Suspect’s Brother Person
Of Interest, Can’t Be Located
By LIBBY CUDMORE
ONEONTA –With one arrest, 100 leads and a “person of interest” who can’t be found, Oneonta Police are still piecing together what happened during the blaze that killed a man hailed as a “hero” on Saturday, Dec. 5, at 5 Walling Ave.
“We’re not sure what (Terrence) Truitt was trying to do,” Police Chief Doug Brenner said of the suspect facing a charge of arson, first degree. “It looks like Heller was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Truitt, 34, is now accused of setting a fire on the second-floor that killed former Oneonta firefighter John Heller, 38, in his third-floor apartment. Truitt was arrested and charged with arson, first degree, Monday, Dec. 31, and appeared in City Court for a felony hearing on Friday, Jan. 4.
“We had information that didn’t line up with what (Truitt) had first told me,” said Oneonta Police Detective Sgt. Branden Collison. “He kept changing his stories.”
But police are seeking the whereabouts of his brother, Gabriel Truitt, whom they are calling him a “person of interest,” but providing no further explanation.
Though initially interviewed at the start of the case, Brenner said he has not been seen or heard from since.
“We’re trying to figure out to what extent Gabriel is involved,” he said.
Investigators don’t believe that Heller was the target of the fatal fire, and are still trying to understand the relationship between Gabriel, Terrence and a woman named Heather Engler, who lived in the apartment below Heller, where investigators believe the fire was set.
►“My brother might be in the house”
During the felony hearing on Friday, Jan. 4, Michael Syron, a taxi driver, told City Judge Lucy Bernier that Truitt flagged him down at 4 a.m. the morning of the fire in the Friendly’s parking lot, next to 5 Walling.
“My brother might be in the house,” Syron said Truitt told him. But the witness said he smelled smoke on Truitt, and that he later notice the armrest on the passenger side of his car was “sooty.”
Truitt told detectives that he went to to the Speedway mart next to Main Street Baptist Church, where he borrowed a taxi driver’s cell phone to call firefighters, then went back to the house but found it “too smoky” to enter.
But at the scene that night, Collison said “there was not a lot of smoke” at the entrance; the smoke was mostly on the second and third floors.
► “What most don’t know is she’s a victim of domestic violence.”
Investigators found a burned spray can in a pile of debris near Apartment C, where Engler lived. Additionally, the bottom of her door was blocked with a yet-unidentified material.
Brenner believes that Engler was known to both brothers, and Engler’s stepmother, Rochelle Denise Smith-Engler, posted on Facebook that her stepdaughter was a victim of domestic violence.
“As by now most are aware my stepdaughter Heather Marie Engler was a victim of the Walling Street fire in Oneonta,” she wrote on Jan. 2. “What most don’t know is she’s a victim of domestic violence.”
In initial interviews with Collison, Truitt said he “never saw Heather,” but in a later interview said he was visiting her.
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 Collison.
Brenner classified Engler as an “acquaintance” of Gabriel Truitt, but did not specify the details of the relationship.
►“You spent your last day on Earth saving others”
While Truitt’s felony hearing was underway in the city’s Public Safety Building at Main and South Market, 350 friends, family, fellow firefighters – from East Meredith, Franklin and Worcester, as well as Oneonta – and community members gathered at Foothills to say goodbye to Heller.
“You spent your last day on Earth saving others,” his sister-in-law, Erika Heller, declared from the podium. “We are so proud.”
His father, John, told of a vision he had shortly after his son’s death. In it, he said, he saw a four-piece jigsaw puzzle. John was in the lower left piece; his dad in the lower right, and both of them in the top two pieces.
The lower left piece started to expand, he explained, and as it got bigger and bigger and to fill up with images of family and friends, John said to his father, “I’m sorry, I have to go. And look at what you still have.”
“His last act was passing those kids out the window,” said Brenner. “Then he collapsed.”
Judge Bernier decided Monday that there was enough evidence to send the case to the Otsego County Grand Jury, and District Attorney John Muehl said he plans to convene the grand jury by the end of this month.