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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As business partnerships go, the one between the owners of an Upper Makefield horse farm is about as smooth as a bale of hay.
This much Patricia “Penny” Silcox and Michael and Michelle Gara agree on: Silcox is a better horsewoman than a businesswoman; Hickory Run Farm, which Silcox owned and ran for 30 years, has a recent history of financial problems, including delinquent taxes; last year, Silcox borrowed $309,273.34 from the Garas, using the farm as collateral; and the Garas now hold the majority ownership of the farm.
Michelle & Michael Gara
The list of what they dispute is much longer and more complicated. The dispute has evolved into a legal battle in Bucks County Court, where the Garas sued Silcox in July.
Key among the concerns for Silcox is the ownership of the Pineville Road farm. Through her lawyer, Daniel Sweetser, Silcox said she made the Garas partners because Michael Gara told her that was the only way he could get a tax benefit from lending her money. Sweetser said Gara told Silcox he'd reduce her loan amount by the amount of his tax credit, which Sweetser said didn't happen.
Hundreds of pages of new court documents, filed earlier this month by the Garas, boil down to this: They want a judge to force Silcox to fulfill what they say was a verbal promise to transfer the assets of the horse farm, including 36 acres appraised at $1.5 million, into a new company in which the Garas would have a 90-percent ownership and Silcox would own 10 percent. The Garas' lawyer estimates the 10-percent ownership is worth a maximum of $150,000.
The Garas also seek a court injunction to bar Silcox from the farm and from conducting business on its behalf. In July, they received a temporary restraining order barring Silcox from conducting farm business. A few weeks later, a judge postponed a contempt hearing charging Silcox with violating the restraining order. She retains a 25-percent ownership of the farm, but the Garas have removed her from its board of directors and terminated her employment.
“The Garas never wanted to be in litigation or have any trouble whatsoever,” according to their amended lawsuit, which was filed Aug. 4. “They could have bought any other horse farm and not had any of the angst and aggravation that has resulted from defendant Penny and her actions. Simply put, this matter is a lesson in the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.”
Sweetser contends his client never planned to sell her farm or even partner with the Garas. He said Silcox borrowed $309,273 from the Garas, using the horse farm as collateral. But, he added, Silcox didn't sign a second note borrowing an additional $889,706 from the Garas, as the lawsuit claims. He also said Silcox didn't understand that she gave the Garas 75 percent ownership of the farm when she made them partners on Dec. 31, 2015.
“She never intended to give them any interest in the property,” Sweetser said. “There is not one document, and I’ve been through thousands of documents, and there is not one document I am aware of that talks about that at all.”
Michael Gara, who works as a financial adviser, and his wife became acquainted with the 64-year-old Silcox, who is well known in the local equestrian community, in spring 2013, according to their attorney. The couple started boarding horses at her farm and hired her to give their daughter riding lessons in 2014. Hickory Run Farm is about 1 mile from the couple’s Pineville Road home.
The couple allege that early last year, after Silcox learned they were looking to buy a horse farm, she “manipulated” them into investing more than $1 million in what the lawsuit called her failing farm. They said the money was used for improvements and to clear Silcox’s personal and business debts.
Penny Silcox leading a riding lesson
Among the allegations in the Garas' lawsuit, which seeks damages in excess of $2 million:
In late 2014 or early 2015, Michael Gara paid $27,508 to enclose a metal arena, which allowed Silcox to board horses in the winter. Gara alleges Silcox offered him a lien on a farm-owned horse to assure repayment but didn't follow through.
In May 2015, the Garas, Silcox and attorney Dawn Burke, who represented the Garas, met to consolidate the operations and assets of Hickory Run Farm and RPSC Inc., which owns the land on which the horse farm is located. Silcox and her brother own RPSC. Under terms of the verbal agreement, the assets would be transferred into a new company, the Newtown Equestrian Center, before the end of the first quarter of 2016. The transfer hasn't happened and Burke didn't answer multiple requests for comment.
The $309,273.34 loan the Garas made to Silcox was to repay the couple for money they had already advanced Silcox for the farm and her debts.
Silcox refused to follow financial and billing protocols the Garas implemented, “misappropriated” company money and sold horses without their authorization.
Sweetser contends his client agreed to give the Garas credit toward training lessons and boarding to repay the $27,508 to enclose the barn. He said the Garas were "well aware" of similar barter arrangements Silcox had with other horse owners.
Bucks County and state tax records show multiple liens for unpaid taxes were placed against Hickory Run Farm over the past decade.
The farm’s 2012 property taxes were paid in full as of December 2014, records show. The 2013 and 2014 tax bills — totaling $54,899.32 — remained unpaid until April of this year, Bucks County Tax Claims Bureau records show. The property was advertised for tax sale in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015, but the sales were called off after the taxes were paid, tax claims bureau Director Marguerite Genesio said.
When they first started loaning Silcox money, the Garas knew about the tax liens and other debts, according to attorney Neal Jacobs, who represents the couple. However, Jacobs said financial information Silcox provided the Garas convinced the couple the farm could break even if what the suit called "normal" business practices were followed.
Jacobs acknowledged there was only a verbal agreement about restructuring the farm's ownership but said emails, notes taken by Burke and other documents confirm the deal. Silcox was well aware that, under the deal, the farm would essentially belong to the Garas, and she would remain on the board as a minority shareholder and continue working for the Garas as a trainer, Jacobs added.
“Penny wanted to see the land continue as a horse farm and the Garas liked the opportunity to preserve a local farm,” Jacobs said. “The Garas made clear to Penny that if they agreed to work together, that the Garas would have control over the business operations so that they could implement normal business policies, hire the right people and run the farm the way any good business should be run. Penny would focus on what she loved, horse and rider training. Penny agreed to all of this.”
The Garas at Hickory Run Farm
In recent court filings, Sweetser contends the alleged deal is moot since no formal documentation exists. He also argued the Garas have no ownership claim to the farm's land since RPSC owns it, not Silcox.
As the Garas became more involved in the business, the suit said they realized its financial state was worse than Silcox had told them and that she was using company money for personal expenses.
“Simply put, now that her wrongdoing was being uncovered, Penny is trying to take advantage of the Garas by trying to kick them off the farm after she had milked them of over $1.3 million advanced for the benefit of her and the farm,” according to the lawsuit.
Sweetser denied Silcox misappropriated any money or signed the $889,706 loan agreement with the Garas. “She did not sign it. She did not know about this (second) mortgage. She was not aware of it until after this lawsuit started,” the lawyer said.
He also said she wasn't aware she was no longer the majority owner of the farm until the Garas removed her as its manager in March. "That is when it was clear to her that this was not her company anymore, and that she had given away control," Sweetser said.
Sweetser said Silcox was the one manipulated by the Garas, not the reverse as claimed in the Garas' suit.
“Penny has been a horse farmer her entire life and she is not a business-savvy person in any way. The Garas had to know there was no way, ever, Penny Silcox could ever pay back the $1 million they claim they loaned her,” Sweetser said. “Why are you throwing all this money into this property you don’t own? My personal opinion is they were ultimately interested in taking over the property.”
The Bucks County District Attorney’s Office says five police “incident” reports filed in 2014 and last year involving the home of a Lower Southampton man awaiting trial in the high profile case of a child who allegedly was "gifted" to an older man are not public records, citing them as part of a “criminal investigation.”
Assistant District Attorney Joanna Dombrowski, the office’s open records appeal officer, determined a sixth incident report involving Lee Kaplan, 51, was a public record, and this news organization was entitled to access to it. That Nov. 22, 2013, report involved one of Kaplan's neighbors complaining that Kaplan was openly burning trash on his Old Street Road property.
Lower Southampton police identified the six incident reports in response to an open records request this news organization filed following the June 16 arrest of Kaplan. He is accused of sexually abusing a now 18-year-old woman and fathering her two children, ages 9 months and 3 years old. Police allege the woman’s ex-Amish parents “gifted” her to Kaplan when she was 14 after he helped her parents financially.
Lower Southampton police denied the Right to Know request, saying the documents requested are protected as “criminal investigative records” under the state’s Criminal History Records Information Act. The request sought access to records, including public and resident complaints, welfare checks, police visits, citations and violations to Kaplan’s home covering Jan. 1, 2008, to June 21, 2016.
The news organization appealed to the state Office of Open Records, which transferred the appeal to the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office for a final determination. The district attorney's office released its determination — supporting the initial denial of the records — on Aug. 26.
After reviewing the documents, Dombrowski denied access to five reports, citing them as “related to a criminal investigation,” and not public records. The reports were filed June 30, 2014; July 7, 2014; July 23, 2014; Oct. 29, 2014; and April 28, 2015, according to the determination. The document does not describe the records beyond calling them “incident reports.” The source of the reports is unknown.
This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching Lower Southampton Public Safety Director Robert Hoopes for comment on the nature of the incident reports and if they relate to the case against Kaplan.
Dombrowski declined to confirm if the documents denied to the news organization were related to the “gifted child” case or any other investigation involving Kaplan, citing state law that prohibits comment on the content of criminal investigation records or reports.
Lower Southampton police faced public criticism that they did not act sooner after neighbors complained about suspicious activity at Kaplan’s house, where authorities say he lived with the alleged victim, their two children, and her nine sisters ranging in age from 3 to 17. Police said the victim's children and her siblings do not appear to have been abused.
The alleged victim and the 11 children were discovered after a neighbor called a child abuse hotline with concerns about the welfare of children living in Kaplan’s house, which prompted Bucks County Children and Youth Social Services Agency workers to do a welfare check. The social workers were accompanied by Lower Southampton police and resulted in the arrests of Kaplan and the young woman's parents.
The young woman’s parents are charged with endangering the welfare of children and her father is charged with conspiracy. This news organization is not identifying the parents in an effort to protect the identities of the children. All three defendants remain in Bucks County prison awaiting trial.
In response to neighbors' claims that they contacted police earlier about Kaplan and the children, Hoopes acknowledged that neighbors had contacted police, but the complaints mostly involved nuisance issues, such as trash-burning, overgrown grass and animals. Some complaints included a passing mention of girls in Amish-style clothing, and nothing to suggest they were in danger, he said.
Bucks County emergency dispatch records for Kaplan's property from Jan. 1, 2008, through June 21, 2016, did not show any calls suggesting concerns about children. The 911 records — also obtained through a Right to Know request — show that police responded to nine calls involving Kaplan’s address, including a chimney fire, reports involving alleged violations of local ordinances, harassment and a civil complaint. There were no 911 calls involving the home in 2010, 2012, 2013 or 2015, according to the records.
Previously, police sources confirmed that Lower Southampton police visited Kaplan’s house in 2014 after they received a complaint about excessive smoke from an outdoor grill. During that visit, police officers saw a small child, a baby and an older woman, later identified as the mother of 10 of the children found at Kaplan's home in June. Kaplan, who claimed he was Amish, said the older woman was the wife of his business partner and that her family would also be living in his home while their Lancaster home was renovated, a police source said.
As mandatory child abuse reporters in Pennsylvania, police are required to report any complaints or incidents involving suspected child abuse or neglect to child welfare officials for investigation. Police also have the ability to conduct a parallel criminal investigation involving suspected child abuse or neglect, according to child welfare advocates.
Police officers are not obligated to forward information to child welfare authorities if they don’t suspect abuse or neglect occurred, a standard that is far more broad and nuanced than the evidence threshold for criminal behavior, child welfare advocates said.
Child welfare agencies, however, are required to forward information to law enforcement if an alleged abuser doesn't fall under the state definition of a perpetrator under the child protection law or an abuse or neglect report involves a possible crime, under the child protection law.
And state health officials say they are uncertain about whether the popular opiate overdose reversal drug naloxone would work with the drug.
On Thursday, Pennsylvania health officials issued an urgent warningthat heroin laced with elephant tranquilizer known as carfentanil, which is believed to be responsible for overdoses and deaths in neighboring states, appears to be headed to Pennsylvania. It was news to local drug and alcohol treatment experts, and first responders said they were warned about at least a month ago.
Carfentanil is one of the most powerful opioids in existence. It can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled, which makes it potentially fatal for not only drug addicts, but first responders, medical workers and others who come into contact with it, officials said.
The so-called copycat chemical is 10,000 times stronger than morphine and 100 times more powerful than black market fentanyl, a powerful copycat version of the prescription painkiller found in street heroin over the last three years. Carfentanil commonly is used to sedate large animals such as elephants and it was not designed for human consumption, according to state health officials and local first responders.
“If it can take down a large animal, you can imagine what it can do to a person,” Fialko said.
Fialko described the drug as so powerful the body will response to a dose that is one microgram — a measure equal to a 1 millionth of a gram. A typical heroin bag contains one-tenth of a gram of heroin, which typically is 80 to 90 percent pure, he said.
"Given that such a small amount of carfentanil can be deadly and most users of heroin mixed with carfentanil do not realize that is what they are getting, the chances of overdose death are very high,” said Gary Tennis, secretary of the state's Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.
The potential lethalness of the drug at such small exposures prompted federal authorities to discourage law enforcement from field-testing suspected heroin or fentanyl. Instead, the office recommended sending samples straight to a lab for testing.
Bensalem police typically respond to three to as many as 14 heroin and opioid overdoses a week, according to Public Safety Director Fred Harran. Recently, there were three overdose deaths in a weekend in the township, he said.
Four months ago, Harran implemented new safety precautions in anticipation of seeing carfentanil. They included changes in protocol for field testing suspected drugs; now only specially trained officers are allowed to do the tests with suspected opioids.
“Of course, I have concerns,” Harran added. “One is for the poor addicts trying to get that ultimate high. They’re not going to get high and die. The second concerns are for first responders and people who come into contact with it not of their own choice.”
Local first responders say they haven’t seen carfentanil laced heroin yet, either, but they already exercise universal precautions, such as wearing gloves and facial covering when dealing with overdose patients. Their biggest concern is whether naloxone will work.
Since carfentanil isn’t meant for human consumption, there aren’t any studies that can help health officials identify how effective naloxone would be.
Local medical personnel believe naloxone can reverse a carfentanil overdose, but it would require a far higher dose than what is normally given.
Second Alarmer's Rescue Squad in Upper Moreland already has had to give greater doses of naloxone to patients who have overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl, assistant chief Ken Davidson said.
Another concern for Davidson is the over-the-counter availability of naloxone means more untrained people are administering it; those family and friends might not realize that one dose of naloxone might not be enough to fully revive a person, and they can slip back into an overdose without further medical treatment.
An ambulance can use all of its on-board naloxone supply to revive an overdose patient, added Dr. Gerry Wydro, medical director for Bucks County Emergency Medical Services. While rescue squads typically carry multiple doses of the drug, police officers typically don’t, he said.
In 2015, more than 3,500 Pennsylvanians died from a drug overdose. Heroin and opioid overdose are the leading cause of accidental death in Pennsylvania, officials say.
In Bucks County, which saw a 4-percent increase in overdose deaths last year, heroin was present in nearly half of the 117 reported fatal overdose and fentanyl appeared in more than one quarter of the cases, according the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. The drugs appeared in similar concentrations in Montgomery County, where 136 reported overdose deaths represented a 16 percent decrease from 2014's numbers.