An Orchard Park High School graduate and Boston native was killed early Monday after pursuing car thieves outside his home in Nashville, Tenn., according to the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department.
Erik Helffenstein, 45, was a father of two elementary school-age children, Rachel, 11, and Sawyer, 9; his wife, Angela, is also a Boston native. He worked as an engineer at Nissan. A post on the Orchard Park Class of 92 Reunion Facebook page published Tuesday night paid tribute to Helffenstein.
"God blessed me with an awesome gift for 45 years," Carolyn Helffenstein, Erik's mother, said by phone from Nashville. "He shared him with me and I thank God for that. He was an awesome guy, a great father."
Erik Helffenstein and his family visited with his mother and father, Gary, in Boston in the summer months, Carolyn Helffenstein said.
Carolyn Helffenstein lauded the local Bellevue community where Erik lived for their support following his death.
"The community here has been tremendous," Carolyn Helffernstein said. "They are treating him as a hero. They've been so supportive."
Nashville police found Helffenstein fatally shot in his vehicle about 3 miles from his home in Bellevue, a suburban neighborhood about 13 miles southwest of Nashville.
Police say that shortly before 1:30 a.m. Monday, Angela Helffenstein saw that two people were breaking into one of their vehicles parked outside their Meadow Ridge Circle home in the Traceside subdivision off Highway 100. Erik Helffenstein went outside to confront the burglars, who got into a black SUV and fled. Helffenstein got into his Nissan Pathfinder and pursued them.
Angela Helffenstein told officers responding to the auto burglary call that her husband had gone after the auto burglars and did not have his phone with him. Officers found Helffenstein’s vehicle off the roadway in the 7800 block of Highway 100. An officer saw that Helffenstein had been shot and immediately began CPR.
Helffenstein was pronounced dead at the scene by responding Nashville Fire Department medics.
Detectives believe that an occupant of the SUV opened fire on Helffenstein’s Pathfinder on Highway 100. Several rounds hit his vehicle.
A GoFundMe.com fundraising site was set up Wednesday evening to help support Erik's family. As of Thursday morning, it raised $20,000; at 1:15 p.m. Thursday it was just under $30,000.
An excerpt from the GoFundMe page, prepared by his family:
"Erik had a larger-than-life personality and an even bigger heart.
"He was a working man, an engineer, and was happiest around friends and family, including in his workshop where he made things for others to enjoy, like furniture for his extended family, go-karts for his kids and unique pieces of art for people's homes.
"His passion for woodworking, biking, kayaking, canoeing and sailing were all shared pieces of his family life. And his love of life, his easy smile, his laid-back nature and his sense of humor will never be forgotten.
Erik was truly a gentle giant, one who died as he lived, protecting his family."