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January 30, 2014

Ex-firefighter cleared of badgering in bidding war

LEWISBURG — A former Mifflinburg firefighter was found not guilty Wednesday of allegedly warning another real-estate bidder “You better hope your house doesn’t burn down” while poking him in the chest and wearing his turnout gear.

Union-Snyder President Judge Michael Sholley determined James Emery, 39, of Mifflinburg, was not guilty of harassment for allegedly verbally and physically intimidating Eric Campbell, of Milton, during a real-estate auction in Mifflinburg in April.

Campbell was one of four witnesses who testified for the commonwealth in the Union County summary trial. Campbell told the courtroom that during a three- to four-minute encounter, Emery told him he’d just cost Mifflinburg taxpayers a lot of money by running up the price of the Mary Johnson property during the auction. The Mifflinburg Hose Company won the site at a final price of $164,000.

Campbell, who has rental properties in the Valley, said he was interested in the site for his business.

He testified that Emery poked him three times in the chest, asked whether he had other properties in the area and said, “You better hope your house doesn’t burn down.”

It was through later conversations, Campbell said, that he learned of Emery’s job as a code enforcement officer and took his words to be a threat.

In issuing his verdict, Sholley determined from all testimony that no one but Campbell really saw Emery poke Campbell in the chest, he told the court. Other witnesses, including Matthew Wagner, of Mifflinburg — who was with Campbell at the auction — could not say definitively they saw the physical encounter occur.

The same went for video Chelsea Skucek, of Mifflinburg, recorded with her smart phone, which instead showed Emery touch Wagner during the encounter but not forcefully. The video, played in court, showed what appeared to be a heated conversation.

The verdict means essentially Emery did not engage in a course of conduct for a legitimate purpose, his attorney, Mary Kilgus, of Hughesville, said when asked to clarify the charge.

Emergy declined comment after the trial.

“I am so happy for Mr. Emery,” she said. “Not guilty is a good exoneration.”

A guilty verdict could have included as many as 90 days in jail and a $300 fine.

Sholley, however, told Emery his job as a code enforcement officer holds him to a higher level of personal responsibility. Whether his actions were “justified or not, you’re expected to rise above it.”

Emery was temporarily suspended from his code enforcement job with Central Keystone COG after the event in April and reinstated several weeks later. Original charges were two misdemeanor counts of official oppression and the summary offense.

One misdemeanor was dropped at the preliminary hearing in May, when the judge cited insufficient evidence. The other was dropped last fall after Union County District Attorney D. Peter Johnson said he had “lost faith” in his primary witness after Campbell filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. Middle District Court in Williamsport.

Appearing somewhat shocked outside the courtroom, Campbell said he had no comment on the Union County verdict but thought “the truth will prevail” in the federal case.

Wayne Bearly, president of the Mifflinburg Hose Company that has been named in the federal suit, said that case is “in a holding pattern,” according to lawyers involved and couldn’t comment on its status.

But Bearly was “relieved, happy” this case is over.

“I’m sorry we lost a good firefighter in this,” he said of Emery, who voluntarily resigned last year.

 

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