Four Payette students suspected in felony arson of principal’s house

The aftermath of the fire.
The aftermath of the fire.

Four students in Payette are in a whole lot of hot water.

Payette Police Chief Mark Clark said investigators believe the four boys — three high-schoolers and one middle-school student, all younger than 18 — torched the high school principal’s house a week ago and stole items after breaking into cars. They face felony charges, Clark said.

The chief said Tuesday he’d asked for a judge to issue a warrant for the boys’ arrest. Those warrants were issued Wednesday, and three of the four boys were in custody by the end of the day.

A fire consumed the home of Principal Mark Heleker in the early morning hours of Monday, Feb. 22. Heleker; his wife, Lorrie, a teacher; and their daughter, Katie Erwin, 24, escaped with their lives, pets and a few personal mementos.

The house and three cars in the driveway were destroyed by the fire, which was quickly deemed suspicious. Fire Chief Steve Castaneda said the fire started in a plastic trash can in the driveway in front of the house.

Heleker’s son made him aware of some comments about the fire made on social media by students, and he notified fire officials. Casteneda said he turned that information over to police.

“There was talk swirling around, and that kind of created a path to follow,” Heleker said.

There are 430 students at Payette High School, part of a community of 7,500 people about 60 miles northwest of Boise. Heleker, who has been an administrator in the district for 22 years and is a former mayor, said he knows the three high-schoolers but does not know the middle-school student.

Police Chief Clark said investigators believe the suspects set the fire in retaliation for being disciplined.

“It appears to be some retaliation against the principal for a couple of them being suspended for the week prior,” Clark said.

Investigators followed a trail on and off social media. Clark said one student message posted on Snapchat that drew attention had an emoji fire icon and some bragging statements.

“That’s where we started,” he said of the social media. “Then we were receiving information from other students about particular students bragging about the fire.”

The Helekers are now living in a hotel in Ontario and driving vehicles loaned to them by family and friends. Among other things, they’re looking for a house to rent. They are heartsick at losing the house where they raised their five children and plan to rebuild on the same site.

They’ve been humbled by the kindness and support of their community.

Katie Heleker, who is working while studying to be a nurse, had been staying temporarily with her folks. She noticed the fire when she was out walking the dog after work. Her father said she had the presence of mind to collect all of her beloved pets — a dog, lizard, snake and fish (she grabbed the bowl) — after waking her folks.

Mark Heleker said the fire moved fast but firefighters did accompany them back into the house briefly to grab a few items, including some photo albums. Then, all they could do was watch it burn.

“It is the most helpless feeling,” Mark Heleker said. “It’s like something you see in a movie that you don’t think will ever happen to you.”

Payette High School students created a GoFundMe account for the Heleker family with a goal of raising $2,000. About $950 had been raised as of Tuesday afternoon. That day, the students also signed and delivered a huge card to their principal. He was touched.

“They’ve been phenomenal,” Heleker said.

Hekeler is perhaps best known as a local educator and community leader, but he’s also a tennis pro who coaches the men’s and women’s team at Treasure Valley Community College. He previously coached at Northwest Nazarene University.

He’s been a Green Bay Packers fan since he was 4 years old, and he lost a large collection of memorabilia in the fire. The Packers lanyard that he wore to work after the fire was so smoky that it stunk up the office. It inspired his assistant principal, Jason Dransfield, to contact the Packers for some new gear.

“I didn’t know that happened,” Heleker said. “A box arrived with all kinds of autographed memorabilia.”

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller

The Statesman’s Erin Fenner contributed.