Suspect in Whitney Heichel slaying found through intense investigation by police, volunteers:
It was dark -- sunrise was still 45 minutes away last Tuesday morning -- and Heichel had a 7 a.m. shift at a Starbucks just a short drive away.
But she wasn't the only one outside the Heatherwood Apartments at that time, detectives would learn, as they investigated why the 21-year-old woman never made it to work.
Over the next four days of intense investigative efforts, Jonathan D. Holt, another resident of the Gresham apartment complex, would go from potential witness to prime suspect in Heichel's disappearance.
Around the clock, police officers, church members, friends, family and other community members searched for clues, uncovered evidence and sent tips. Investigators interviewed Holt, noting inconsistencies in his answers. And results from forensic tests Friday, together with his statements and other evidence, culminated in Holt's Friday night arrest on accusations of aggravated murder.
"It was a totality of information that got us to the point we believed we had enough information that Holt was responsible for her disappearance," Gresham Police Chief Craig Junginger said in an email Saturday.
Around the same time that police arrested Holt, searchers on Larch Mountain in east Multnomah County found Heichel's body. The discovery crushed hopes that somehow the woman known for her compassion and friendliness and who dreamed about having children with her beloved husband would be found alive.
"Really, words can't begin to express the sadness that our families are experiencing tonight," Jim Vaughn, a spokesman for the family, said Friday night. "Whitney was a very loving person, one who was loved by everyone. She had no enemies, she had no people that didn't love her."
Holt is scheduled to be arraigned Monday afternoon in Clackamas County Circuit Court. Heichel was killed in Clackamas County, not in Multnomah County where her body was found, according to Gresham police. A Multnomah County prosecutor will continue to work with Clackamas County on the case.
The medical examiner completed an autopsy on Heichel Saturday afternoon, but the results were not made public.
The investigation that would span two counties, pull personnel from eight different agencies and command the efforts of hundreds of church and community volunteers, started with a morning phone call.
Sometime after 8 a.m. Tuesday, Heichel's Starbucks manager called Clint Heichel to alert him that his wife had failed to show up at work.
Her husband tried several times to reach Whitney Heichel on her cellphone. Other friends and family also tried texting her. Unable to reach her, Clint Heichel called police just before 10 a.m.
A group organized by the Heichels' Jehovah's Witness church also soon hit the streets. They searched extensively -- and effectively -- finding Heichel's black 1999 Ford Explorer at 1 p.m. in the Walmart parking lot at Wood Village. The passenger side window had been broken.
Gresham detectives arrived at the lot and soon found some of Heichel's belongings in a garbage bin there and, later, at another shopping center. Video surveillance footage from Walmart would later show investigators the vehicle had been left at 11:17 that morning.
But the footage did not show a suspect to an identifiable degree, Junginger said.
Meanwhile, investigators led by Gresham Lt. Claudio Grandjean developed information that suggested Heichel's vehicle had been driven to Clackamas County. Church volunteers fanned out, finding evidence linked to her near Dodge Park.
By Wednesday morning, authorities were able to determine that Heichel's ATM card had been used at a gas station at Southwest 257th and Southeast Stark, at 9:14 a.m. the previous day. Authorities launched a search at Dodge Park. Around the same time, more church members and other community volunteers theorized how far Heichel's vehicle could travel in the window established by the ATM card being used and the vehicle being found at the nearby Walmart, said Vaughn, the family friend. They also considered places where a suspect might leave someone, focusing on waterways and wooded areas.
That strategizing yielded a big find -- the volunteers discovered Heichel's vehicle license plate at Larch Mountain. Search and rescue crews shifted to that area, uncovering a large amount of evidence over the next two days -- and eventually, Heichel's body.
It was also Wednesday that police heard that Holt, a neighbor in the Heichels' apartment complex, might have been outside the complex that morning.
Police wondered whether Holt might have seen anything suspicious that morning, and he agreed to come in for an interview.
But in a follow-up interview the next day, Holt's story started to change, Junginger said. He gave different times and places in answering some of the same questions investigators had posed previously. Police collected his DNA and took his fingerprints.
On Thursday, children discovered Heichel's cellphone in a field near a Troutdale apartment complex, giving police additional unspecified evidence implicating Holt, Junginger said.
And then Friday, investigators received results of forensics tests of Heichel's vehicle that linked Holt to her SUV, Junginger said. The evidence, bolstered by Holt's conflicting accounts and other statements he made, built a case that led police to make the arrest.
Police have not said what they think happened outside the apartment complex Tuesday morning between Holt and Whitney Heichel. Holt was acquainted with both the Heichels and may have been familiar with them through Jehovah's Witness gatherings, Junginger said. But there was no evidence of any relationship between Holt and Whitney Heichel beyond being acquaintances, he said.
On Saturday, many of those involved in the investigation were decompressing after 18- and 20-hour shifts. While they work their best on every major crime, Junginger said, the Heichel case was "a tough investigation." The more they learned about her and the more time they spent with her family, the more "detectives could relate to their own families."
At times, officers kept at the investigation so much that Grandjean, the lead investigator, had to tell them to eat and to go home and rest.
"When we're in the trenches, working the long hours, I think we're motivated by justice," he said. "It is inspiring to work with people who sacrifice like that for others in that way."
Junginger credited the volunteers for their contribution and their discoveries, noting that their assistance "almost tripled the amount of people" who could search.
Vaughn, the family friend, said the church and community pulled together to just do what they could to help find someone they loved.
"We're just normal everyday people that wouldn't know our right hand from our left on how to do something really good other than pounding the pavement. That's what Jehovah's Witnesses are known for."
They just wish the outcome had been better, he said.
"We're 7 million strong," he said. "When one of us hurts, we're all hurting, because we consider ourselves to be brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and friends. It's just the way we are."
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