What to Know
- Kenneth Troy Heller was charged Wednesday and plans to plead guilty to the Oct. 24, 2020 killing of Jason Kutt.
- Kutt, 18, was watching the sunset with his girlfriend in Nockamixon State Park when he was shot in the back of the neck.
- Kutt's parents told NBC10 Wednesday that they want rules to change, so that hunters and the rest of the public are not in parks at the same time.
A Warminster machinist and hunter turned himself in and intends to plead guilty to fatally shooting a teenager in a Bucks County park two months ago.
Kenneth Troy Heller, 52, appeared in court in Doylestown on charges that he killed Jason Kutt, 18, while hunting in Nockamixon State Park in October.
Kutt was watching the sunset with his girlfriend near the shore of Lake Nockamixon when Heller fired the shot, prosecutors say. Two days later, Kutt died from his wound at a Bethlehem hospital.
Kutt's girlfriend told investigators that she saw a man in a hunting vest around that time, and the description of the hunter was circulated in media reports. But his identity was not publicly known after the shooting.
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Heller was the man in the vest, Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub said Wednesday.
Hunting was permitted in the park, which is also open to the public. And state parks have seen extra traffic this year with more people cooped up at home, learning and working virtually.
Kutt's parents told NBC10's Steven Fisher they want the rules to change, so hunters cannot be in the park at the same time as the rest of the public.
"I'm an avid hunter myself, but some changes need to take place," Kutt's father Ron said.
Weintraub said based on what he knows about the case, Heller mistakenly believed he was shooting at prey. The DA called the case was an avoidable tragedy.
"He had so many goals and aspirations and you know, he's not here," Dana Kutt said of her son. "But today brought a little bit of closure."
Heller is charged with criminal homicide, possession of an instrument of crime (a hunting rifle), possession of a prohibited offensive weapon (a knife with brass knuckles found during a search), violating a state hunting law against causing harm to others, and failing to render aid to a person injured by a hunter.
He waived his right to a preliminary hearing, and Judge Gary Gambardella read him the charges on a video call Wednesday morning. Heller agreed to be held without bail, and was sent to the Bucks County Correctional Facility.
He has a formal arraignment in April and the plea deal could be finalized in months, not years, Weintraub said.
Weintraub said his office worked with the Kutt family before coming to the tentative plea agreement with Heller.
"Jason’s family gets to know exactly what happened to him. They will not like it, but they can have some finality in the knowledge of what happened to Jason," Weintraub said.
But the plea agreement helps the family avoid potentially years of following Heller's case in court. They can "get back to celebrating his life, which is what is most important," Weintraub said.
"They understand what it means to celebrate somebody’s life and not to wallow and languish in what happened to him and how he died, any longer than you need to."
Criminal homicide is not a specific charge - it's a category that includes many charges like first-degree murder and other less severe deadly offenses. Later in the court process, the DA's office will have to set the specific homicide charge they seek.
Weintraub said if the plea agreement proceeds as expected, prosecutors will set the criminal homicide charge as involuntary manslaughter, and Heller will plead guilty to all the charges.
Heller is expected to make an open plea, where a judge weighs the circumstances and facts before determining the sentence. Weintraub said the sentence could be 10 to 20 years.
"Clearly this isn’t a perfect ending. Perfect would mean we have Jason back, and that’s just not how real life works," Weintraub said. "That’s not how criminal justice works. So this isn’t even really a happy ending. But it is a fair and a just and a final ending.”
According to the criminal complaint in the case, Heller worked as a machinist in Montgomery County. One of his co-workers spoke anonymously to detectives, telling them Heller had not showed up for work the Monday morning after the shooting, Oct. 26, and looked “shook up” when he came back to work on Oct. 27, according to the complaint.
The tipster said Heller gave guns, ammo and hunting gear to other co-workers around that time, which detectives later confirmed with other co-workers.
Detectives found a .17 caliber Hornady shell casing at the scene before they had identified Heller as a suspect. When they searched his Chevrolet Blazer on Dec. 10, they found a small caliber Hornady shell casing in the vehicle’s console.
A search of Heller's home that day turned up some .17 caliber Hornady ammo, an orange hunting vest with a Nockamixon brochure in its pocket, and the dagger/metal knuckles combo weapon.
Hunters have a duty to render aid to anyone they injure while hunting, but the charges say Heller failed to meet that responsibility.
"He made an awful, awful mistake. He had a high duty of care as a hunter, as all hunters do, especially in an area where you know that the public is free to roam and does, in Nockamixon State Park," Weintraub said. "Whether those rules are sensible that’s not for me to say, but they are the rules."
The DA said Kutt's death was "an avoidable, tragic situation."
"It was the worst confluence of events, where two people are in a public park enjoying a sunset, with their whole life in front of them," Weintraub added. "And you have a third person who’s just enjoying the hobby that he loves very much, a hunter, and he makes a tragic error in judgement, and with the worst possible consequences."
Recent high school grad
Kutt, 18, of Sellersville, had recently graduated from Pennridge High School. He enjoyed video games, playing guitar, and going for nature walks where he would take photos, according to his family.
Weintraub said the Kutt family is working on other plans to celebrate Jason's life, and that can be their main focus as they avoid a long and drawn-out court process.