Editor's note: This story first published on Dec. 28, 2017.
Dec. 28, 2015 was cold and snowy. Hamilton firefighters responded to house fire about 1:10 a.m. at 1310 Pater Ave. and rushed in to rescue the residents they believed were inside.
But the arson fire had already burned from the basement, weakening the flooring above. Firefighter Patrick Wolterman fell through and died.
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Those older residents, Lester and Bertha Parker, weren’t trapped. They were gambling in Las Vegas. The man Lester Parker convinced to set the fire, his nephew William Tucker, was moving from hotel to hotel in Hamilton trying to sell pills he received in payment for the job.
Two years later, there is some closure. Lester Parker and William Tucker are both in prison after convictions for aggravated arson and murder following a November trial in Butler County Common Pleas Court.
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As the first anniversary of the young firefighter’s death approached last year, a Butler County grand jury returned indictments against Parker. Just three weeks later, Tucker was indicted. The investigation was lengthy and quiet, with little information released other than the fact that the fire was arson.
The Parkers moved into a house just a few doors down from the burned-out structure, and reward signs with Wolterman’s photo hung front and center. Tucker had returned to his hometown of Richmond, Ky. But Lester Parker spent all of 2017 in jail awaiting trial.
Wolterman was 28 when he died of smoke inhalation, according to the Butler County Coroner’s Office. He had been married to his wife, Bre, for just seven months. He was hired as a Hamilton paramedic/firefighter in April 2015 and previously worked part-time for the Fairfield Twp. Fire Department.
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The outpouring from the community was immediate, with thousands lining the streets for his funeral processional and attending a memorial service on the last day of 2015 at Princeton Pike Church of God.
“Our city is in mourning with the loss of one of our heroes,” Hamilton Safety Director J. Scott Scrimizzi said just hours after Wolterman’s death. “This is an extremely stressful time on our firefighters.”
During court hearings and the trial, firefighters in dress uniforms manned the courtroom. Wolterman’s large family and his widow also attended like clockwork, but politely declined comment.
It wasn’t until sentencing that much of the emotion bubbled up.
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Bre Wolterman told the judge she was 31 when firefighters knocked on her door and told her her husband Patrick had fallen through the floor. They couldn’t tell her if he would live.
“We had been married not even seven months,” she told Judge Greg Stephens. “These two men robbed me of my whole future. They not only took my husband from me, they took my life away. We didn’t even have children, they took that away. I ask you to impose the maximum sentence on them.”
Patrick Wolterman’s mother, Debbie, addressed the judge before sentencing.
“I wish I could ask for leniency; I can’t,” Debbie Wolterman said. “While we were planning a funeral, they were gambling in Las Vegas. They have shown no remorse. It think the only thing they are sorry about is that they got caught.”
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In a case strung together with social media messages and testimony from former girlfriends of Tucker and the Parkers’ two daughters, the prosecution said Lester Parker was underwater financially in 2015 and hatched a plan to have house burned down for insurance money while he was on an anniversary trip. He conspired with Tucker to do the deed in exchange for pain pills.
Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser said Wolterman lost his life for a few “lousy, miserable pills by a couple drug dealers and for gain.”
“This was never a case where the state of Ohio suggested there be payback or vengeance for Patrick Wolterman,” Gmoser said, referring to an argument made earlier by a defense attorney. “He is indeed an American hero. He went into that house with the full understanding in his mind that he was was going to save a life — or lives — of occupants. Unknown to him, they were in Las Vegas.”
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In an unusual move, both Parker and Tucker took the stand testifying in their own defense. Both denied involvement in the fire.
Tucker testified he came to Hamilton on the night of Dec. 27, 2015, to meet up with his cousin Melissa Lainhart-Jones, Parker’s daughter, to buy some pills. He said he did not go to the Pater Avenue home.
The jury did not believe either story.
Appeals have been filed for both men. They are currently in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction reception center in Orient, Ohio before placement in a prison to serve their sentences of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 15 years.
Scrimizzi said the city is working with the insurance company to tear down the 1310 Pater “within the next few weeks if not sooner,” which will be another step in this story that has strongly impacted the community.