Detective: Arson Suspect Kept Changing His Story

Detective: Arson Suspect

Kept Changing His Story

In One Version, Truitt Said He Visited
Second-Floor Tenant, Detective Testifies

By JENNIFER HILL • Special to

Deputy Sheriff Prostak, right, leads arson suspect Terrence Truitt into Oneonta’s City Court bulding this afternoon. (Jennifer Hill/

ONEONTA – No motive was specified when Terrance Truitt, 34, accused of arson, first degree, in last Saturday’s fatal fire at 5 Walling Ave., appeared for a felony hearing this afternoon in City Court.

However, Truitt acted suspiciously, testified Oneonta Police  Detective Sgt. Branden Collison, who led the investigation.  “He was very deceptive in his answers,” said Collison.

The hearing adjourned after one and a half hours, and will be continued, tentatively at 10 a.m. Monday.

Former firefighter and current Oneonta Job Corps counselor John Heller died in the fire after helping his four nephews, ages to 9, 7, 5 and 2, and his fiancée, Amber Roe, escape from his third-floor apartment where the six of them had been sleeping when the fire broke out.   Coincidentally, while the hearing was underway, Heller’s funeral was underway down South Main Street in Foothills’ Atrium.

Collison testified he had Truitt brought to the Oneonta police station on Tuesday, Dec. 31, after the detective said he received inconsistent answers from the suspect to question about where he was at the time of the fire and what he was doing.

The  investigator had questioned Truitt twice on Saturday, Dec. 29, hours after the fire was extinguished, once in the late morning and once in the early afternoon.  “We had information that didn’t line up with what he had first told me,” Collison said.  “He kept changing his stories.”

For instance,  in the first interview Dec. 29, Truitt told the detective he had been at 5 Walling at 4 a.m. the morning of the fire, “and did not go into the house,”   Collison said.

Seeing the fire but lacking a cell phone, Truitt said he asked a passerby for a lift to the Speedway mart next to Main Street Baptist Church, where he borrowed a taxi driver’s cell phone to call firefighters.

Truitt then got a ride back to the house, tried to enter “but there was too much smoke,”  Collison said he was told.  However, the detective continued, “there was not a lot of smoke” at the entrance; the smoke was mostly on the second and third floors.

Interviewed later that day, Truitt said he had been on the second floor, and had visited a tenant there.

Then, at the station on Dec. 31, Truitt said “he wasn’t going to beat around the bush” about being on the second floor, said Collision.

Before Collison’s testimony, the man who provided the lift, Michael Syron of Oneonta, testified he smelled smoke on Truitt when the suspect got in the car, and later said the arm of his passenger seen was “sooty.”

“My brother might be in the house,” Truitt told Syron as he approached him in the Friendly’s parking lot.

Collison did not say whether Truitt had a brother in the apartment; he said the suspect also gave conflicting testimony about whether he “saw” a woman named Heather in a second-floor apartment.

Chris Lupold, investigator with the state Office of Fire Prevention & Control, testified he determined the fire was “not accidental” and that it started at the base of the second-floor stairwell.

The hearing stalled when Atty. James Hartmann, representing Truitt, demanded to see Lupold’s notes, which he had not brought with him.

Oneonta City Judge Lucy Brenier ruled that Hartmann could review Lupold’s notes and scheduled the hearing to continue on Monday.

However, Assistant District Attorney Michael Getman could not promise Lupold would be available at that time, and Bernier said she would confirm an exact time when she determined Lupold’s availability.

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