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Church search group helps speed investigation


Clint Heichel’s phone rang early Tuesday morning. It was the manager from his wife’s work, asking why the always reliable Whitney Heichel had not shown up for her 7 a.m. shift.

Clint kissed his wife goodbye as she left for work from their Heatherwood Apartment complex. That was all he knew.

Frantic, Clint started calling friends and family, desperate to discover Whitney’s whereabouts.

Word of Whitney’s disappearance spread quickly through their Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall congregation. It wasn’t like her to vanish like this. They feared that maybe she was abducted.

Instantly, a small search group was formed. After learning that Whitney’s ATM card had been used at the Stark Street Shell gas station and a Troutdale Shell station the group started brainstorming places someone would abandon her 1999 Ford Explorer, places where it would go unnoticed.

One group drove to the nearby Wal-Mart in Wood Village, and there they found her car, with the front passenger window broken out.

At 11:14 a.m., they notified authorities.

It turned out to be the piece of evidence that jump-started the investigation for police.

“That piece was huge,” said Gresham police Lt. Claudio Grandjean, adding that without the church group, it could have been days or weeks before Whitney’s car was found.

By 3:30 p.m. every detective with the Gresham Police Department was canvasing the area and found some of Whitney’s belongings in a Wal-Mart Dumpster, as well as in another Dumpster at a nearby shopping center.

Police also discovered information leading them to believe she traveled east into Clackamas County.

But before police identified the next location for their search, about 30-50 Jehovah’s Witnesses were already scattered around several locations, including Dodge Park in Sandy and Larch Mountain.

By nightfall, members of Whitney’s church group found more of her personal belongings near Dodge Park and again informed police.

Thanks to the tip from the church group working independently from police, detectives were scouring the area around the park near Sandy that evening.

On Wednesday morning, police canvassed Whitney’s apartment complex and continued to search Dodge Park. Oregon State Police and the East County Major Crimes Team joined the effort.

Around noon that day, the church group discovered the license plate from Whitney’s car along with several other items on Larch Mountain.

With that information, police had another area to search.

“It was like nothing we had ever seen,” Grandjean said. “We were just amazed at how quickly they worked.”

By Friday afternoon, police had located Whitney’s body and arrested Jonathan Daniel Holt, a neighbor and member of the same congregation, on accusations of aggravated murder.

On Monday, the same day of Holt’s arraignment, church members were counseling Holt’s wife as part of the congregation.