News of Otsego County

District Attorney John Muehl

The Partial Observer: Adventures in Casting: ‘Roadhouse Coup’ an Otsego County Who’s Who
The Partial Observer

Adventures in Casting: ‘Roadhouse
Coup’ an Otsego County Who’s Who

This photo from the filming of “A Roadhouse Coup” shows, from left, Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl as Agent Williams, Cooperstown Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh as Prohibitionist Mrs. Crandell and Isaiha Jones as Fitz the paper boy. In this scene, they are awaiting the train at the Cooperstown and Charlotte Valley Railroad station in Milford to take them to the execution of Eva Coo. (Photo by Josh Jones)

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.

This week 02-10-22


The Freeman’s Journal • Hometown Oneonta

February 10, 2022


Telly in her element: Telly couldn’t have been happier than to get on the ice and snow that fell on Cooperstown last week. The two-year-old Bernedoodle enjoyed playing and relaxing on the snowbank in front of her mom’s shop on Main Street. Jen Howard, owner of Cooperstown Classics, said, “Telly lives for this weather. It’s her favorite time of year!” The good girl is full-grown, topping out at 75 pounds.


Cooperstown Central plots anti-racism strategy, addresses complaints

Doubleday renovations on track for June finish

Inside The Paper

State says ‘no’ to gifting pot

Not a day over 27

Fate of James Fenimore Cooper murals rests with Westchester school board

Glimmerglass Festival names three ‘Honorary Life Trustees’

Cooperstown costume pro voting on top film awards



District Attorney right on bail, discovery


Rust never sleeps

Sternberg on COVID this week: Getting better?

Opportunities for Otsego: The Childcare Dilemma

History Column

Bound Volumes


Editors Policy


Lloyd H. Johnson

Linda J. Hall

Marshall L. Thorne

David S. Wilshere


Happenin’ Otsego

1st Teen In Worcester Slaying Pleads Guilty

1st Teen Pleads Guilty

In Worcester Slaying

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to


COOPERSTOWN – Alex Borgreen, 17, one of the three teens charged in the Oct. 2019 murder of Kenneth Robinson at his home in Worcester, has plead guilty to Burglary in the first degree, according to District Attorney John Muehl.

Borgreen is the first of the three former Oneonta High School students to plead in the case.

Meridy Gets 22 Years In Worcester Slaying

First Defendant

Receives 22 Years

In Worcester Death

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to

Nicolas Meridy

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.”

Court Overturns Murder Verdict v. Casey Callahan

Court Overturns

Murder Verdict

v. Casey Callahan

Husband Had Been Found Guilty

17 Years After Wife Was Run Over

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to

Casey Callahan, right, is led out of the Otsego County Courthouse by a sheriff’s’ deputy at the conclusion of the first day of his 2017 trial.(Parker Fish/

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.

At Sentencing, Heller’s Family Lashes Truitt
‘He Can’t Destroy Anyone Else’s Life Ever Again’




Erika Heller, center, criticizes Gabriel Truitt, foreground, for rolling his eyes as she read her victim’s impact statement at Truitt’s sentencing this morning. Truitt, who was found guilty of the arson and murder of John Heller in January, was sentenced to life in prison without parole. (Ian Austin/

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to

Truitt slouches in his chair as County Judge Brian Burns reads off a list of his prior convictions, starting when he was 17 years old.

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.”

Truitt, 35, was sentenced to life without parole for the murder of John Heller, who died rescuing his fiancée, Amber Roe, and his four nephews after Truitt set a fire in the 5 Walling Ave. apartment house where they lived in an attempt to murder his girlfriend, Heather Engler, who he had fought with prior to setting the fire on Dec. 29, 2018.

No Charges For Driver Who Injured 10
‘Medical Event’ Caused Crash That Injured 10

No Charges For Driver

In Richfield Springs Crash

The investigation into the December crash that injured 10 people on Main Street in Richfield Springs has been closed with no charges filed by Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl.  The driver, Kevin Ritton, a state fire marshal and the secretary of the Otsego County Emergency Services, experienced what Muehl described as a “medical event” while driving, which, in turn, caused the accident, which damaged four cars and sent 10 people to the hospital. “There was no evidence or criminality or intent,” said Muehl. “Therefor, the investigation is closed.” (Jim Kevlin/

Steeley Not Guilty In Twins’ Death


Mom Not Guilty

In Twins’ Deaths

By LIBBY CUDMORE •  Special to

Kimberly Steeley weeps in attorney Andrew Van Buren’s arms after the “not guilty” verdict was read by the jury foreman. (Libby Cudmore/

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.

Jury Begins Deliberations In Death Of Twins

Jury Begins Deliberations

In Worcester Twins’ Deaths

District Attorney John Muehl, left, lays out his case for a guilty verdict in the trial of Kimberly Steeley, charged with manslaughter in the deaths of her infant twins, Bonde and Liam, in June 2018, as part of closing arguments in Otsego County Court this morning. “This is a very sad case,” he said. “She lost her twins. But she made the decision to use drugs and sleep with her children, and the evidence says she is guilty.” Seated, at right, is defense attorney Andrew Van Buren, Hobart, and Steeley. In his closing statements, Van Buren pointed out the consistency across statements made by the Steeley family, including her mother, Arlene and her father, Christopher, while hammering the testimony of Thomas Hewitt and theorizing that the babies were brought home from the hospital too soon. “Bonde weighed four pounds, seven ounces when she died,” he said. “She was never going to make it, whether she was in a bed or a bassinet. She was going to die because the doctors sent her home from the hospital too soon.” Deliberations began just after noon. (Libby Cudmore/

Describing ‘Nightmare’ Of Finding Infants Dead, Steeley Takes Stand In Trial

Describing ‘Nightmare’

Of Finding Babies Dead,

Mom Takes Stand In Trial

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/

Did Mother Asphyxiate  Twins – Or Did Father? Open Statements Set Up Scenario: Which Drugged Parent Responsible?

Did Mother Asphyxiate 

Twins – Or Did Father?

Opening Statements Set Up Scenario:

Which Drugged Parent Responsible?

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/

‘I Had To Do It For John’ Fiancee Recalls At Guilty Verdict

Truitt Guilty Of Arson, Murder

‘I Had To Do It For John,’

Fiancee Declares At Verdict

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to

Erika Heller, left, embraces Amber Roe, fiancee of the late John Heller, who died rescuing her and Erika’s four sons from a fire that Gabriel Truitt was found guilty of setting this afternoon. (Libby Cudmore/

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.”





Gabriel Truitt, right, stands as the jury reads the “guilty” verdict on the charges of arson in the first degree, murder in the first degree, and two counts of murder in the second degree. (Libby Cudmore/

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.


Proceedings Underway in Truitt Case

Investigator Testimony: Accelerant Under Door

Accelerant Isopropyl Alcohol, Arson Expert Testifies

Girlfriend: Suspect Fought Before Fatal Fire Set

Brother Disavows Testimony To Grand Jury, Police

District Attorney Challenges Truitt’s Brother

In Closing Statements, Attorneys Debate Timeline

Arson-Trial Testimony Creates A Tangled Tale

Arson-Trial Testimony

Creates A Tangled Tale

Conflicting Stories Emerge About Night

When John Heller Died In Oneonta Fire

Accused of arson and murder, Gabriel Truitt is flanked by members of the Otsego County Public Defender’s Office in Courtroom #1 at the county courthouse in Cooperstown.  At right is attorney David Taylor. (Libby Cudmore/

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to

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.

DAY ONE: Accelerant Was Isopropyl Alcohol, Witness Testifies

Gabriel Truitt Trial

Accelerant Isopropyl Alcohol,

Expert Arson Witness Testifies


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.

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