Profusely apologizing for his actions, a Bucks County hunter was sentenced to seven to 20 years in state prison Wednesday after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the accidental shooting death of a teenager at Nockamixon State Park last fall.
Kenneth Heller, 52, of Warminster, told Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey L. Finley he thought he was aiming his .17-caliber rifle at a groundhog on Oct. 24. Days later, after District Attorney Matthew Weintraub held a news conference asking the public for information about the case, Heller learned he had killed Jason Kutt, 18, who was taking in an early fall sunset with his girlfriend on a bank of Lake Nockamixon.
“I would rather it was me that died that day than Jason,” Heller said in the courtroom, addressing more than 30 of Kutt’s friends, relatives, and supporters in attendance. “I can’t wake up from this nightmare, and I don’t think I ever will.”
Finley said he did not doubt that Heller was remorseful. But he admonished the longtime hunter, saying he seemingly was thinking more about himself than the grieving family after word of Kutt’s death spread.
“Not only did you know what you had done, you knew the trauma you inflicted on this family, and you knew the community was in fear of a murderer running amok in Nockamixon Park,” Finley said. “Your panic turned into selfishness and self-preservation.”
Investigators searched for Kutt’s killer for 60 days, pursuing the leads that were available at the sparse crime scene. Finally, an anonymous caller told authorities Keller’s vehicle had been parked at Nockamixon State Park on the day of the shooting. Subsequent interviews with Heller’s coworkers revealed he hadn’t shown up for work the Monday after the shooting and had begun to give away rifles, ammunition, and other hunting gear.
When detectives served a search warrant on his home, they found the gun that killed Kutt. Heller, in conversations with detectives played during Wednesday’s hearing, said he had been planning to turn himself in but had begun to procrastinate, wishing for “one more day” with his family.
Kutt’s parents, awash in grief and anger, told the judge how badly they sought one more day with their son.
“There is a huge hole in our hearts that will never heal,” said Ron Kutt, Jason’s father. “When you lose someone, your only son, in such a heinous way, you know you will never heal from it.”
In the months since their son’s death, Kutt and his wife, Dana, have become advocates for stronger hunting regulations in Pennsylvania’s state parks. They’ve also raised money in Jason’s name, forming a grant program at his alma mater, Upper Bucks Technical School.
Perhaps the most direct impact they’ve had was installing an elevated bench — handmade by Ron Kutt — at the site of the shooting, a safe seating area they believe will prevent further tragic accidents by hunters.
But the couple made clear that the impact of their son’s death will reverberate throughout the rest of their lives. They spoke of sleepless nights, of “hundreds of tears shed,” and of meetings with counselors specializing in violent trauma and PTSD.
“Jason’s death made me vulnerable and scared to face my life without him,” Dana Kutt said. “Almost every plan I’ve ever made has been with the notion that my kids would be a part of it.”