COOPERSTOWN — Expert witnesses testified Thursday on the first day of the criminal trial for arson suspect Gabriel Truitt that the fatal fire on Walling Avenue in Oneonta on Dec. 29, 2018, was intentionally set.
Former Oneonta firefighter John Heller, who lived on the third floor of 5 Walling Ave., died while rescuing his four nephews and his fiancee, Amber Roe. Heller was the fire's only casualty.
After an investigation, Truitt was charged in April 2019 with first-degree arson, first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder.
Truitt's ex-girlfriend, Heather Engler, lived in Apartment C on the building's second floor and investigators determined the fire's origin to be near the entrance of her apartment.
William Haynes, an origin and cause investigator with Utica-based Sotera Investigative Group, testified that the fire was incendiary, meaning someone started it.
He said he took three samples Jan. 2, 2019. The first was taken 15 feet from the door outside of Apartment C and the second and third were taken from just outside and inside Apartment C.
These samples were sent to Analytical Forensic Associates, a Georgia-based laboratory specializing in forensic analysis of fire evidence. Principal and Laboratory Director Laurel Mason testified she received the samples Jan. 8, 2019, and found no evidence of tampering. Testing revealed Sample 1 was negative for ignitable fluids while Samples 2 and 3 were found to contain isopropyl alcohol, a flammable liquid, she said.
Truitt’s attorney, Michael Trosset of Fly Creek, asked if Mason could identify the exact date the isopropyl alcohol got into the samples, to which Mason replied she could not.
Office of Fire Prevention and Control Officer Andrew Pohl, of the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, said the doorway to Apartment C was heavily charred and that it looked like an ignitable liquid had been poured in that area. The liquid went under the doorway into the apartment, he said.
Pohl said his investigation eliminated accidental causes from things like cooking, heating and welding appliances.
"We determined it to be an intentionally set fire," Pohl said. "It's consistent with an ignitable liquid being used. There were no accidentals there."
A surveillance video shows Truitt pocketing two bottles of what Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl said was isopropyl alcohol from the barbershop the defendan formerly owned, Tru Cuts Barbershop on Ford Avenue, in the early morning hours of Dec. 29.
“Immediately, there’s no hesitation, none. You see the defendant walk into the back corner, walk over to a cabinet ... reach in and pull out two bottles, put them in his pocket and walk out the front door,” Muehl said, adding that footage from five minutes later shows Truitt walking past Center Street Deli with “a bulge from two bottles of isopropyl alcohol.”
Earlier in the night Truitt allegedly saw Engler with another man and a fight ensued, resulting in Truitt's arrest, Muehl said. Truitt was released later that night before the fire started, he said.
“Nobody does anything unless they have three things: the means, the opportunity and the motive,” Muehl said. “The evidence will show that he’s the only person, there’s not evidence of anybody else who had the means, the opportunity and motive to start this fire.”
Trosset asked the jury to consider the complexities of the case, noting that early on, the Oneonta Police Department mistakenly arrested Truitt’s brother, Terrence Truitt, and charged him with arson. Terrence, who was with Truitt the night of the fire, spent a month in jail before the charges against him were dropped.
Muehl in his opening statement said Terrence called 911 the night of the fire, something Muehl said arsonists don't usually do. Terrence also smelled of smoke and soot which arsonists generally don't "because they light the fire and go," Muehl said. A February 2019 review of regular security and surveillance footage around the city identified a new person of interest, and Terrence was released.
"Specifically, we intend to show you that there is actually no definitive proof that Mr. Truitt was in, at or involved with any activity at 5 Walling Avenue on December 29, 2018," Trosset said.
The trial resumes Friday, Jan. 24, at 9 a.m. at the Otsego County Courthouse.
Shweta Karikehalli, staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com or 607-441-7221. Follow her @DS_ShwetaK on Twitter.