Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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A Chester County judge has given a prominent and politically connected Bucks County family until next month to make a $75,000 down payment toward overdue real estate taxes on four properties that are part of a $20 million insurance fraud case scheduled to go to trial next year.
Last month, Chester County Judge Thomas Gavin, who’s overseeing the trial of four members of the Risoldi family, ordered the payment to the Bucks County Tax Claims Bureau be received by March 1. If that doesn’t happen, a hearing will be held on competing motions involving the unpaid tax bill later in March.
More than $164,000 in unpaid taxes, penalties and fees is owed Bucks County for the Buckingham properties, according to the Tax Claim Bureau, which collects delinquent real estate taxes and sells tax-delinquent properties.
The bureau said that the real estate taxes have not been paid since 2015, the year the state attorney general’s office charged members of the Risoldi family with fraud and related offenses in connection with an October 2013 fire that heavily damaged the family’s 10-acre estate, Clairemont.
The state contends the Risoldis are the direct or indirect owner of the properties. Shortly after their arrests, the attorney general’s office seized the properties along with more than $3 million in vehicles and cash from the family, to preserve them as potential sources of restitution. The state estimates the properties are worth $2.3 million.
Gavin set the payment deadline to avoid a hearing on the unpaid tax bills, which ranges from $26,484.72 for a home in the 4800 block of Danielle Drive to $72,408.74 for the Clairemont estate in the 5700 block of Stonyhill Road.
The judge previously deferred action on motions brought by defendant Carl Risoldi, 46, of Buckingham, to release $50,000 in frozen family assets to pay the overdue taxes, as well as a motion from the attorney general’s office — which opposes the release of the seized assets — seeking to order the family pay the taxes.
In an email, attorney Michael Diamondstein, who represents Carl Risoldi, said that his client wants the taxes to be paid.
“Mr. Risoldi ... has no objection to the taxes being satisfied in full from the amount of money inappropriately seized and held by the Office of Attorney General for the last three years,” Diamondstein wrote. “The Office of Attorney General has refused that request and doesn’t wish to allow the taxes to be paid from the money that was seized from Mr. Risoldi.”
In its filing, the AG’s office contends that the Risoldis could have paid the taxes when they were due, but chose not to, citing a review the family’s 2015 financial documents that found they had access to more than $600,000.
Carl Risoldi and his sister, Carla Risoldi, 51, of Solebury, are listed as co-owners of Clairemont. Lower Makefield resident Karl Morris, a Risoldi family friend, is the owner of record of properties in the 4800 and 4900 blocks of Danielle Drive in Buckingham, where Claire Risoldi and Carl Risoldi and his family live. The AG’s office believes Morris bought the properties as a “straw buyer” for the Risoldis, who allegedly paid for them with “unlawfully obtained” insurance proceeds. Morris isn’t facing criminal charges in the case, officials said.
The fourth property in the 4800 block of Danielle Drive is owned by a holding company, Gemini Capital Limited Group LLC, a company the AG’s office alleges is owned by Carl Risoldi.
The Risoldi siblings and Morris don’t owe real estate taxes on other properties they own, according to county tax records.
Also last month, Gavin set dates for two trials involving the Risoldis. Claire Risoldi, 70, of Buckingham, who faces the largest number of charges including separate cases of witness intimidation, will be tried first on Jan. 14, 2019. The trial for her children, and Carl Risoldi’s wife, Shelia, 46, of Buckingham, is scheduled to begin March 4, 2019.
Gavin was assigned to hear the case after all elected Bucks County judges recused themselves, citing potential conflicts of interest since the Risoldi family has been prominent GOP supporters in the county.
Bucks County domestic abuse victims will get more time to submit necessary legal paperwork for a temporary restraining order under a recently approved court policy change that followed a 10-year high in emergency protection from abuse requests.
The change is the second time in a little more than a year that Bucks courts have adjusted policies involving domestic abuse victims’ access to legal protections under the state’s Protection from Abuse Act.
The latest policy change took effect Dec. 13, two months after this news organization began looking into the sharp rise in emergency PFA requests in 2016. The change added 75 minutes — from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. — to the deadline for applicants to request the broader temporary orders on weekdays. It also pushed back the hearing start time for those petitions to 1:30 p.m. instead of noon.
The revised policy includes another new step to ensure abuse victims are not left in limbo — a provision that specifically requires court administration to assist an applicant in going to an available district judge to have an emergency petition heard.
“Obviously, it’s a good change,” said Dabney Miller, associate director and in-house social worker with The Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia. “That is tremendous improvement and more responsive to the needs of the residents of Bucks County that need the protection of the law.”
Temporary and emergency PFAs are used by individuals who believe they are in imminent danger from domestic violence. In Bucks County, district courts are authorized to hear emergency PFA petitions after 4 p.m Monday through Thursday and after noon on Fridays, as well as weekends and holidays.
An emergency order expires the next day, while a temporary order remains active until a hearing on a permanent order is held, typically within 10 days. A temporary PFA also can include additional conditions such as requiring a defendant to surrender firearms and other conditions.
The increase in emergency PFA requests — 34 in 2016 compared to nine in 2015 — coincided with an August 2016 update in county policy that authorized local district courts to be available nine more hours a week to hear those requests. The jump led some legal and victim advocates to question whether the spike was a sign that applicants used the emergency PFA option because they had trouble obtaining same-day temporary orders through the County Common Pleas court after noon.
County PFA data for 2016 and the first 11 months of 2017 showed that 418 of the 1,248 PFA requests filed — 34 percent — were timestamped after 11:45 a.m. It’s unknown how many temporary restraining orders were requests, but last year roughly three-quarters of 664 Bucks County petitioners sought one, according to the data.
Bucks County Court Administrator Stephen Heckman cited “prior misunderstandings” as prompting the revised policy, and insisted the former policy did not create potential time gaps when neither a Common Pleas or district judge was available to hear PFA petitioners seeking temporary restraining orders. Bucks County Court of Common Pleas has 13 elected and four senior judges.
“That was never true,” Heckman said in an email response.
Heckman added the change to a 1:30 p.m. hearing time weekdays was done to “further accommodate the interests of the petitioners” and domestic violence victim legal advocates.
“We simply extended the time to try to accommodate more petitioners with (completed) petitions before the hearing judge assigned that day,” Heckman said.
The earlier filing deadline posed a hardship for many applicants, according to legal advocates like Carol Gaughan, legal advocacy manager for A Woman’s Place, Bucks County’s domestic violence service provider.
According to Gaughan, victim and legal advocates had made previous unsuccessful requests for a second PFA hearing slot. The applicationprocess can take up to two hours to complete if the paperwork is not done ahead of an applicant’s arrival at the Bucks County Justice Center in Doylestown Borough. It meant that abuse victims had to arrive before 9:30 a.m. under the previous deadlines, she added.
Abuse victims often encounter barriers when seeking a PFA, said Susan Higginbotham, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Hourly wage earners and women with child care and transportation difficulties face the greatest challenges and risk of discouragement, according to Higginbotham and other advocates.
“It is extraordinarily burdensome for someone in crisis, who is trying to hold onto a job, and has to make child care arrangements,” Miller, of The Women’s Law Project, said. “What if they have a job and they work shift work? No one can face unemployment as an added burden of trying to escape domestic violence.”
Along with being a stressful and time-consuming process, there are other reasons why abuse victims don’t follow through with getting a PFA immediately or ever, Higginbotham said.
“That being said, it is important that the courts create as few hurdles as possible for a victim to acquire a PFA,” she added.
The impact of the prior late-morning PFA filing deadlines on Bucks County applicants is unclear. Elizabeth Fritsch, co-executive director of Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania, which provides PFA services in Bucks County, declined to comment on the situation.
A Woman’s Place doesn’t track the number of individuals who were unable to obtain same-day temporary protection from abuse orders or failed to return to court to extend emergency protection orders, Gaughan said. “I would say, the cases I do know of, they do come back the next day for a protection order,” she added.
No client of A Woman’s Place has been turned away because a petition was filed after the deadline, according to Jesse Steele, director of development for the organization. With late-filers, legal advocates would press the Common Pleas court to hear the petition, he said.
The updated policy and extended deadlines will benefit individuals, especially ones filing for a PFA on their own without legal help, he said.
“It’s really helpful now to have this clearly articulated policy and make sure there is no gaps,” Steele added.
The county established its previous PFA filing deadline following a 2013 Pennsylvania Superior Court ruling that found it unconstitutional for judges to review the protection requests without speaking to the person seeking it. The court ruling ended that previous practice in Bucks, Montgomery and 40 other counties.
Under the pre-2013 PFA request review system, petitions were accepted until the close of the business day, but it could take a day or longer for judge to review it and an applicant get an answer. Petitioners now get an answer the same day, as long as they meet the filing deadline.
The original noon hearing start time was picked because it gave the county prothonotary office, which processes the PFA orders, sufficient time after the hearings to process the paperwork, Heckman said. He added efforts were made to get late-filers before judges the same day.
The 2016 rule change was primarily to set hearing times for district judges to hear requests for emergency restraining orders for victims of sexual violence and intimidation who fall outside the state’s PFA law, Heckman said. It also formalized what he said were long-standing hours that district courts were authorized to hear emergency PFA requests. Several district judges, however, disputed they were authorized to hear emergency PFA petitions before 5 p.m. weekdays before the change.
Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, though, at least a half dozen counties accept petitions for temporary PFAs until at least 2:30 p.m. weekdays. At least three counties also hold hearings in the morning and afternoons.
In Montgomery County, which has 20 elected judges, PFA petitions for restraining orders are accepted until 1:30 p.m., said Stacy Dougherty, manager for Laurel House, Montgomery County’s domestic violence service provider.
It’s rare that a judge can’t hear an applicant on the same day, Dougherty added.
No studies exist on whether limited PFA filing windows at courts discourage domestic abuse victims from obtaining restraining orders, according to several local, state and federal victim advocates and domestic violence service organizations. But one national study agreed they pose obstacles.
In its 2010 report on improving civil protection order practices, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges found barriers and gaps in services within county systems expose abuse victims to future risk of abuse.
“When a victim attempts to use the system and finds that she cannot or that she has used the ‘wrong door,’ she might not make further attempts. The system also puts a victim in danger when it requires that she try ‘multiple doors’ in order to obtain comprehensive protection,” according to the report.
Instead of in a tent huddled under three blankets, Daryl Platt woke up in the predawn hours inside a warm Lower Makefield church. Outside the temperature was 10 degrees.
The same 13-passenger bus that brings him and other Lower Bucks homeless people to a temporary shelter on below-freezing nights, will drop them off before sunrise the next day at designated bus stops, regardless of the weather.
The process repeated Thursday morning for many of the area’s homeless, left on their own to find protection from the snow and body-numbing cold weather that has latched onto the region until the shelters reopen at 9 p.m.
There’s no snow day for the homeless.
Bucks County emergency and health officials are evaluating whether it would extend its current Code Blue emergency past Sunday, which signals county volunteer groups to activate their temporary homeless shelters, according to county spokesman Chris Edwards.
The number of homeless people in Bucks County is fluid, according to activists. Last January, Bucks County reported 49 unsheltered homeless — those living in cars, tents or otherwise outside — up from 30 in 2016, according to the federal government, which conducts a point-in-time homeless count each January.
There were 37 homeless people at the Woodside Presbyterian Church on Edgewood Road on Wednesday night including two first-time visitors, down slightly from the 43, including Pratt, on Tuesday, according to Penny Martin, executive director of Advocates for the Homeless and Those in Need, which serves the Lower Bucks community. But shelter numbers vary. Sometimes the homeless can scrap up money to share a hotel room or family or a friend will take them in for the night, Martin said.
New Year’s Eve there were 39 overnight guests and 41 on New Year’s Day, Martin said. Last year, the number hit 56, which Martin expects to exceed this year.
“I think it will raise into the 50s by the end of the month,” she said.
AHTN runs the temporary Code Blue shelter program for Lower Bucks; there are other programs in Central and Upper Bucks County serving homeless populations there. The groups operate overnight shelters in churches and other institutions when temperatures fall below 26 degrees between December and March.
The temporary shelters like AHTN generally are open at 9 p.m. and close before 7 a.m. so the churches and other institutions that donate the space can operate during regular business hours. Most nights shelter volunteers find people waiting outside an hour or more beforehand, Martin said. She added the shelter has donated coats and winter accessories and hand-warmers that are passed out to guests who need them.
The Quakertown Masonic Lodge remained open all day New Year’s Eve and Jan. 1 because volunteers knew that with the holidays there was likely no other businesses open where the homeless could find shelter during the day, said David Heckler, the pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Haycock. Heckler also coordinates the Upper Bucks Code Blue initiative. The last two nights the Quakertown shelter has hosted about 10 homeless guests, a higher number than usual this time of year, Heckler said.
During Thursday’s snow, the Quakertown shelter had to close during the day because it didn’t have enough volunteers to operate, Heckler said. He added that volunteers are rallying to keep the shelter open all day Sunday, when more bitter cold is expected to move through the area.
A popular daytime spot for the Upper Bucks homeless is the Quakertown branch of the Bucks County Free Library, Heckler said. About a dozen homeless people have taken refuge during the below-freezing snap, according to a library employee. But that option wasn’t available Thursday, since the county libraries were closed because of the bad weather.
Newly homeless people are the ones who worry Martin the most. Those who have been homeless for a long time know places they can go to stay warm during the daytime, she said.
The ones who aren’t at work, look for post offices where front doors are left open for P.O. box users, convenience stores, fast-food restaurants, she said. A local home improvement store, which opens at 6 a.m., will let homeless stay there, even provide them hot coffee, if they are clean and behave, Martin said.
Organizations like the Lower Bucks YMCA in Bristol Township allow the homeless to shower during certain hours, but the people have to get rides or walk there, which can be difficult for those without cars, Martin said.
Kim Appenzeller is 61. She has been living out of her 1999 Honda for almost 12 years. But when the weather gets this cold, she comes inside at night to the AHTN shelters.
She spends her days at a local fast food restaurant where she once worked, she said. As long as she buys coffee, the employees leave her alone. She works part-time when she can. She hasn’t worked since early December, but said she is looking for a job.
Bill is 63. He has been living out of his car for eight years, the last two in Bucks County. He gets $1,000 a month in disability payments, but it’s not enough for rent after paying his storage fees and gas and maintenance for the car, he said.
During the day he spends time a fast food restaurant where he’ll get a big pancake breakfast or two egg white sandwiches, his main meal until he arrives at the Code Blue shelter. Sometimes during the day he’ll visit family in Bucks County or he goes to a local bookstore where he is reading a biography on the late actor James Stewart.
He also sleeps in his car during the day, or tries to. He complained that people will slam doors, honk horns and otherwise disturb him when he is parked in shopping centers.
Tarik Frazier described himself as a struggling aspiring musician. He has been homeless before, but his name is on the waiting list for federal subsidized housing, he said.
During the day he will go to anywhere that is warm and has WiFi. He admitted to panhandling sometimes so he can get enough money for a motel room.
But there are people far worse off than him, he said. He sees a guy walking around Bristol Township that won’t come to the shelter. He gave that guy one of his winter hats and hand warmers that homeless advocates pass around at the shelter, he said.
“I was like Jesus,” he said. “I’m not perfect. I’m just human. I keep God with me and he keeps me going.”
Keep going is also the mantra that Platt follows since he became homeless most recently in April.
“I’m getting by,” he said.
Platt had plans to walk to a drug store near his tent city to ask about a job application during the day Wednesday, he said. He hoped someone could give him a ride to a nearby retail store selling propane heaters for $80.
Mostly, though, Platt said that he expected to spend the day buried under his three blankets.
A former salesman with a Delaware County billboard company faces felony charges for allegedly trying to mislead federal investigators about alleged bribes involving two former Lower Southampton public officials who are defendants in an ongoing corruption probe.
Robert DeGoria, former vice president of asset development for Catalyst Outdoor Advertising LLC, is charged with one count of false statements for allegedly lying to special agents with the IRS and FBI about intended payments to a company that federal investigators contend was used for money laundering, according to a charging documents filed Wednesday with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia.
Court documents allege that DeGoria engaged in discussions with former Lower Southampton District Judge John Waltman and former Lower Southampton Public Safety Director Robert P. Hoopes in November 2016 where the public officials agreed to accept concealed bribe payments through Raff’s Consulting from DeGoria and Southampton Outdoor LLC, a Catalyst subsidiary.
“Specifically in several of these discussions, defendant DeGoria proposed increasing payments to Raff’s Consulting in exchange for Waltman and Hoopes using their influence to lower (the company’s) annual lease payments to Lower Southampton,” according to the court filings.
In an emailed statement on Thursday, DeGoria’s attorney, Henry Hockeimer, stated that his client acknowledges that he was “not truthful” with “certain” answers he gave investigators in November 2016. “He also acknowledges that this was wrong and he will face the consequences of his conduct.” The lease agreement never came before Lower Southampton supervisors for a vote.
The bribery allegations involving DeGoria surfaced last month a second superseding grand jury indictment that alleged Waltman, 60, of Lower Southampton and Hoopes, 70, of Doylestown Township, extorted or attempted to extort money or other actions from businesses in exchange for promises to use their political influence with local municipal officials to secure favors.
The Dec. 5 indictment included excerpts from text messages and telephone conversations between Waltman, Hoopes, “Solicitor 1” and DeGoria regarding “consulting fees” that the sign company would pay Raff’s Consulting in exchange for the two officials’ assurances that the board of supervisors and other township officials would look favorably on the billboard proposal and lease agreement.
Raff’s Consulting was a business owned by former Lower Southampton deputy state constable, Bernard Rafferty, 63, of Lower Southampton. Rafferty is also charged in the ongoing probe.
DeGoria appeared before the Lower Southampton supervisors in April 2016 to pitch a proposed LED billboard project in Russell Elliott Park as a revenue generator for the township. He later submitted a proposal offering the township $48,000 a year in rent over 30 years, according to the Dec. 5 indictment.
In early November 2016, DeGoria sent a revised term sheet to “Solicitor 1” — described in the indictment as Lower Southampton’s then-township Solicitor — offering $60,000 a year over 30 years and afterward, according to the Dec. 5 indictment.
Over the next few weeks, though, the deal started to fall apart after Waltman and Hoopes allegedly balked at the amount of the kickback DeGoria offered, according to the indictment. DeGoria wanted to give Waltman a one-time payment of $3,000 as a consulting fee, but Waltman was expecting annual payments, according to the filing.
Waltman, Hoopes and Rafferty face a list of charges including Hobbs Act extortion offenses, money laundering, conspiracy to commit money laundering and wire fraud. Waltman and Hoopes each face additional charges of Travel Act bribery, mail fraud, and use of interstate facilities to promote and facilitate bribery. Hoopes is also charged with witness tampering.
Also charged in the federal probe is Kevin Biederman, 34, of Philadelphia, a former manager at Philadelphia Federal Credit Union, who faces charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering, money laundering and bank bribery.
Jacqui Redner can’t wait to see what Christmas gifts her sons, George and Josh, will get this year.
She is sure someone will get Josh, her sports-loving conspiracy theorist, an alien-themed ornament. No doubt George, her St. Patrick-loving first responder, will get something Irish or new firefighter items.
She bought the boys each a sign for their favorite NFL team. George gets one for the Philadelphia Eagles and Josh gets one for the Carolina Panthers.
But the gifts won’t be waiting under the family’s Christmas tree; they will be left at the men’s shared grave.
George “Reds” Redner III died in 2015 at age 27. Younger brother Josh died earlier this year at 28.
This year is the third Christmas that Redner and her husband, also named George, and their family will make their way to Resurrection Cemetery in Bensalem to celebrate the holidays with George, and now Josh.
There will be a fresh-cut evergreen tree. Christmas-themed solar lights. Custom-made grave blankets featuring sports and firefighter themes. So many old, and new, ornaments, left not only by family, but friends.
“Every ornament tells a story and it’s a personal story that someone had, a story they had. A memory they had. They are precious to us,” Jacqui Redner said. “It’s another side we get to see that we didn’t know. Now I have those memories, too."Lower
Grave decorating, particularly on special holidays, is a practice with a long presence in American and European folklore, according to cultural and religious experts. Ancient Greeks put flowers at the gravesites of warriors. Mourners honored the U.S. Civil War dead by cleaning graves and leaving American flags and flowers. Mexican Catholics have long engaged in elaborate graveside decorating for All Souls Day.
“Regardless of real or perceived origins for these decorating practices, one notion hard to ignore is that the visible presence of others similarly engaged provides a sense of appropriateness and acceptability to maintaining a strong emotional tie with the deceased,” according to an academic paper presented at the American Folklore Society meeting in 1998.
“As everyone knows, holidays — particularly this time of year — can be very hard for those who grieve,” said Temple University religion professor Lucy Bregman, who teaches about death and dying.
“Grave visits and decorations are a reminder that the dead still are linked to the times and seasons of family life. For us, it is certainly better than to have a place set for them at the dinner table, when their absence is so visible.”
The grieving process is a highly individualized thing, said Marianne Kepler, a psychology professor at Bucks County Community College.
For people who experience sudden or a recent loss, just visiting a gravesite might stir up difficult or painful memories. In those cases, it’s understandable why someone might avoid visiting the cemetery, Kepler said.
Others might find visiting or elaborately decorating gravesites during the holidays gives them time to connect with, reflect on and honor loved ones and keep them a part of holiday traditions. But when holiday celebrations exclusively center on grave visits, it can be a warning sign that someone is stuck in the grieving process, Kepler added.
“Life is dynamic and life is changing,” Kepler said. “People leave and people come. Births come, people come into the family, new friendships, and it’s important to keep that freshness there.”
The first Christmas after George died, the family had not yet had his headstone placed, Redner said. So they bought a small, live Christmas tree to mark his grave. Redner then put out a post on social media telling friends about the tree and asking them to put an ornament on it that reminded them of George.
Redner and her husband left the first ornament: a beer mug decorated with shamrocks. More were quickly hung — a jeweled shamrock, a firefighter’s helmet, a fire truck. The family left zip-ties in a plastic bag at the grave so people could secure the ornaments to the tree.
“Every time we came up there, there was another ornament,” she said. “It does help to see the ornaments.”
Video: Parents mark Christmas with their late sons
The family has kept George a part of its family Christmas tree, as well. The first holiday after his death, after Josh and her other three sons put up the Christmas tree that year, Josh handed his mom a tomato ornament, Redner said.
“Why did you get a tomato ornament?” she asked.
“We’re going to start a new tradition,” Josh replied. He vowed that each Christmas they would add a vegetable ornament to the tree for George.
“It made me laugh,” his mother said.
Redner said she’s not sure why Josh suggested vegetables, but the family thinks it’s funny so they continue the tradition. Last year, a jalapeño pepper was added. This year, it’s a pickle.
Redner decorates at George’s grave for most major holidays: Halloween, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, Independence Day. She always finds something new that a friend or family member left there. Peanut-butter cups around Halloween. Shot glasses and green beads for St. Patrick’s Day.
Her father is also buried at Resurrection. She now finds herself visiting his grave more often and decorating it for the holidays.
“I used to avoid the cemetery,” she said. “Now, I’m up there all the time. I go around the corner and see him.”
Friends and family love the tradition and adding to the collection, which remains until Dec. 30, when the family packs it away until next year. Like most cemeteries, Resurrection has rules about holiday grave decorations, and they must be removed by Jan. 1.
Several dozen other graves were seen to be covered with decorations Friday.
While it doesn’t stop the pain of her family’s loss, it does give them someone else to focus on for a little while, at least.
“It’s our way of making them part of here,” Redner said. “They’re still making me smile. There is always a new story every time.”