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.”
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.
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 – For two minutes, District Attorney John Muehl stood in complete silence.
“Gabriel Truitt is at 5 Walling Avenue for two minutes,” he told the jury. “You may think that’s not much time, but you can get a lot done in two minutes, especially if you’ve planned to.”
Muehl, along with Public Defender Michael Trosset, made their closing statements this afternoon in the case of Gabriel Truitt, who is charged with arson and murder in the death of former firefighter John Heller.
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 – Gabriel Truitt’s defense lawyers this afternoon declared they hadn’t been provided a videotape of his brother Terrence speaking with OPD officers in February 2018 brought the fatal-arson trial to a temporary standstill this afternoon.
Terrence also told the court the testimony he would give would be at odds with the statements he gave to grand jury and police, further muddying the waters. “He had a sworn affidavit saying he lied,” said District Attorney John Muehl.
County Judge Brian Burns advised the brother he may have already committed perjury and that he did have the right to remain silent, as well as a chance to get a lawyer.
COOPERSTOWN – When Heather Engler woke up on Dec. 28 after staying with a friend on Rose Avenue, she had two missed calls and a message from her stepmother.
“She texted me to say that Gabriel (Truitt) had messaged her to say my house was on fire,” Engler testified. “I got up and ran to my apartment, and the fire trucks were already there.”
In the third day of testimony, Engler, who had previously been in a “rocky” romantic relationship with Truitt, testified that although she had plans with him that night, he didn’t respond to text messages, and she went out with another friend, who she identified as “Niko.”
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)
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,
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.”
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.”
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 www.facebook.com/CooperstownLionsClub/