GRESHAM, Ore. -- A Gresham woman missing for days was found murdered, and a neighbor who was a member of her church confessed to killing her, according to police.
The body of Whitney Heichel, 21, was found at Larch Mountain after an intensive search that spanned multiple locations. According to police, Heichel died of multiple gunshot wounds and was sexually assaulted before she died.
Jonathan Holt, a neighbor and also a member of her church, was later arrested and confessed to kidnapping her, forcing her to commit a sex act, murdering her and disposing of her body.
“It’s very hard and it’s very hard for me to be at my apartment and have her not walking around and doing her little thing you know? She just was the sweetest little person I’ve ever known,” Whitney’s husband Clint said.
“We hear a lot of bad things that go on, but there are good people out there. And they’re willing to help. And I can’t express my thanks enough, you know, to everyone whose had a hand in every part of this,” he added.
According to the probable cause document, Jonathan Holt told investigators he waited outside Heichel's Gresham apartment on October 16 and asked her for a ride. Then, just five minutes into the ride, he pointed a gun at Whitney and forced her to drive to Roslyn Lake and perform sex acts on him.
Whitney's husband, Clint told KGW in an exclusive interview that he never suspected Holt, who he knew as their neighbor and a member of their congregation.
“We just tried to be the best people we could and not hold a grudge … there’s a bad sheep in every community … I don’t want to make a huge spectacle. What’s taken place is horrible, I'm just doing the best I can to keep moving forward without her,” Heichel told KGW.
Holt was wearing a suicide smock in his first court appearance, as he was officially charged with seven counts of aggravated murder with a firearm. The judge briefly questioned Holt and then ordered him held without bail.
The court document said that Holt shot and killed Heichel near the lake, on Southeast Thomas Road in Clackamas County, then hid her body near Larch Mountain. She died of multiple gunshot wounds, according to autopsy results.
Timeline: The search for Whitney Heichel
Sources also told KGW that Holt was "obsessed" with Heichel.
"We were completely shocked to find out that Jonathan Holt, an irregular attendee of our meetings, was arrested and would be in any way tied to this case as a suspect," the church said in a prepared statement.
"Jehovah’s Witness regard life as precious, a gift from God," the statement continued. "We had no indications that would lead us, prior to this event that he would be capable of being involved in what is alleged to have happened."
KGW later learned that Holt had mysteriously vanished for 12 hours in 2011, taking a friend's rental car with him and prompting that friend to call 911.
Gresham police announced late Friday that they found Whitney's body on Larch Mountain, and they had arrested Holt in her murder after he was interviewed several times by police.
Police obtained DNA and fingerprints from Holt after a second voluntary interview, in which they noticed several inconsistencies from his first interview. He then came in to the police department for an additional interview Friday and was arrested. At about that same time, detectives at Larch Mountain located Heichel's body. Police did not specify a motive for the murder.
Mourners Saturday gathered for a candlelight vigil at the Gresham Starbucks where Heichel worked. She had a lot of friends through her church and workplace.
Heichel's mother Lorilei Ritmiller described her daughter as someone willing help everyone. Her nickname was "momma" because she was just that to so many.
"She's not a picture, she's not a story, she's our daughter, she's a wife, she's a sister, she has five sisters and a brother. She has grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and thousands of people in the community of our faith that absolutely adore her," Ritmiller said. "She's sunshine in our hearts, She's gentle, she's compassionate."
Community gathers for memorial
The Gresham community turned out for a memorial to honor a life cut short by tragedy.
Heichel's family said countless strangers have reached out to them and helped ease their pain after the 21-year-old was found murdered last week. The family wanted to have a chance to celebrate Whitney's life with the entire community at an open house at the Salquist Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in Gresham.
Whitney Heichel headed for work at the Starbucks on Northeast Burnside Street in Gresham Tuesday, to start at her usual time of 7 a.m. But she never made it. Her co-workers said they were concerned because she had always been very punctual.
Clint Heichel said Whitney kissed him goodbye at 6:45 that morning and that was the last time he saw her. He said Starbucks contacted him after she failed to show up, and he then called and texted her "a million times," but she never responded. He called 911 to report her missing at about 10 a.m.
Gresham police said they treated the case as a criminal investigation from the beginning. Crews searched for evidence at Dodge Park in Sandy on Wednesday and searched Wednesday through Friday at Larch Mountain, above the Gorge. They said her vehicle had been to the two locations.
Police released a timeline Wednesday that said her SUV had pulled into a service station at 9:14 a.m., on 257th and Stark, and her bank card was used.
Whitney's vehicle, a 1999 black Ford Explorer, was later found outside the Walmart in Wood Village at around 1 p.m., according to the police timeline. Police towed the SUV away as part of their investigation.
"The window was busted out, the backseats were down and there was mud on the tires and the car wasn't like that this morning," Clint said Tuesday. "It's highly irregular for her to disappear without any communication. I just hope and pray somebody saw something and that we'll hear from them soon."
A family friend also told KGW that several transactions were made on Heichel’s debit card, including at ATM machines and three different gas stations.
They said that gas station attendants at one of those locations -- a truck stop in Troutdale - remembered seeing her SUV and said Heichel was sitting in the passenger seat with a man driving. They said the man was acting suspicious and hurried, buying only a small amount of gas.
Investigators said Heichel's cell phone, found Thursday, contained messages from her husband and family, and possibly location data. Investigators said the phone was turned off when it was found by children playing in a field near the Troutdale Terrace apartments at 701 SW 257th. At the time, Gresham police called it "a very favorable find."
The apartment complex where the phone was found is about a mile and a half from the Shell gas station where Heichel's bank card was used the morning she disappeared. It's also about two miles from the Wood Village Walmart where her abandoned SUV was found with the passenger window broken out.
Police found some of Whitney Heichel's belongings in two dumpsters, one at the Walmart parking lot, and the other at a nearby shopping center. That evidence helped lead detectives to the suspect in her murder.
The Gresham Police Department spokesman, Lt. Claudio Grandjean, said Thursday afternoon police had found "some important items" at both locations but did not elaborate at the time.
The SUV Heichel was driving had a missing license plate when it was located. That license plate was found at Larch Mountain, and that clue led police to search the area where her body was ultimately found.
Grandjean said Starbucks and Walmart contributed numerous man-hours and large amounts of video to help support police in the investigation.
Interactive Map: Last known locations of Whitney Heichel's vehicle (click on map)