Gabriel Truitt Trial
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special To ALLOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – Just before the noon break, District Attorney John Muehl brought Bill Haynes, an origin and cause investigator with Sotera Investigative Group, to the witness stand in the case against Gabriel Truitt, the Oneonta man accused of setting the fire that killed John Heller at his 5 Walling Avenue apartment in December 2018.
“The way the burn and char pattern on the inside of the door,” – of Apartment C on the second floor of the building – “indicated a liquid was splashed there,” he said.
“What kind of liquid?” Muehl asked.
“An accelerant,” Haynes replied.
The first day of the trial laid the foundation of the fire itself. The first witness, Cailin Purcell, who lives with her husband John at 7 Walling Avenue, was unable to sleep and was watching television in the spare bedroom when she heard someone yell, “Please help, fire!”
She said she saw a woman and children, later identified to be Amber Roe, and Heller’s nephews Donovan, 9, Maddox, 7, Macall, 5 and Rawley, 2, on the fire escape, and smoke, sparks and flames coming from the third floor. She awoke her husband John Purcell, who called 911 before retrieving a ladder from the garage to help the family off the fire escape.
“As the girl came down the fire escape, she said, ‘My fiancé is still in there,’” John testified.
Firefighter Kevin Sweeney testified that the front door of the building was “halfway open” when he and firefighter Matt Hitchcock entered with 200 feet of hose. “I saw fire in front of the third doorway down on the left-hand side of the second floor,” he said. “Fire was burning on the floor, the left-hand wall, the door and the stairs to the third floor, on the right.”
He also noted “medium smoke conditions.”
He attempted to climb the stairs to the third floor, but his foot broke through both of them. A ladder was retrieved, and he and Hitchcock went to the third floor.
“There was heavy fire on the left wall and around the windowsills,” he said. “I began to knock down the fire, and Hitchcock went to look for the victim.”
Hitchcock testified that when he found the victim, later identified as Heller, he was face-down in front of the same bedroom window that Roe and the children escaped out of.
“I noticed no signs of life,” he said.
Public defender Michael Trosset, Truitt’s attorney, asked if Sweeney’s vision was impaired by the smoke. Sweeney said that it was not, and that he could see the bottom of the stairway and the fire in front of the apartment door.
“How long did it take to get water to the fire?” he asked.
“Under a minute,” Sweeney replied.
“And you made all those observations in under a minute?”
Haynes, who will continue his testimony this afternoon, was brought in as an investigator by Leatherstocking Insurance Company. He told the jury he saw fire damage on the ceiling of a first floor apartment, which helped him determine the location of the fire on the second floor. He ruled out electrical and appliance malfunctions, and determined the fire started outside of Apartment C.