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Middletown will stop using Santa house after its ties to sexual abuse charges were brought to council

By Dan Miller

Posted 11/22/19

The Santa Claus house that Middletown used in recent years to help celebrate the season no longer will be used and will be sold after its ties to alleged sexual abuse in Londonderry Township came to …

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Middletown will stop using Santa house after its ties to sexual abuse charges were brought to council

Santa Claus talks to youngsters in his house in this 2017 file photo.
Santa Claus talks to youngsters in his house in this 2017 file photo.
press & journal file photo

The Santa Claus house that Middletown used in recent years to help celebrate the season no longer will be used and will be sold after its ties to alleged sexual abuse in Londonderry Township came to light again last week.

By a 3-2 vote, Middletown Borough Council on Nov. 19 voted to stop using the Santa house, with the support of Council President Angela Lloyd, Dawn Knull and Jenny Miller. Richard Kluskiewicz and Ellen Willenbecher voted to continue using the house. Councilors Ian Reddinger and Robert Reid were absent.

The vote came about after Lloyd told council that she recently had been approached by a family member of an alleged victim of Keith Alan Hoffa.

The Londonderry Township man in March 2018 was charged with a long list of offenses for having allegedly sexually molested six victims, with some of the alleged offenses dating back to 1995 and others occurring as recently as December 2016.

Some incidents allegedly occurred on his North Geyers Church Road property. The 27-page indictment that followed a Dauphin County grand jury investigation does not specifically identify the Santa house — which at that time was a shed being used by Hoffa to expand his garage — as being where any of the alleged offenses occurred.

However, it refers to some of the offenses having occurred in “a garage-type building on the property that had a second-floor loft area.”

The shed had served as Middletown’s Santa house many years ago, perhaps as early as the late 1960s; the borough stopped using it in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

For reasons that have never been fully explained, the house ended up with Hoffa for many years. In 2016, Hoffa reached out to Mayor James H. Curry III to donate it to the borough for use as a Santa house.

On Nov. 19, Lloyd presented three letters from family members of the girl, all asking that the borough no longer use the Santa house. She was 9 years old at the time and is now 12.

Quoting from one of the letters, Lloyd said the girl has “struggled” with her mental health since the incident occurred and that she refuses to be driven anywhere near Union Street where the Santa house has been placed because of the “serious repercussions” brought up by the memories of what happened.

The girl suffers from repeated nightmares as a result of the incident, has attempted suicide several times, and lacks emotion toward her own family members because of what happened, Lloyd said, reading from the letter.

Moreover, the impact is “ongoing,” in that Hoffa is scheduled for trial on the charges in December, according to the letter Lloyd read from the family member.

Lloyd said that despite the tree-lighting ceremony being held soon (Nov. 30), “I cannot support using it, knowing that it is causing this much anguish for a 12-year-old girl and her family.”

Its return to the borough

In 2016, after Hoffa had reached out to Curry about giving the former Santa house back to the borough, the mayor launched an effort to get it back and restore it, aided by numerous borough residents and public works employees.

Curry in 2016 told the Press & Journal of how he and Hoffa had “gutted out” the shed before the mayor brought the structure back to the borough. Hoffa also had to detach the house from his garage, so it could be taken to the borough by a tow truck operator.

In a special surprise for residents, the Santa house was restored and unveiled for the 2016 Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. It was used again during holiday festivities in 2017 and 2018, and the plan was to use it again beginning with this year’s tree-lighting.

Curry, at Tuesday’s meeting, noted that the grand jury indictment makes no specific reference to any of the alleged offenses having occurred in the Santa shed while it was on Hoffa’s property.

The mayor also pointed out that the Santa house today bears virtually no physical resemblance to the shed that was attached to Hoffa’s garage.

“There is nothing original to the building other than the studs within the wall,” he told council.

On March 10, 2018 — one day after Hoffa was charged — Curry posted a video on his personal Facebook page to tell residents of the charges filed against the man who had donated the Santa house back to the borough.

Curry in the video asked residents what they wanted to do about the Santa house. Of 180 people who responded, the overwhelming majority wanted to keep the Santa house as is, he said.

Tense deliberations

Deliberations at the Nov. 19 meeting about the Santa house were clearly difficult, and painful, for several councilors.

“I think the whole issue here is not the fact of what it looks like, it’s the fact that the family is aware of what happened inside of it, and the family being aware of what happened inside of it the child knows that that’s the house, and therefore the child knows what happened in that house,” said Knull, who agreed with Lloyd that the borough should no longer use the structure as its Santa house.

Kluskiewicz argued for keeping it, saying the girl had “no knowledge” that the offense happened in the house until she was told that by a family member.

“That’s the parents’ fault, it’s not the child’s fault, it’s not the entire borough of Middletown’s children’s fault, it’s the parents. I have no problem putting out a Santa house that nothing occurred in,” Kluskiewicz said.

Public Works Director Greg Wilsbach, adding that he was speaking as a Middletown resident and not as a borough official, wondered that if the offense had occurred on a borough playground, “would we consider ripping the playground down or doing away with that playground?”

Lloyd said that despite the lack of details in the grand jury report, the offense occurred in the Santa shed while it was on Hoffa’s property, according to the letter from the family member.

But to her, at the end of the day, whether the offense did or did not actually occur in the shed had become a secondary consideration.

“That fact that it is causing this anguish for this 12-year-old girl, I have a problem with,” Lloyd said. “It’s one thing if it’s an adult, but to try to explain to a child that she should put her own feelings aside when she was victimized and traumatized and molested … I’d like anybody here to go up to her and say it’s OK because the entire shed has been redone. She is a 12-year-old child. Think about it. If it was one of your kids or your grandchild, how would you feel? … I’m not gonna support it.”

Visibly shaken by what she read in the letters and in the indictment detailing what Hoffa is alleged to have done, Willenbecher seemed to struggle more than anyone else on council in deciding what to do about the Santa house.

“I am as sorry as I can be for that young lady,” Willenbecher said. After a long pause she added: “But I hope that in its re-invention and the joy that it brings to so many kids could be in some way healing and not continue to add to her trauma.”

A new Santa house possible?

After the vote to stop using the Santa house, council at Curry’s suggestion voted 4-1 that the borough should sell the house. Willenbecher voted no.

Former council member Mike Woodworth, who resigned in September but who was in the audience, suggested the borough donate proceeds from the sale to a fund to benefit the victims.

While a “great idea,” borough Manager Ken Klinepeter said he did not believe the borough could legally donate the proceeds to a charity or nonprofit organization.

While another resident in the audience suggested the borough could use a tent to serve as a shelter for Santa this year, Curry came up with another plan.

“I am asking for a little Christmas magic,” Curry said in a new video posted on his Facebook page after the meeting. He hoped that with the help of residents, the town could build a new Santa house to be ready for the Nov. 30 tree-lighting ceremony on West High Street in front of St. Peter’s Kierch.

In another video posted Sunday, Curry said response to his request has been overwhelming and that there will definitely be a new structure in place at the tree lighting on Saturday, although he is keeping the theme of it and how it looks under wraps.