On a recent warm spring afternoon on the banks of Lake Nockamixon, Ron Kutt sat on a bench he built with his own hands, not far from where his son Jason was killed.
In October, Jason Kutt, 18 and a recent high school graduate, was enjoying a moment of tranquility with his girlfriend at one of their favorite spots, an overlook of the lake in Upper Bucks County. Without warning, a hunter fired a .17-caliber rifle at him, striking him once in the head. He lost consciousness and died two days later in a hospital room.
Kenneth Heller told investigators that from a distance, he thought the figure on the horizon at the water’s leafy edge was a small game animal. Next month, he’s expected to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
While Kutt’s parents await the trial, they are dedicated to keeping their son’s memory alive and advocating for clearer rules about hunting within state parks, so that no one else dies in a tragic accident like the one that took their son’s life.
“He was going to go into the Air Force after the holidays,” said Ron Kutt, wearing his son’s crucifix necklace around his neck. “Things like that, the things he’ll never do, that’s what hurts the most and makes you say, ‘This really sucks.’”
The lifelong welder’s voice thickened as he spoke those last three words. His wife, Dana, draped her arm around him.
“At this point, we know the DA has done an excellent job building the case,” she said. “It’s in the judge’s hands, and we hope the judge will see the huge impact this had on the community.”
The Kutts have submitted 30 victim-impact letters to the District Attorney’s Office. It’s just a small sampling, they said, of the people devastated by their son’s death.
They want it to be a catalyst for change. His death was “completely preventable,” said Ron Kutt, a longtime hunter who was four hours away on a hunting trip in Bradford County the day his son was shot.
“By all means, we’re all hunters, and I’m not looking to take anyone’s rights away,” he said. “But there has to be a safety point. It’s not rocket science.”
The couple lamented inconsistent rules throughout Pennsylvania’s state parks. Some don’t allow hunting at all. Others do, but warn the public and make access to the park exclusive to those pursuing game.
At Nockamixon State Park, where Heller, 52, traveled from his home in Warminster, most of the 3,500 acres are open to hunters during posted hunting seasons.
Heller’s attorney, Sara Webster, did not return a request for comment for this story.
That lack of uniformity is what led the Kutts to build the bench. It serves two purposes, they said: It keeps their son’s memory alive, and it also increases the visibility of park visitors, making fatal mistakes less likely.
And the bench itself is Jason, through and through: Its color, green, was chosen for his girlfriend Erin. His name and dates of birth and death are in the center, surrounded by wings and the neck of a guitar, his favorite instrument.
The Kutts dedicated the bench in a ceremony last month, drawing dozens of people, including a group of fishermen who organized a boat parade. They played “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica, one of Kutt’s favorite songs, over their loudspeakers in tribute.
The family was touched by the outpouring of love and support and is striving to return it. They set up a foundation in Kutt’s name that has given grants to Upper Bucks Technical School, his alma mater, and organized three community blood drives. One of the teen’s prized guitars was donated to his former tutor to lend to students who can’t afford instruments of their own.
A video of an 11-year-old girl picking through the basic chords brought tears to their eyes, Dana Kutt said.
“We’re trying to let him live through this,” she said. “That’s how he lived his life. He believed in helping people.”