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Magistrate makes rulings in Bellwood boro neighbor disputes

District Magistrate Fred Miller ruled on two separate summary citation cases yesterday afternoon involving Bellwood Borough Fifth Street residents who just don’t seem to be able to get along.
Earlier this month, Diane Vallade and Robert Benson attended the Bellwood Borough meeting to express their dissatisfaction for summary harassment and disorderly conduct violations brought against them by the borough’s police department.
They felt the department was harassing them after being cited for two separate verbal harassment incidents that occurred in December.
Yesterday, Magistrate Miller heard testimony from the neighbors involved and found Vallade and Benson guilty of disorderly conduct for an incident that occurred on Dec. 14.
Benson was found “not guilty” of harassment for an event that occurred on Dec. 6.
Testimony revealed that Bob Wertz, a Fourth Street residents, was plowing snow in an alley that was adjacent to Vallade’s and Benson’s property on Dec. 6. Benson claimed Wertz plowed the snow onto his property and was trespassing, but Wertz said the property is owned by Bellwood Borough.
Testimony showed their was a brief communication between Wertz and Benson. Some witnesses claimed it lasted 30 seconds while others said it went on for more than five minutes.
Police claimed this conversation and Benson’s demeanor throughout warranted a summary violation for harassment because Wertz and fellow neighbor Larry Miller were annoyed, offended and alarmed by Benson in a public location.
Benson’s attorney, Terry Despoy of Altoona, claimed the police didn’t show a pattern of this type of behavior to warrant the harassment charges.
Miller agreed and said, based on case law, that he had to find Benson not guilty of the charge.
In the second case, police alleged Vallade and Benson were disorderly when they yelled obscenities from the porch at another Fifth Street resident, Jim Singler.
According to testimony, Benson was on his front porch bagging garbage when Singler pulled his truck from his driveway to a parking spot on Fifth Street.
Singler claimed when he left the truck, both Vallade and Benson screamed obscenities at him, stating that he was parked illegally.
Benson told the court he wasn’t talking to Singler and was actually speaking through the front door of the home to Vallade. Singler said the comments were directed at him.
Also, Benson testified that later that night, while out shoveling snow, Singler attempted to back over him with his truck.
Magistrate Miller, again, citing case law for the reason for his ruling, found Vallade and Benson guilty of disorderly conduct and ordered each to pay $50 fines and costs.
After the decision, Despoy expressed his dissatisfaction with Miller’s ruling stating that it would open the flood gates for neighbor dispute cases.
Despoy said he would file an appeal with the Blair County Court of Common Pleas.
“This stops here,” Miller told the court after making his rulings. “This is not going to escalate to a point where someone gets hurt.
“Everyone here are neighbors and you guys need to start acting like neighbors,” continued the magistrate. “If you can’t get along, you need should stay away from each other.
“Nobody is totally innocent here,” he said. “You need to be neighbors.”
After the hearing, Vallade said she felt “sick” with Miller’s ruling. She said she still believes the police department harassed her and the charges never should have gotten as far as they had.
“We think our force is doing a wonderful job,” said Fred Sweigert, a Bellwood Borough councilmember and chairman of the police committee.
“They treat everyone the same.”
Sweigert said after the meeting earlier this month, the police committee spoke with the police department and Chief Paul Pfahler about the situation and felt everything was conducted as it should have been.