News of Otsego County

Serving Otsego County, NY, through the combined reporting of Cooperstown's Freeman's Journal and the Hometown Oneonta newspapers.


John Heller

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.”

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.”


Duck Derby For The Leo Club


DUCK DERBY – 10 a.m. Help launch a flock of rubber duckies at the headwaters of the Susquehanna. Support Cooperstown Leo Club on day trip to the United Nations in NYC. Cost, $5/duck or $20/5-ducks at Otesaga, Mel’s @ 22, others. Finish line just South of Main St. Bridge, Cooperstown. 607-282-2956 or visit

Job Corps Honors Fallen Hero Heller

Job Corps Honors

Fallen Hero Heller

Chris Kuhn, Director of the Oneonta Job Corps Academy, addresses family, friends and firefighters gathered in ‘the octagon,’ a hallway interchange on the third floor of Oneonta Job Corps named in honor of the late John D. Heller, who lost his life in December rescuing his fiancee and their nephews from the Walling Street arson. “We love him and we miss him.” said Kuhn. “It is our hope that when people walk through this space they will see his story and be inspired.” Members of the Oneonta Fire Department were present, as well as Mayor Gary Herzig, who remarked “This intersection was always full of life, it is only fitting it should be named after him.” At right, Heller’s fianceé Amber Roe speaks beneath his photo. “This is where we met. We spent a lot of time here talking and it was here fell in love.” Photos and stories of Heller’s life and sacrifice, along with his helmet signed by loved ones, are now on display in the John D. Heller Memorial. (Ian Austin/

Job Corps Host Blood Drive To Honor John Heller

Job Corps Host Blood Drive

To Honor Fatal-Fire Victim

John D. Heller

ONEONTA – A community blood drive will be held in honor of John Heller, the former firefighter and Life Skill Supervisor who was killed in the Walling Street arson last December.

The community drive will be held 10 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 21 in the gym at the Oneonta Job Corps, 21 Homer Folks Ave, with the dedication of the John Heller memorial on the third floor octagon at 2 p.m.





He Was Visiting His Kids, Their Mom

Gabriel Truitt, 33, suspect in the Dec. 29 fatal arson at 5 Walling Ave., Oneonta, was captured in the basement of 91 Main St., a building right next door to OPD headquarters. (Ian Austin/

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.

Gabriel Truitt

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.

Assistant DA: We Have Truitt On Video

Assistant DA:

We Have Truitt On Video

Green: It Shows Suspect Carrying Accelerant

Gabrielle Truitt confers with his attorney Lee Kindlon after being denied bail by County Judge Brian D. Burns this morning in Otsego County Court. (Ian Austin/

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to

COOPERSTOWN – Video evidence shows accused arsonist Gabriel Truitt, 33, with the accelerant found in front of Heather Engler’s apartment door in the Walling Avenue fire that killed former Oneonta firefighter John Heller, Assistant District Attorney Will Green said during this morning’s arraignment in Otsego County Court.

“Video evidence shows the defendant with isopropyl alcohol going to and from the crime scene,” the prosecutor said.

Truitt Located In House Next To Police Department

Truitt In Basement

Of House Next Door

To OPD Headquarters

Suspect Spirited To Otsego County Jail

Accused arsonist Gabriel Truitt was found hiding the basement of 95 Main St., right next door to the city’s Public Safety building. (Ian Austin/

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to

Gabriel Truitt

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.

Chief: OPD Will Call In U.S. Marshals In Search For Arson Suspect Truitt

Chief: OPD Will Call In

U.S. Marshals In Search

For Arson Suspect Truitt

Chief Brenner

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.





Unnamed New Suspect Is Sought

In Hero’s Death In Oneonta Fire

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to

District Attorney John Muehl said that new evidence suggests that Terrence Truitt did not set the fire that killed firefighter John Heller, (Ian Austin/

ONEONTA – New evidence obtained by Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl has suggested that Terrence Truitt did not set the fatal fire that killed former Oneonta firefighter John D. Heller.

Muehl said that he plans to ask the courts to release Truitt from the Otsego County Jail this afternoon.

“Our investigation has revealed additional evidence that ethically requires him to be released,” said Muehl.

The arson charges, however, will not be dropped, according to Muehl.

Senate Resolution Gives Fallen Hero Liberty Medal

Senate Resolution Gives

Fallen Hero Liberty Medal

Senator Seward Introduces Resolution In Albany
John D. Heller

ALBANY  –  The state Senate today passed a resolution bestowing its Liberty Medal, the upper house’s highest honor, on John D. Heller, the former Oneonta firefighter who saved five lives before dying in a Dec. 29 arson at 5 Walling Ave.

State Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, who introduced the resolution, noted it is given for “meritorious action against hostile odds.  John Heller was that type of individual.  John displayed great courage in saving the lives of his fiancé and four young nephews, and he made the ultimate sacrifice.

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.

Truitt’s Felony Hearing Rescheduled For 1:30 p.m. In Oneonta City Court

Truitt Felony Hearing Scheduled

For 1:30 p.m. In Oneonta Court

ONEONTA – Terrence Truitt, 34, suspected in the arson death of former firefighter John Heller last Saturday in the 5 Walling Ave. fire, had his felony hearing rescheduled for 1:30 p.m. today.  He was brought to the city’s Public Safety Center at 8:30 this morning, but did not appear in the courtroom during the regular morning session.

Truitt In Court On Arson Charge

Truitt In Court

On Arson Charge

Terrence Truitt, 34, arrives at Oneonta City Court, where he is attending a felony hearing at this hour. According to the felony complaint, investigators believe he intentionally set a fire in the second-floor hallway of 5 Walling Ave. Saturday, Dec. 29. The fire killed former firefighter John Heller, 38, who lived on the third floor; Heller’s funeral is at 1 p.m. today at Foothills. (Libby Cudmore & Ian Austin/



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