Folks throughout the area have asked me at least a thousand times, “How did you get all those leaders of Otsego County to be in your film?”
Here’s the “Reader’s Digest” version.
I first met former Oneonta Police Chief Douglas Brenner while working on another project. The introduction went something like this: “Hi! My name is Lori. You don’t know me, but I’m going to make a movie here, and I may need your help. By the way, here’s a cake I bought for you, and my contact information.”
Why he didn’t pull a weapon and chase me away, I’ll never know.
COOPERSTOWN – Nicholas Meridy, who plead guilty to second-degree murder in the October 2019 death of Kenneth Robinson at his home in Worcester, was sentenced to 22 years to life in prison during a hearing in Otsego County Court this morning.
“I’m satisfied with it,” said District Attorney John Muehl. “After speaking with the family, that was the offer I made so we didn’t have to put them through a trial.”
COOPERSTOWN – Casey Callahan’s 2017 conviction for murder in the second degree in the 2000 killing of his wife, Elizabeth Callahan, has been overturned by the Appellate Division, Third Department, according to a decision announced Friday.
“Because the evidence of the defendant’s guilt was not overwhelming, there must be a new trial,” the decision read.
COOPERSTOWN – Erika Heller, John Heller’s sister-in-law, did not hold back as she read her victim’s impact statement at the sentencing of Gabriel Truitt in Otsego County Court this morning.
“You stole John from us,” she said. “For four young boys, you stole childhood and innocence and peace of mind. We are all serving a life sentence because of the selfish decision you made. You should have to do the same.”
COOPERSTOWN – In just over three hours, a jury found Kimberly Steeley, 27, Decatur, not guilty in the June 2018 deaths of her infant twins, Bonde and Liam.
Steeley’s attorney, Andrew Van Buren, made the case that the babies died of SIDS – Sudden Infant Death Syndrome – in part, because they had come home from the hospital too soon. Both babies were preemies; Bonde, was just over 4 pounds when she died, and that Liam, who died 11 days later, was 5.14 pounds.
On Friday, March 6, Steeley testified that although she did fall asleep in bed with both of them on the nights they died, at no point was her body, bedding or clothing obstructing their airways.
Pausing frequently to wipe away tears, Kimberly Steeley took the stand for nearly two hours to testify in her own defense against charges that she smothered her two infant children, Bonde and Liam, in June 2018. Bonde died on June 5, the night she was brought home from the hospital, after Steeley said she placed the infant face-up on her lap and fell asleep. 11 days later, she was sleeping with Liam next to her on a pillow and awoke to find him unresponsive. “It was a nightmare,” she said. “I was in such shock (after Liam died) that I had to be sedated at the hospital.” But District Attorney John Muehl, inset left, maintains that Steeley, who admitted to using suboxone for an opioid addiction, committed manslaughter when she used the drug and brought them into bed, having introduced prior testimony that nurses had told her not to co-sleep, as well as testimony that the cause of death was asphyxiation. The prosecution rested after her testimony, and closing statements will begin Monday morning; if found guilty, Steeley faces 30 years in prison, 15 for each child. (Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.com)
The manslaughter trial of Kim Steeley, 27, of Decatur – seen weeping in court today – opened with two contrasting scenarios in Otsego County Court this morning. In his opening statement, District Attorney John Muehl blamed the mother for the June 2018 deaths of twins Liam and Bonde, born prematurely: “The real problem was, she (Steeley) was high and she nodded off on these children. In her altered state, she suffocated them.” But in his opening statement, defense lawyer Andrew Van Buren, Hobart, pointed out the father of the twins, Tommy Hewitt, was sleeping in the same bed, and had been furious when he learned Steeley was pregnant, punching her and chipping a tooth. Still, Hewitt only leveled charges against Steeley after he was arrested under the influence and was looking for leverage, the lawyer said. “He’ll retract everything he said,” added Van Buren. Both Steeley and Hewitt are expected to testify. Both, according to the lawyers, were using Suboxone, an intoxicant used to wean drug users from hard drugs. Inset are twins, Liam, a boy, and Bonde, a girl. (Jim Kevlin/AllOTSEGO.com)
COOPERSTOWN – It took just over two hours for the jury to find Gabriel Trutt, 33, guilty of arson and murder in the Dec. 29, 2018, fatal fire at 5 Walling Ave., Oneonta, that killed John Heller.
Heller, a former Oneonta fireman, got his four nephews and fiancée to safety before he was trapped in the third-floor apartment and succumbed to the smoke. He was hailed as a hero.
“I’m thrilled, but this isn’t about whether I won or lost,” said District Attorney John Muehl. “This really is justice. He was guilty and the evidence was overwhelming. We can’t bring John back, but we did as much as we could for him.”
COOPERSTOWN – Shortly after noon today, a jury found Gabriel Truitt guilty on all four counts of arson and murder charges in the Dec. 29, 2018, early morning fire at 5 Whalling Ave., Oneonta, where former Oneonta firefighter John Heller died.
This is a developing story; please check back this afternoon for details.
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.
COOPERSTOWN – Video evidence, District Attorney John Muehl said, placed accused arsonist Gabriel Truitt inside his Tru Cuts Barber Shop at 4:30 a.m. the night of the fire that killed John Heller.
“He walks in the back door, turns to the right and squats in front of a cabinet,” Muehl said in his opening remarks. “He lights a lighter, takes out two bottles, puts them in his pocket and walks out.”
Those bottles, Muehl told the jury, were isopropyl alcohol.