By Cynthia Sanz
September 07, 1998 12:00 PM

Shortly after 6 p.m. on April 18, 1995, wailing sirens shattered the weekday evening calm in tiny, rural Redding, Conn., urgently summoning volunteer firefighters. Just home from work, design engineer David Auerbach and his wife, Janet, clicked on the scanner in their home to learn the fire’s location. What they heard nearly stopped their hearts: The blaze was at 166 Portland Ave., where their son, Scott, 21, and his friends David Froehlich, 22, and Jason Trusewicz, 21, lived in a studio apartment.

Rushing to the scene, the couple found the house engulfed in flames and Scott lying bloodied and barely alive on the ground outside. “He was still breathing, his heart was beating,” recalls David. “We stayed with him, holding his hand.”

Both Auerbachs guessed immediately that the fire stemmed from the rapidly escalating three-week-old dispute between the young men and their landlord, Geoffrey Ferguson, a self-employed handyman. “We thought they were being burned out,” says Janet. “We thought Scott had been beaten.”

In fact, Scott, who died while on the way to the hospital, had been shot twice in the head with a 22-caliber handgun. Inside the burned-out apartment, firefighters found the bodies of Froehlich and Trusewicz, along with those of their friends David Gartrell, 25, and Sean Hiltunen, 21. They too had been shot in the head. “Everyone was in shock,” says fire chief Mike Heibeck. Indeed, the murders were a community tragedy for the town of 8,095, where almost everyone knew at least one, if not all, of the victims. “Obviously, it was worse for the five families, but the whole town really loved these kids,” says David Auerbach.

And now, finally, the families and the townspeople have obtained a measure of justice. In April, a superior court jury convicted Ferguson, now 48, on five counts of murder, two of capital felony and two of arson. In June the stone-faced defendant was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. “The whole town breathed a sigh of relief,” says Redding police officer Bette Briggs. “Not that anyone will ever forget it, but once he got convicted, we were able to say, ‘We can move on.’ ”

Had Scott Auerbach and David Froehlich been a bit more experienced—or simply more cautious—they might have realized getting involved with Ferguson could mean serious trouble. A native of nearby Westport, his problems with the law dated back to the 1960s, and his vicious temper was well-known. In 1981, at age 31, he received a suspended six-month jail sentence for striking a 12-year-old boy who had thrown a water balloon at his van. After buying the modest, two-story Redding house in 1981, he terrorized tenants, even after moving in December 1993 to Powells Point, N.C., where he lived with his wife, Kerie, and daughter Michelle. Former tenants testified that Ferguson had threatened their lives when they were late with the rent. “He said…he’d blow my head off with a shotgun,” college student Troy Harvey, 27, testified at the trial. (He FedExed the check the next day.)

When Auerbach finalized the rental agreement for the one-room apartment in September 1994, Ferguson warned him, “If you’re late with the rent, if you do anything to my property, I’ll come up here armed and I’ll move you out of here,” a friend, Douglas Gleason, who overheard the threat, testified at the trial.

But, for Auerbach and Froehlich, the thrill of finally being on their own apparently overcame any second thoughts. Although the studio was cramped—they slept on beds in two oversized closets—it soon became a hub of activity, with frequent visits from Gartrell, Hiltunen and Trusewicz, who moved in that March.

The boys’ willingness to share such close quarters didn’t surprise their families. In the past year they had become close friends; all but Gartrell, who worked for a landscaper in nearby Ridgefield, had landed jobs with the same telemarketing firm in Stamford. “These kids formed a bond because they didn’t go on to college,” says Janet Auerbach.

Although they sometimes had problems making the $550 rent, real trouble didn’t begin until March 27, when Ferguson called from North Carolina to tell them their check for that month had bounced. He demanded the friends move out within 24 hours. Two days later they returned home from work to find the apartment door boarded up. The thermostat, sink and toilet had been removed and their belongings—minus about $9,000 worth of stereos, tools and a VCR—piled on the back porch. “They were mad,” recalls police officer Briggs. “They said, ‘This is our home. He’s not going to get us out.’ ”

They moved their remaining possessions back into the apartment. A warrant was filed for Ferguson’s arrest, charging him with larceny and criminal lockout. (He later pleaded guilty.) They also filed suit in small claims court for theft and damage to their property. (The case was never resolved.) They reported to town authorities that Ferguson had broken local zoning, building, health and fire regulations, including carving the single-family house into three apartments. “The irony is that we were proud of how he handled things,” David Auerbach says of his son. “Rather than some macho thing, he went through legal routes to challenge Ferguson, and that’s probably what got him killed.”

Concerned about the spiraling feud, Sean’s mother, Gabrielle Hiltunen, asked her son to be careful when he visited the apartment. “He wanted to help his friends put the place back together,” she says. Jason told his mother, JoAnn, he slept with a baseball bat beside his bed because he was wary of Ferguson. “Don’t worry, Mom, there’s three of us,” she recalls him saying. “We can handle him.”

But no one knew how far Ferguson would go. On the afternoon of April 17, Ferguson rented a beige Ford Tempo. He then drove nearly 500 miles from Powells Point to Redding. At about 4 p.m. a tenant spotted him entering the Portland Avenue house. He and other neighbors soon heard shots. No one could have imagined the horror that was taking place in the second-floor apartment: Froehlich, who had taken the day off from work, and Gartrell, who was visiting, were apparently shot almost immediately. When Auerbach arrived home with Hiltunen and Trusewicz just before 6 p.m., Ferguson shot each of them as well. He then set fire to the house, apparently hoping to destroy evidence of the murders.

As often happens with tragedy, the five friends’ deaths have drawn the families closer together. They exchange phone calls and cards on holidays and the anniversary of their sons’ deaths. “The [other families] mean a lot to me,” says Trusewicz. “I just wish we’d met under different circumstances.”

Welcome as the jury’s verdict was to the families, it could do little to ease their pain. “It’s an open wound that will never heal,” says Jeff Gartrell, David’s father. Janet Auerbach agrees. “We won but we didn’t really win,” she says. “Those kids are gone forever.”

Cynthia Sanz

Maria Eftimiades and Jennifer Longley in Redding