When Ernest and Heather Franklin’s home burned down on in March and the body of their developmentally disabled son was found in the charred rubble, their neighbor came to their aid.
“Being a good neighbor, I started a GoFundMe account for them and we raised just under $12,000,” Dominick Gildersleeve tells PEOPLE.
He also took care of the goats, chickens and other animals the couple housed on their property.
“They couldn’t handle being there,” he says.
But while the community rallied around Ernest, 35, and Heather, 33, who was about 23 weeks pregnant with their first biological child, Chenango County Sheriff’s deputies were quietly investigating the couple and their relationship with their late 16-year-old son Jeffrey.
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
Autopsy results, Gildersleeve soon learned, revealed that Jeffrey had died before the fire.
On March 22, the Franklins were arrested for arson and second-degree murder in the death of Jeffrey, who was deaf and unable to speak. Two days later, they were indicted on charges of arson and second-degree murder in connection with his death. They both have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
• For more on Jeffrey’s mysterious death, subscribe now to PEOPLEor pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.
While Heather’s lawyer has called the case “circumstantial,” Chenango County District Attorney Joseph McBride alleges that the Franklins murdered their son after watching the 2016 Oscar-winning film, Manchester by the Sea, which depicts a character who is not criminally charged after his children die in an accidental fire.
When Gildersleeve and others who know the Franklins well found out they were accused of murdering the quiet boy they adopted at 11, they didn’t know what to think, he says.
“We’re all just really stunned,” he says. “It’s surreal.”
“It’s completely and utterly surreal to me that this I am watching this unfold. We’re living a Forensic Files episode.”
Like others who know the Franklins, Gildersleeve says he thought they were loving parents to the boy they called JR.
“JR had a lot of emotional problems,” he says. “He had a lot of issues. Heather was firm with him because of his needs and whatnot. But there was never any indication of ever harming him.”
Brenda Welsh, another friend of the Franklins, agrees with Gildersleeve. “They were good parents,” she says. “They are decent people. But I don’t know what to make of what happened.
“A lot of it doesn’t add up,” she says. “That’s what puzzles me.”
Adds Gildersleeve: “Everybody is innocent until proven guilty. I pray to God that they are innocent.”
While Ernest remains in the Chenango County Correctional Facility, Heather was released on bail and is living with friends, according to court records.
Heather’s lawyer, Michael Trosset, says his client is “innocent until proven guilty” and that McBride’s allegation about Manchester by the Sea “is a leap,” according to court records.
Ernest’s lawyer, public defender Zachary T. Wentworth, tells PEOPLE, “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.”