Ernest and Heather Franklin weren’t home when a massive fire tore through their home in rural, upstate New York at about 1:15 a.m. on March 1.
Their 16-year-old adopted son, Jeffrey, wasn’t so lucky: Firefighters who arrived at the family’s Guilford home when it was fully engulfed in flames later found his body among the charred ruins.
“He was a great kid,” friend and neighbor Brenda Welsh tells PEOPLE. “It’s so tragic.”
Even more devastating were the disturbing allegations that emerged in the weeks following the tragic death of the developmentally disabled boy, who was deaf and unable to speak. After autopsy results revealed Jeffrey died before the fire, his parents were arrested and charged with arson and second-degree murder in connection with his death.
“People are asking themselves, ‘How could this happen?’ ” Chenango County Sheriff Ernie Cutting Jr. tells PEOPLE.
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Friends and family were further shaken when the Chenango County District Attorney Joseph McBride accused the Franklins of covering up the boy’s killing by setting fire to their house after watching the 2016 movie Manchester by the Sea, depicting a character who is not criminally charged after his children die in an accidental fire.
WATCH: Parents Alleged to Have Murdered Son Inspired by Manchester By the Sea Film
“The main character in that movie kills his children by an accidental fire and is told in the movie that you can’t be prosecuted for accidentally killing your children,” McBride said at an April 7 bond hearing. Hours after the Franklins allegedly watched the movie, he said, “Jeffrey’s deceased.”
While Ernest remains in the Chenango County Correctional Facility, Heather was released on bail and is living with friends, according to court records.
Both suspects have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
While McBride maintains that he has a strong case against the couple, Heather’s lawyer, Michael Trosset, says the evidence against his client is “circumstantial.”
Ernest’s lawyer, public defender Zachary T. Wentworth, adds, “It is important that the public realizes that the theory being advanced by the DA is just that, a theory. One meant to sway the public opinion on this case long before Mr. or Mrs. Franklin are provided a fair trial.”