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A life well loved

While still mourning their loss, the family of Whitney Heichel share memories of a happier time


by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Whitney Heichel and her husband, Clint, share a moment together during a gathering at a friend's house. The couple was married on New Year's Day, 2011. They were close, loving and active in their religious functions.

The mornings these days are solitary for Clint Heichel. The routine that used to be shared by two is now carried alone. But every morning he still hears the voice of his wife.

Saved on his phone is a voicemail Whitney Heichel left in August, reminding Clint, as she would every day, that she loves him, misses him and will talk to him soon.

The message is private, but he plays it on a Friday evening in the living room of his wife’s childhood home, where friends and family gathered to share fond memories of her.

It’s been 18 days since their loving wife, daughter, sister and friend was kidnapped and murdered. The wound is still fresh, still deep.

When the message ends, frozen and quiet is the small, dimly lit room. Whitney’s innocent voice leaves everyone breathless. The only sounds are faint whimpers and sniffles as the group comforts and supports one another.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor next to Clint are two of Whitney’s sisters, Chloe Ritmiller and Gilliene Benedict. Their pain is visible and heartbreaking. Whitney’s mom, Lorilei, walks across the room and sits between her two daughters. She puts her arms around both and squeezes them tight.

Randy Ritmiller, Whitney’s step-father, leans gently against Chloe, as she lifts her glasses to dry her watery eyes.

Jordan Hunter, Whitney’s brother, makes his way toward his wife, Velvet, kneels down and kisses her on the shoulder. Sitting next to them is Jim Vaughn, the family’s close friend and spokesman during and after the days of Whitney’s disappearance and subsequent recovery. He remains as stoic as one can in the company of such anguish.

After a few moments Clint breaks the silence.

“I listen to that message every single morning, and it’s hard,” he says, as his mother, Marilyn Heichel, places her hand on his knee.

“But at least I have a little voice. That’s what I have left.”

No one is impervious to the pain. But at a time when sorrow, misery, anger and heartache is so crippling, their collective strength overcomes.

On this dreary fall night, the family speaks not of Whitney’s horrible death, but of how beautifully she lived. They tell stories, share scriptures from their Jehovah’s Witness Bible and draw comfort from their belief Whitney will one day be resurrected and share with them tears of joy.

Clint looks at his phone, and his wife’s voice conjures a smile. Then softly he says, “I keep her right there as much as I can.”

Momma

The Ritmiller house always had two mothers — Lorilei and Whitney. As a young woman, Whitney eagerly talked about her dream of becoming a mother and showed her maternal instincts as a young girl.

During a family trip to a beach house, Lorilei was inside nursing her daughter, Chloe, while 3-year-old Whitney and Gilliene, 1, played in the front yard.

But as the young mother sat there, she heard two deafening sounds. The first was fighter jets screeching overhead, followed by the shrieks from Gilliene, terrified by the loud noises.

Panicked, Lorilei race downstairs toward the front yard, the screams of her daughter continuing to pierce her ears.

Finally she reached the front door, then stopped. There was little Whitney, scared and eyes filled with tears, but sprinting up the driveway with her little sister wrapped tightly in her arms, refusing to let go.

“She was going to get that baby in the house, and she wasn’t going to leave her behind,” Lorilei says with a proud smile. “That’s how she was with all her siblings.”

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Whitney Heichel took part in many activities with her Jehovah's Witness congregation. That’s how she was with everybody.

Whitney’s nurturing and protective personality extended well beyond her family. She took an interest in people — at school, in her congregation, anyone embracing of her warmth. It was unique, and it was inspiring.

Each year her elementary school awarded students for scholastic achievements. Whitney was in third grade and Lorilei got a call from one of the teachers asking her to attend the afternoon assembly.

With all the students and parents in attendance, Lorilei remembers Whitney’s teacher standing in front of the audience with an announcement: “There is an award I’ve not given to anyone before,” the teacher said. “But there is one student in the school that’s exemplary of the kindness she shows to others, the way she’s accepting of everybody. And it has moved me so much that I’ve created a special award for this student.”

Lorilei will never forget what the teacher said next.

“Then she said, ‘Will Whitney Ritmiller come up and accept the award for kindness?’ ” Lorilei says.

Sitting on the couch, she suddenly drops her head, eyes growing damp.

She and Marilyn clasps hands tightly, then Lorilei takes a deep breath and continues.

“That’s who she was,” Lorilei says.

Smiling, Jim says, “That’s who she is.”

“Yeah, that’s who she is,” Lorilei says. “And it’s why people embraced her.”

Sister Sandwich

Of Whitney’s five sisters, one brother, one half-brother and one half-sister, she was the middle sibling and never let anyone forget it.

“Growing up, she would always complain that she’s the middle child,” Gilliene says with a laugh.

“It sucks being the middle child. You have no idea, Gilliene,” Whitney would tell her.

The middle child is supposed to be the forgotten one, but Whitney wasn’t going to let that happen.

“She was going to be heard,” Lorilei says.

Jim remembers gathering with friends after religious services and still being able to hear Whitney’s perky voice echoing from a distance over his conversations.by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Clint Heichel gave his wife, Whitney, a camera on their wedding day. She had a passion for photography and documenting every special occasion.

“It was just pleasant,” he says. “It brought a smile to your face because she was always so happy.”

And always reassuring.

She never hesitated to give a compliment — whether it was Gilliene’s skills on the piano or her oldest sister Chelsea’s sense of style.

“She’s the sister that always reinforced you,” Lorilei says. “She was the sister that always told you you’re beautiful. She was the sister that always told you how much she loved you. She was the most expressive.”

Whitney always found joy in nurturing others — family, friends and especially babies.

When one started to cry, she sprung into action, calming and caring for the baby. It was a common sight when her congregation gathered.

“She was a baby magnet,” Jim says.

Whitney had a friend whose older brother was going through some tough times. While he struggled with alcohol-addiction, his parents were raising his infant son. Still the whole family, including the father, attended spiritual assemblies together.

There Whitney played with the young boy, showering him with love and affection. Watching the two led the father to a powerful realization. He wanted the same bond Whitney shared with his son. His life needed to change.

So he gave up the booze, cleaned up his life and worked to restore that relationship with his son.

Lorilei recalls a letter she received from him shortly after her daughter’s death.

“Whitney changed my life and it’s my biggest regret that I didn’t get a chance to tell her,” he wrote. “But I need to tell you. Whitney taught me that I could love my son, that I could give him the things, spiritually, emotionally, materially, that he needs.

“I can’t wait to welcome Whitney back and tell her that I’m here because of her.”

Out of gas

For Whitney and Clint, it wasn’t love at first sight.

They met in 2010 through a couple who were mutual friends. Whitney showed up at their friends’ house to borrow a dress and inside was Clint watching a movie.

She sat down on the floor in front of the TV, so Clint politely introduced himself. Whitney looked back, curtly said “Hi,” then quickly turned back around.

She was protective of her friends, skeptical of Clint and thought he was moving in on her territory. But over time she slowly warmed up to him.

After four months of casual conversation, the tall, brown-haired bachelor developed a small crush on the petite, brown-eyed woman. Finally, he decided to make his move.

Barely able to fight his nerves, Clint asked Whitney for her number. She looked at him and laughed.

“Wow, that’s how you do that?” Whitney said.

“I guess,” Clint said, shrugging with embarrassment. “Does that mean, no?”

At that moment, it did and she rebuked his advance.

Later that night, they were at the couple’s house. Whitney left to go home before her midnight curfew, but her car wouldn’t start. She was out of gas.

Clint graciously took her to a gas station and got out of his car to fill up a gas can.

Inside was his cell phone.

Whitney grabbed it, punched in her number and closed the phone, so the first thing Clint saw when he opened it was her name.

Not wanting to appear overeager, he didn’t text her, but when they saw each other a week later, Whitney said, “So I give you my number and you don’t even text me. What’s that about?”

After the games ended, the dating began. Six months later, Clint proposed in front of friends and family on the beaches in Vancouver.

“We’re young. It was quick,” Clint says. “But it was one of those things where we just knew.”

On New Year’s Day 2011, they got married. He was 27, she was 19 and the next year and a half was wedded bliss.

Whitney cherished the moments they had together and always craved Clint’s attention. At family dinners, she wanted Clint focused on her.

Clint never could resist the wishes of his adoring wife. And because of that, he was able to spend Whitney’s last night with her.

On the evening of Monday, Oct. 15, Whitney, Chelsea and Velvet were over at Lorilei’s house planning the last minute details of a friend’s wedding.

It was supposed to be a girl’s night so they could focus on the wedding. But Chelsea and Velvet had their husbands over, so Whitney begged her mom to let Clint come over, too.

“But I need you to stay focused,” Lorilei replied.

“I will stay focused, I will stay focused,” Whitney said. “I just miss him.”

Finally, Lorilei said OK. And even though it was late and Clint was preparing to enjoy a quiet night at home, he got dressed and came over.

With most of the family there, the women reminisced about their weddings, tried on veils and laughed alongside their husbands.

“It was a perfect night for her,” Lorilei says of her daughter.

The hardest times

As dusk turns to dark, the rain begins to break. Light from the adjacent kitchen and candles on shelves are all that illuminate the living room.

The air is filled with stories of Whitney and all eyes glisten with tears of happiness and sorrow.

“Let me grab something,” Lorilei says.

She disappears into an office and emerges hunched over, dragging a bin too heavy to carry. It’s filled to the brim with letters. She pulls it in front of the couch, sits down and grabs a handful at random reading the postmarks.

Orlando. Austin, Texas. San Diego. New Jersey. North Platte, Neb. One from all 50 states and countries around the world.

Thousands of letters are stacked before her. At Clint’s apartment there’s another bin.

“Because of the widespread acknowledgment of Whitney’s death and who she was, we’ve been given an opportunity that most people don’t have when they mourn,” she says. “We’ve been given a reason to rejoice. Not just in the hope, but in what we have right now.”

At a time when faith in humanity could be lost, for this family, it’s been renewed.

“We can lose faith in an individual,” Lorilei says. “But our faith in humanity is stronger because of Jehovah’s outpouring of abundant love to us through his people.”

But the pain is still there, bubbling up in quiet moments alone. “Those are often the toughest,” she says. “There hasn’t been a day that’s gone by that I haven’t cried.”

For Clint, it’s hardest at night. “Just before you go to bed and there’s that quiet,” he says. “Normally it’s the time where I would talk about the day or she would talk about the day — that’s the hardest for me because she’s not there. Going to bed by myself, she’s not there. Waking up in the middle of the night and looking over to her side of the bed — she’s not there. Waking up in the morning on her side of the bed because she’s not there.”

But in those moments, where silence was always filled with her tender voice, Clint plays the message.

“Hey you,” she softly says. “I’m just calling to make sure you’re up and to say hi. I love you and hope you have a good day and I’ll talk to you later. Bye.”

Reporter Kristopher Anderson can be reached by email at kmanderson@theoutlookonline.com.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO/ KRISTOPHER ANDERSON - Clint Heichel and Lorilei Ritmiller read stacks of letters they received since learning of Whitney Heichel's death.



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