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 – Gabriel Truitt, who was found guilty of the arson and murder of John Heller in December 2018, will be sentenced on Friday, July 17 as in-person court appearances resume at the Otsego County Courthouse.
“He’s facing life without parole and that’s what I’m going to ask for,” said District Attorney John Muehl. “He should be in jail from now on.”
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.
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.
District Attorney John Muehl, above, makes his opening remarks to the jury during the opening day of the People Vs. Gabriel Truitt, now underway at the Otsego County Courthouse in Cooperstown. Truitt, seen at right, is charged with arson in the first degree and murder in the first and second degree for his alleged involvement in the fire that claimed the life of John Heller at 5 Walling Ave. in Oneonta on Dec 29, 2018. Check back throughout the day for developments in this case. (Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.com)
ONEONTA – With a motion to suppress evidence rejected this morning, Gabriel Truitt, charged with the murder of John Heller after he allegedly lit his girlfriend’s Walling Avenue apartment on fire, will stand trial in Otsego County Court Jan. 20. 2020.
During a hearing this morning in front of county Court Judge Brian Burns, Truitt’s lawyer Dennis Laughlin submitted motions to suppress photos and video taken inside of Truitt’s Tru Cuts that allegedly showed him taking the chemicals allegedly used to start the fire at 5 Walling Ave.
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Hometown Oneonta & The Freeman’s Journal
ONEONTA – After 17 weeks on the run, Gabriel Truitt, 33, is in custody.
“Our detectives developed information that he was in the area and served a search warrant at 95 Main St.” – that gray, two-story apartment house right next to Oneonta Police headquarters, said Chief Doug Brenner.
There police found Truitt hiding in the basement of the building where his children and their mother live. He was taken into custody without incident.
Wednesday, April 17, an Otsego County Grand Jury indicted Gabriel on one count each of first-degree murder and first-degree arson, and two counts of second-degree murder for allegedly starting the Dec. 29 fire on Walling Avenue that killed John Heller, 38, a former city firefighter.
“Our theory is he intended to kill his ex-girlfriend,” said District Attorney John Muehl, “but instead he killed Mr. Heller.”
That he intended to commit a murder is transferrable, even though Heller was not the intended victim, the D.A. said.
On the night of the fire, city police arrested Gabriel for fighting with a man he saw out at a bar with his ex-girlfriend, Heather Engler. He was put in the city’s lockup, and released to his older brother Terrence, 34, considered a “sober party,” the standard procedure for a violation, according to Brenner.
ONEONTA – Less than a week since a grand jury indicted Gabriel Truitt, 33, on first-degree murder, one count of first-degree arson, and two counts of second-degree murder in the Dec. 29 death of John Heller, 38, Oneonta Police have arrested him at 95 Main St.
The two-story apartment house is right next door to the Public Safety Building, police headquarters.
ONEONTA – Police Chief Douglas Brenner said a few minutes ago his department is gathering information that will allow it to bring the U.S. Marshals Office into the search for Gabriel Truitt, the former proprietor of the Tru Cut barber shop being sought in the Dec. 29 fatal fire on Walling Avenue.
The step taken by an Otsego County Grand Jury, which issued an indictment against Truitt on Wednesday, facilitates getting the Marshals Office involved, the chief said. Previously, the OPD had been empowered only by a warrant to apprehend the suspect.
ONEONTA – Gabriel Truitt, the brother of the man originally arrested in the Dec. 29 fatal fire at 5 Walling Ave., has been indicted for first-degree murder and other counts, District Attorney John Muehl said a few minutes ago.
Truitt’s brother, Terrence, spent five weeks in Otsego County Jail, but was freed Feb. 11 when it became clear to authorities he had not committed the crime.
A grand jury yesterday returned four counts against Gabriel Truitt. In addition to first-degree murder, that included one count of first-degree arson, and two counts of second-degree murder.
“Our theory is he intended to kill his ex-girlfriend,” Muehl said, “but instead he killed Mr. Heller,” referring to John Heller, 38, who lived in the third-floor apartment. That he intended to commit a murder is transferrable, even though Heller was not the intended victim, he said.