News of Otsego County

Erika Heller

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.

In Memory of John Heller, 46 Families Receive Ladders, Extinguishers

In Memory of John,

46 Families Receive

Ladders, Extinguishers

Erika Heller, with son Rawley, shows off the 22 fire extinguishers and 26 emergency ladders the Valleyview Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization purchased with funds donated in memory of her brother-in-law, John Heller, the former fire fighter who died saving Rawley and his brothers Maddox, Donovan and Macall, as well as fiancee Amber Roe, from a fire in Dec. 2018. Over $1,500 was raised to purchase the fire safety equipment, meaning that every family who requested an item received one free of charge. The equipment was also tagged in Heller’s memory with a card, shown at right. “We lost John, but an important conversation was started,” said Heller. “Needs were identified, and thanks to so many generous donors, more families in Oneonta can be safe. It all began with Johnny’s sacrifice for our family and he would be proud to know that he is still helping to save lives.” Parents can pick up their requested items today and tomorrow after school.

‘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.”

Christmas Bulbs On Beards Recall Heller

Christmas Bulbs On Beards

Recall Heller’s Happy Life

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to

John Heller, with his decorated beard, at Christmas 2018.

Last Christmas, Mike and Erika Heller bought a set of “beard ornaments” for John, Mike’s brother.

“We thought they were hilarious,” said Erika. “He just started putting them on, and my kids” – Donovan, Maddox, Macall and Rawley – “were showing him where else on his beard he could hang them!”

They found those beard ornaments, boxed up with the rest of his Christmas gifts, at his Walling Ave. apartment where he died after getting those same four nephews, as well as his fiancée Amber Roe,
to safety.

Gabriel Truitt, whose trial starts Jan. 21, is charged with setting fire to the door of the apartment below, just four days after Christmas 2018.

“We put them in the memorial binder we made for him,” Erika said. “This year, mom Gayle had fake beards and beard ornaments for everyone to wear at Christmas. He wouldn’t have wanted everyone to be sitting around, bummed out. It was right up his alley.”

In the year since John’s death, the family and the community have rallied behind causes and communities John supported to keep his memory alive.

At Heller’s funeral, state Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, said he would be introducing a resolution bestowing the Liberty Medal, the upper house’s highest honor, on Heller. “The next week, he read the resolution on the floor, which makes it a permanent part of the state record.”

The family founded the John Heller Hero Award at Valleyview Elementary School, $250 given annually to a graduating fifth grader. “We held a spaghetti dinner and pie sale in March to raise money for it,” she said. “And we raised $6,000.”

The first award was given in May to Gabby Cashman, who saved a fellow student with the Heimlich maneuver.

Truitt was arrested in April, and that same week, Erika found out that Maddox, who had third-degree burns on his arm from the fire, would need surgery. “The burns were so deep they wouldn’t heal,” he said. “They had to do an excision, and he’ll have the scars forever. But he’s a trooper.”

But there was good news in April too, when Oneonta Job Corps, where Heller worked as a life skills superVisor, dedicated “The Octagon” – a third-floor hallway inter-change – in his memory, with
photos and a plaque. “He was an important part of their team,” said Erika. “At their awards dinner, so many of his students got up and talked about the impact he had on their lives. He brought out amazing things in them.”

Heller was buried in Charlotte Valley Cemetery in June. “We all wore our ‘Johnny Strong’ shirts,” T shirts made in his memory, she said. “It was a good gathering.”

And in November, Erika and Melanie Ferrara, a fourth-grade teacher at Valleyview, got fire safety equipment into homes that were lacking. “We raised enough money to buy every requested item,” she said. “25 each of safety ladders and fire extinguishers.”

The Hellers have also used that time to come together as a family. “John and Amber were adopting a puppy from Ohio when everything happened,” said Erika. “But they still brought him here, and we threw a ‘puppy shower’ for her.”

Gus, a bulldog mix, is a registered support dog. “Amber is the strongest person I have ever met,” she said. “And she’s still our family. John may be gone, but we’re keeping her.”

On Oct. 12, what would have been their wedding day, the family gathered with Amber at Rustic Ridge Winery, where the couple had planned their wedding. “The owners, Laura and Rick Bennett told her, ‘if you want to do something, we’ll still be your venue.’ So we all got together to celebrate what should have been.”

“He’s always on our minds,” she continued. “We’re focusing on the good things, but we’re always thinking of him and missing him.”

Heller Family Seeks Fire Extinguishers For Oneonta Families


Heller Family Seeks

Fire Extinguishers

For Oneonta Families

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to

John Heller’s sister Erika, right, and Melanie Ferrera are trying to extract good out of a tragedy. (Ian Austin/

ONEONTA – As the one year anniversary of former firefighter John Heller’s death approaches, his sister-in-law, Erika, is making sure he’ll continue to save lives.

“Fire safety is a conversation no one wants to have,” said Erika. “But John got that started, and we see this as a way of him continuing to help people.”

In Heller’s memory, Erika has partnered with Melanie Ferrara, a fourth grade teacher at Valleyview, to help families get the life-saving equipment they need in case of a fire.

“The Parent Teacher Organization usually does a raffle for a fire extinguisher or a ladder during Fire Safety Month in October,” she said. “We send kids home with a flier asking the parents if they want to enter and pick a few winners.”

But “dozens and dozens” of kids returned with filled-out forms, and Melanie realized that too many homes were without smoke detectors, emergency ladders and fire extinguishers.

“I surveyed just my class and asked if they had ever seen any of those things around their house, and so many said they hadn’t,” she said. “These are basic, life-saving pieces of equipment.”

Fire extinguishers are a vital piece of equipment that you would need to have access to should a fire break out in your living area. It’s even more important that you have a number of extinguishers present throughout your workplace too, especially if you work in a big building. Before buying any type of extinguisher, you should take the time to look at the different classes of fire extinguishers to ensure that you not only get the best one for your building but the best one to guarantee your survival. As Melanie has said above, these are life-saving pieces of equipment.

Heller, 38, got his four nephews Donovan, Maddox, Macall and Rawley, as well as his fiancée, Amber Roe, out the window and to safety before succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning in the Dec. 29 fire at their 5 Walling Ave. apartment.


In January, Gabriel Truitt, 33, will stand trial for the alleged arson and first degree murder.

“There were no smoke detectors in the apartment,” she said. “It was four minutes between when John woke them all up and when he died. You don’t realize how little time you have.”

She partnered with Erika and the PTO to begin a fundraising campaign, aimed $1,500 to fill a “wishlist” of items.

“We want everyone to have some form of fire safety equipment,” she said. “Being prepared takes a lot of the fear out of it, especially with kids.”

Last year, she said, she had a student who was scared he wouldn’t be able to get out of his second floor bedroom in case of a fire. “We got him a ladder and showed him how to use it,” said Melanie. “He felt much better after that.”

Erika and Melanie began reaching out to local business, including Fyr-Fyter, Munson’s, Lowes and Home Depot for donations, which they will give away at an assembly in November. “They felt like this was a really important thing,” said Erika. “And I think having it connected with John really made it hit home.”

They are also accepting individual donations. “You can send a check to the PTO or buy something and bring it by the school,” said Melanie.

In addition to the items they are giving away, they are encouraging all households to go to the American Red Cross website and request a visit, where they will install up to three smoke detectors free of charge.

“Even if you’re in a rental, it’s important to make sure everything is in working order,” said Erika.

Since Heller’s death, Erika has become an advocate for fire safety and good deeds, keeping her heroic brother-in-law’s memory alive with a scholarship to a graduating fifth grader at Valleyview.

In May, they gave the first award to Gabby Cashman, who saved a fellow student by giving the Heimlich maneuver when he was choking. “Now when she graduates high school, she’ll get $250. We raised $6,000 from the first fundraisers, so now every year, we’ll give that award.”

“I was thrown into this situation,” said Erika. “It’s easy to be mad and focus on the bad, but I need to put my energy into doing what John did – helping people.”

Words Like ‘Love, Courage, Loss’ Used To Recall Fallen Hero

Words Like ‘Love,

Courage, Loss’ Used

To Recall Fallen Hero

Family, Friends Reflect On John Heller,

As 350 Pack Funeral In Foothills Atrium

Erika and Michael Heller, right, hold close two of their four boys who John Heller – her brother-in-law; his brother – rescued from an arson last Saturday, losing his own life.  To their right is Amber Roe, John’s fiance. In the foreground, Heller’s pallbearers console each other after placing the casket in the hearse after today’s funeral in Foothills’ Atrium. (Jim Kevlin/

By JIM KEVLIN • Special to

Sister-in-law Erika Heller recalls John’s sacrifice under the watchful eye of Pastor Thistle.

ONEONTA – “You spent your last day on Earth saving others,” his sister-in-law, Erika Heller, declared this afternoon at John Heller’s funeral. “We are so proud.”

Erika, along with John’s fiance Amber Roe,  his Oneonta Job Corps colleague Kathleen Feeney, state Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, and the Rev. Judith Thistle, pastor of Worcester’s Second Baptist Church, addressed 350 mourners – reflective, often tearful – this afternoon in Foothills’ Atrium.

At calling hours at Bookhout Funeral Home last evening, the line was up to 2 1/2 hours long.

Today’s speakers painted an affectionate picture of a young man who had grown into a brave, loving, dedicated adult, full of humanity and humor.

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