Conflicting Stories Emerge About Night
When John Heller Died In Oneonta Fire
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – The morning of Dec. 29, 2018, fire was in front of Heather Engler’s apartment door at 5 Walling Ave., Oneonta. Her stepmother, Rochelle Engler, told District Attorney John Muehl that accused arsonist Gabriel
Truitt had contacted her.
“He messaged me on Facebook to say that Heather’s house was on fire,” she said. “I didn’t understand, so he called me. He told me he didn’t do it because he was sitting in jail, but that Heather should be dead because she had him arrested.”
“I thought she died,” Engler continued. “He said, ‘It is what it is.’ When I asked him how he knew about the fire, he said that he had his ways.”
But Heather, who spent the night with a friend, wasn’t dead.
Instead, John Heller, a former Oneonta firefighter, died of smoke inhalation just inches from the same third-floor window that he helped his fiancée, Amber Roe, and their four nephews, Donovan, 9, Maddox, 7, Macall, 5, and Rawley, 2, escape through.
Gabriel’s trial in the fatal fire – where he faces charges of arson in the first degree, murder in the first degree and two charges of murder in the second degree, began Tuesday, Jan. 21 with jury selection, and opening statements on Thursday, Jan, 23.
“I ran outside and yelled ‘John Heller is in that house!’ He was a firefighter, I thought maybe they’d try a little harder to find him.”
The night of the fire, Heller and Roe were hosting their nephews for a sleepover.
“John jumped up and said, ‘The house is on fire.’”
She went out onto the fire escape first and Heller began to hand her the boys. But John didn’t come out. Now trapped on the fire escape, she screamed for help, which woke up neighbors John and Cailin Purcell, who called 911, retrieved a ladder and kept the family inside their home while firefighters battled the blaze.
“I ran outside and yelled ‘John Heller is in that house!’” said Roe. “He was a firefighter, I thought maybe they’d try a little harder to find him.”
Firefighter Matt Hitchcock testified that when he found Heller, he was face-down in front of the window by the fire escape.
“I noticed no signs of life,” he said.
Investigator Bill Haynes of the Sotera Investigative Group traced the fire to the front of second-floor Apartment C, later identified as Engler’s apartment. He took three samples of wood from the scene and mailed them to Analytical Forensic Institute, a laboratory specializing in chemical analysis of ignitable liquids in fire debris.
“I determined that an ignitable liquid had been poured at the bottom of the stairs and in front of Apartment C,” he said.
Muehl also brought Laurel Mason, owner and laboratory director of Analytical Forensic Evidence, to testify that the two samples taken from either side of the doorway came back positive for isopropyl alcohol.
“He stored (rubbing alcohol) in a closet to the left of his barber salon. He used it to disinfect combs, brushes and skin.”
Heather Engler, who had previously been in a “rocky” romantic relationship with Gabriel, testified that she saw him at the Sip & Sail, where she went with a friend, Niko. Outside the bar, Gabriel attacked Niko and the two, along with another man, were arrested.
Heather went home with another friend, and when she woke up on Dec. 29, she had a message from Rochelle telling her about the fire. “I got up and ran to my apartment, and the fire trucks were already there,” she said.
Engler testified that she had been in Truitt’s Tru Cuts Barber Shop “over 100 times” and had often purchased large bottles of rubbing alcohol for him.
“He stored it in a closet at his barber salon,” she said. “He used it to disinfect combs, brushes and skin.”
Surveillance video from Tru Cuts shows Gabriel, Terrence and an unidentified individual entering the back door of the shop at 4:03 a.m. Gabriel is seen squatting in front of his barber cabinet, grabbing two square bottles – Muehl said the label matches the brand of rubbing alcohol Heather said she purchased – and putting them in his pocket, then walking out the door.
The fire is believed to have started 10 minutes later.
“You went to Heather Engler’s place because you knew what your brother was going to do.”
Terrence Truitt said he went to 5 Walling Ave. from Tru Cuts to help his brother look for the keys he’d allegedly lost at the Sip & Sail. That’s when he saw the fire, he told the jury, and after he went inside, he called 911 from a cab driver’s phone.
“You went to Heather Engler’s place because you knew what your brother was going to do,” said Muehl.
“You went into the burning building looking for your brother.”
Gabriel’s attorney, Public Defender Michael Trossett, asked Terrence if he saw his brother at 5 Walling Ave.
“No,” he replied.
Video from Tru Cuts shows Terrence pacing the floors and checking his phone for seven and a half minutes before leaving out the front door of the shop.
In his final piece of evidence, Muehl showed the jury an interview with Oneonta Police on Dec. 31, 2018. Gabriel claimed it was Terrence who left Tru Cuts barber shop, while he stayed inside and waited for a cab.
He told police Terrence came back in a cab a short while later, contrasting what Terrence said and what the surveillance footage from the barber shop showed.
“The people rest, your honor,” said Muehl.