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.

Video surveillance captured throughout the city, including the now-defunct Friendly’s next door to 5 Walling Ave., appears to show Gabriel near the scene in the moments prior to the fire.

“We don’t have the fire on video, but we have the time leading up to it,” said Brenner.

The fire was set in front of Engler’s second-floor door, but a draft spirited the flames to the third-floor apartment, where Heller lived with his fiancée, Amber Roe.

The couple, set to be married in October, were hosting Heller’s four nephews, Donovan, 9, Maddox, 7, Macall, 5 and Rawley, 2, at a sleepover. Heller got Amber and the boys to safety out a window and onto the fire escape, but died of carbon-monoxide poisoning from smoke inhalation before he could escape.

Terrence, who was listed as the manager at Gabriel’s Tru Cuts barbershop on Ford Avenue, was arrested on Monday, Dec. 31, and charged with Arson in the first degree.

But after five weeks in jail, Terrence was willing to talk.

“He told us that his brother set the fire,” said Muehl. “And when he gave his statement, it made sense. He had soot on his arms because he went into the building after his brother had set the fire.”

But while his brother took the fall, Gabriel allegedly took his family, including his children, and fled the city.

Previously, Gabriel was arrested in what Brenner classified as a “domestic incident” in 2017.

According to Muehl, the arson charges against Terrence will likely be dropped, and he does not anticipate filing additional charges against him.

“I don’t know his motive for not cooperating in the first place,” he said.

In addition to the felony charges, Gabriel is also wanted on a bench warrant in the Town of Laurens court.

According to Trooper Aga Dembinska, Troop C Public Information Officer, Truitt allegedly struck a man with his Mercedes SUV on Dec. 15 2018. According to the complaint, Gabriel and a passenger, Tyrone Williams, came to a residence in Oneida Village, a mobile-home park in Oneonta, and attempted to take some items. After a physical altercation, the victim tried to run, but Gabriel allegedly hit him with the car and fled the scene.

He is charged in that case with a third-degree charge of assault, a third-degree charge of reckless endangerment and with leaving the scene of an accident.

“Arson cases are difficult to prove,” said Brenner. “They require a lot of footwork and lab work, they involve other agencies, including New York State Fire Investigators.”

But as the lab results started to come in, it became clear there was another suspect in the mix.

“When we built the case against Terrence, we felt there were holes,” said Brenner. “The lab work pointed more towards Gabriel.”


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