduct an open and transparent process.”

Three candidates

Dennis Fausey, Benjamin Hall and Ron Paul have applied to the township for the opening, Truntz said.

Paul retired in 2012 after 35 years of employment with the township, including 16 as township manager. He announced his interest in October. 

Hall serves on the township’s code hearing board and in various capacities with local athletic organizations.

Fousey, a retired salesman, said he considers Mehaffie to be “a man of the people,” and he is the same type of guy. 

“I knew his seat would be open, and I would like to follow in his footsteps,” Fousey said. “The direction (the commissioners) have taken the township is excellent.” 

Fousey said he recognizes a need for commercial development in the township over residential because commercial properties put fewer demands on township services and contribute to the tax base. The township should also prepare for more recreation activities with bike lanes and hiking paths, he said.

Hall did not respond to the Press And Journal’s inquiries.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 November 2016 13:19

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Elks Theatre grant voted down — twice


Within less than one week, Middletown Borough Council twice voted to reject the state’s offer of a $500,000 grant to help renovate and reopen the Elks Theatre, most likely as a multi-user performing arts center.

The objections of the four councilors voting against accepting the state grant centered on concerns that the borough would ultimately have to use tax dollars — or even be forced into a tax increase — to come up with the rest of the money that would be needed to reopen the theater. 

The vote tally was the same — 4-2 — at both council’s Nov. 15 meeting and then again on Monday, Nov. 21, after Council President Ben Kapenstein had called a special meeting to present new information that Kapenstein hoped would convince council that the Elks Theatre project could be done with a minimum amount of tax dollars, perhaps none at all.

However, Kapenstein himself declined to guarantee that no tax dollars would ever be needed.

“It’s impossible to say if the borough could do this without taxpayer money,” Kapenstein said on Nov. 21. “There’s no way we can say for certain this will not require cash from the borough.”

Council Vice President Damon Suglia, who both times voted against accepting the grant, said “I’m voting from my heart with a taxpayer point of view. I want the Elks to be revitalized but not at taxpayer expense, so my vote is no.”

Suglia on both nights was joined in rejecting the grant by fellow councilors Dawn Knull, Ian Reddinger and Robert Reid.

Councilor Diana McGlone joined Kapenstein in voting to accept the grant. Council’s seventh member, Anne Einhorn, has recused herself from the Elks Theatre issue as her husband, Gordon, is on the board of directors of Friends of the Elks Theatre, the nonprofit organization that since August 2015 has had a proposal before the borough to lease the theater and operate it.

Council’s vote slamming the door on accepting the $500,000 state grant leaves the future of the Elks Theatre more uncertain and in doubt than ever before.

“In my humble opinion the Elks Theatre project is pretty much dead,” Kapenstein said after the vote. “If we are going to turn down $500,000 … to me I don’t know what the future of the building is. I have no idea.”

Suglia favors putting the Elks Theatre on the market, as is.

“Put it up for sale. We have to move on,” said Suglia, who was not present at the meeting but participated and voted via a teleconference connection.

But Suglia earlier in the meeting said that he had taken potential investors through the theater and had offered to “give it to them for $1.” None of them would take him up on the offer, saying they could not make any money on the theater, Suglia said.

“It’s not a good investment for us as a borough,” he said. “If I’m not willing to put my own money in I won’t put taxpayer (money) in. It’s just not worth it to me.”

Kapenstein had opened the Nov. 21 meeting by reporting on two frenetic days he had in the proceeding week trying to come up with a way to make the Elks Theatre project work without using tax dollars.

He said that the state could use the appraised value of the entire Elks Building to meet the requirement that the borough put up its own $500,000 to match the grant. The improvements that Tattered Flag has made to the rest of the building as part of its craft brewery/distillery brew pub project meant that the appraised value would easily exceed the $500,000 matching requirement, Kapenstein told council.

That left two other big questions remaining to be answered — how much would it cost to renovate and reopen the theater, and from where would the money come beyond the $500,000 state grant.

The answer to the first question — or at least what appears to be the most definitive answer thus far — was provided by Gordon Einhorn, who said that according to A.P. Williams, the contractor working for Tattered Flag, it would cost $1.14 million to complete the Elks Theatre project. 

But the answer to the second question — where the money would come from — remained elusive.

Council earlier this year created a special fund toward the Elks Theatre project. Council had pledged to the fund all proceeds from sale of the McNair House property on the northeast corner of North Union and East Emaus streets, as well as $50,000 in revenue to come in from a cell tower lease over the next two years.

Beyond that, Reid had proposed borrowing $300,000 over the next 10 years and pledging proceeds from the cell tower lease to pay for it. Kapenstein was open to the idea, but Knull pointed out that AT&T could choose to terminate the lease, and borough Finance Director Bruce Hamer noted that the lease is only good for five years at a time.

Kapenstein also brought up the idea of applying toward the Elks Theatre some of the money that Tattered Flag is to pay back to the borough as part of the $1.5 million loan package that Tattered Flag had received from the previous council and from the Industrial and Commercial Development Authority to transform most of the Elks Building into the still works.

But almost in the same breath Kapenstein acknowledged that relying on the money from Tattered Flag is “risky” in that it depends upon the ability of Tattered Flag to repay the loan on time.

For Reddinger, it all added up to “too many unknowns,” he said, in casting his second vote against accepting the grant within a week.

Gordon Einhorn and several members of the audience earlier during the Nov. 21 meeting had pleaded with council to accept the grant, and in so doing spend the six months that the state would allow to formally apply for the money as time to explore all the possibilities regarding how to come up with the rest of the money.

Council accepting the grant would allow Friends of the Elks to go back to donors such as the Frey Trust, Exelon and others that Gordon Einhorn said had previously indicated they would support contributing money to reopen the theater. He also noted that the previous council had already invested money into the theater to bring it up to code.

After the meeting, a dejected-sounding Gordon Einhorn echoed Kapenstein’s earlier statement regarding the theater’s uncertain future.

“By voting to reject the $500,000 grant from the state borough council has, in all likelihood, killed the Elks Theatre after 105 years of continuous operation,” Gordon Einhorn said in an emailed statement to the Press And Journal.

“Council shut down the theater in 2015 with a promise to the community that it would be refurbished and reopened,” he said. “Despite that commitment and the investment of tens of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars into the first phase of that project, they have now apparently decided to abandon the project.”

“As the owner of the Elks Theatre building the borough, through its council, has a responsibility to devise a plan for the future of the building. Hopefully, it will be a plan that eventually leads to the theater being reopened. If it doesn’t, the Elks Theatre, which could have once again been a vibrant center for the community, will  be just one more blighted building in a downtown that already has too many shamefully neglected structures. A vacant and decaying Elks Theatre will be a constant reminder of what happens when our community leaders lack the vision to see what can be accomplished.”

However Reddinger — as Knull had a week before — suggested that the community itself had refused to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to the theater.

A large number of residents had spoken in support of reopening the theater and had pledged putting their efforts behind doing so during a public meeting held on the Elks Theatre in the MCSO Building in July.

In the days prior to the meeting, Reddinger had publicly offered to transfer the Elks Theatre to Friends of the Elks for $1. The Friends group declined; Einhorn saying that the group had no desire to own the building.

Within weeks after the MCSO meeting Reddinger had proposed launching the fund to collect money for the theater — a move council supported — but had also proposed forming a committee to carry out the project.

“Nobody backed me up” on the committee, Reddinger reminded council and borough residents at the Nov. 21 meeting. He also noted that to date no money from the public has been donated to the Elks Theatre fund.

But resident Kay Wealand said that the onus for the lack of public response lies with the borough’s own lack of leadership on the issue. 

“The borough owns this building, the borough needs to take the lead to establish how you are going to do this,” she said. “It should not be Joe Public’s full responsibility to just come up with ideas.”

McGlone agreed, saying that council has done nothing to move the project forward, at least in the eyes of the public.

 “We never made a formal commitment of what we were going to do with that building. There was no public commitment made of what we were going to do with that building, no communication to the public about donations to be requested,” she said. The grant would have been “the catalyst we have been waiting for to finally take action,” McGlone said before her motion to accept the state grant was defeated.

 Wealand contrasted the theater with the rest of the Elks Building — for which a previous council in 2015 had loaned Tattered Flag the $1.5 million to complete its transformation of the space into the combined craft brewery/distillery and brew pub.

 The Elks Theatre is “the heart and soul of this town,” Wealand said. “We’re at a prime time now with economic development and to let this go (the grant), it just seems to me that we are going to regret it down the road.”

Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 November 2016 10:58

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Mother, uncle face manslaughter charges in death of 3-year-old

A 3-year-old girl who drowned in a pool at a Lower Swatara Township residence in July had a tendency to wander away from home — including just three days before her death, when she was found alone eating dirt at a playground in Middletown.

Now, the girl’s mother and uncle face charges felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and endangering the welfare of children. 

Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico made the announcement at a press conference on Tuesday, Nov. 22.

On July 31, Austin C. Biller, 18, of Lower Swatara Township, was babysitting the child of his sister, Tiffany M. Graham, 22, of Middletown. 

Biller told investigators he fell asleep and when he woke up, the girl was gone from her high chair. He searched the neighborhood but didn’t call 911 until later in the day — more than an hour after he first noticed she was missing, authorities said.

Biller lives in the 2000 block of West Harrisburg Pike. The girl was found nearby in a pool at a residence in the 100 block of Wayne Avenue.

In a Facebook post on Nov. 17, Graham said: “I never knew such small hands could effect my life so much, and I never knew how much I would miss those hands holding mine in everything we did. I miss you, I love you, and please never leave the place where you’ve always belonged since day one.”

Grandfather Craig Biller, 53, is charged with hindering apprehension and tampering with evidence. Police said he removed the clothing of the 3-year-old girl from the scene of the drowning. 

Austin Biller was placed in the Dauphin County Prison on $10,000 bail. Graham and Craig Biller were released on $200,000 unsecured bail, according to reports.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 November 2016 17:22

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Special meeting, same result: Middletown council again rejects $500K state grant for Elks Theatre

Despite some new information from President Ben Kapenstein and close to two hours of discussion - including pleas from several borough residents to accept the state's offer of a $500,000 grant for the Elks Building - in the end the result was the same during Monday night’s Middletown Borough Council meeting.

 

By the same 4-2 vote as a week ago on Nov. 15, council on Nov. 21 once again rejected the offer of a $500,000 state grant that Gov. Tom Wolf had authorized to renovate and reopen the Elks Theatre, most likely as a multi-use performing arts center. The state had set Nov. 28 is the deadline for council to accept or reject the grant.

 

Kapenstein had proposed using the appraised value of the Elks Building as a way to meet the dollar-for-dollar matching requirement to get the $500,000 from the state.

 

But the borough would still have to come up with at least $500,000 from other non-state sources, as a new estimate from A.P. Williams, the contractor doing renovations for Tattered Flag in the rest of the Elks Building, had set the price tag for the theater project at $1.14 million.

 

Kapenstein proposed several ways that the borough could come up with that money without having to raise taxes. But several times during the meeting he acknowledged it would be “impossible” to guarantee that no tax dollars - or no tax increase - would ever be needed to help fund for the Elks Theatre project. 

 

And that was not enough to sway any of the four councilors who a week ago had voted against accepting the grant.

 

“I’m voting from my heart and from a taxpayer point of view,” said Council Vice President Damon Suglia. “I want the Elks to be revitalized but not at taxpayer expense, so my vote is no.”

 

Councilor Ian Reddinger sat in silence for several long seconds before casting his vote.

 

“This is a really tough decision, but there are too many unknowns,” Reddinger said in casting his no vote.

 

Also voting no, as they had on Nov. 15, were councilors Dawn Knull and Robert Reid.

 

Councilor Diana McGlone - who contended the vote came down to “whether you want the town to move forward or remain stagnant” - again joined Kapenstein as the only councilors voting to accept the grant.

 

Councilor Anne Einhorn was absent, but has recused herself from the Elks Theatre discussion because her husband is on the board of directors of Friends of the Elks Theatre, a nonprofit group that since August 2015 has had a proposal before the borough to lease the theater from the borough and operate it. 

 

The borough has taken no action on the Friends proposal. The theater has been closed since April 2015 with no signs of when or if it will reopen. 

 

The borough still owns the theater - officially it is owned by the Industrial and Commercial Development Authority - but council earlier this year sacking the former authority members and replacing them with its own members makes that a distinction without a difference.

 

And with council now having slammed shut the door on a $500,000 state grant, the future of the Elks Theatre appears very uncertain indeed.

 

“In my humble opinion the Elks Theatre project is pretty much dead” Kapenstein said after the vote. “If we are going to turn down $500,000…to me I don’t know what the future of the building is. I have no idea.”

 

Reddinger earlier in the meeting - as well as a week ago - lamented how four months ago when he proposed setting up a committee to run the Elks Theatre revitalization project, “nobody backed me up.”

 

Council and the authority did create a special fund dedicated to collecting money to go toward the Elks Theatre project, but “not one dollar has gone into that” in contributions from the public, Reddinger added. However, the contributions are not tax-deductible, as one resident pointed out last week.

 

Resident Kay Wealand, who supported accepting the grant, said that the borough has a responsibility to show more leadership than it has on the Elks Theatre.

 

“The borough owns this building, the borough needs to take the lead to establish how you are going to do this,” she said. “It should not be Joe Public’s full responsibility to just come up with ideas.”

 

Council did pledge that all proceeds from sale of the McNair House property on the northeast corner of North Union and East Emaus streets go into the fund for the Elks Theatre, as well as $50,000 that the borough expects to receive from a cell tower lease over the next two years.

 

But otherwise, council has done nothing to move the project forward, at least in the eyes of the public, McGlone said.

 

“We never made a formal commitment of what we were going to do with that building. There was no public commitment made of what we were going to do with that building, no communication to the public about donations to be requested,” she said. The grant would have been “the catalyst we have been waiting for to finally take action,” McGlone said before her motion went down 4-2.

 

The previous council in 2015 loaned Tattered Flag $1.5 million to support its transforming most of the Elks Building into a combined craft brewery/distillery and brew pub, Wealand pointed out.

 

The Elks Theatre is “the heart and soul of this town,” she added. “We’re at a prime time now with economic development and to let this go (the grant), it just seems to me that we are going to regret it down the road.”

Last Updated on Monday, 21 November 2016 22:48

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