Heichel case leaves police brokenhearted
In the days since discovering Whitney's body, local police have found ways cope with the tragic ending
Searchers scoured Larch Mountain for two days, running on little sleep, little food and driven by the thought of the bubbly young Gresham woman they had all come to know.
As nightfall descended at about 5 p.m. on a chilly Oct. 19, the uncertainty came to an end.
Detective Scott Hogan knew it was her that was laying in the foliage of the dark and wooded forest. Hed answered the question the entire country was asking: Where is Whitney Heichel?
The night went hush over the mountain as he awaited response crews. Right then it started to rain. And for the first time in days, Hogan had time to reflect.
I found myself saying a little prayer for her that she would be at peace and that her family would, too, he said.
Though not a deeply religious man, something told Hogan it was the right thing to do. This was someones wife, daughter, sister and friend.
The stories hed heard were the same motivating every law enforcement officer and volunteer who joined the search.
Heichel vanished Tuesday morning, Oct. 16, shortly after kissing her husband goodbye as she left for work.
Late Friday evening, Lt. Claudio Grandjean, Detective Bob Galbreath, co-lead investigator Fred Huffman and Greshams Chief of Police Craig Junginger met with Heichels family at the police station to reveal the devastating discovery.
Ive made a lot of (notifications) in my career and this was probably the toughest one Ive ever made, Junginger said.
After learning of her disappearance, police stayed in constant contact with the family. They heard stories of her compassion, selflessness, caring nature and Jehovahs Witness faith.
Soon, she was more than just another case.
Whitney was a beautiful person, Huffman said.
Police formed a bond with Heichels family. They werent there to just serve and protect. They were sources of comfort and support, a shoulder to cry on, a person to talk to.
When Heichels husband, Clint, broke down in front of newspaper reporters and television crews during a press conference earlier in the week, Junginger rushed to the podium and wrapped his arms around the fragile man.
He was there again on Friday when the exhausted family needed him most. Distraught inside, but wearing his trademark stoicism, Junginger delivered the news.
We found Whitney, he says with a strong face but through cracks in his voice. Unfortunately, shes not coming home.
With the family in shock and overwhelmed by emotion, Junginger filled the silence with gentle words reminding them about Whitneys life, not how she died.
If theres any comfort, from what we know about Whitney, I would be proud to have her as my daughter, he told them.
Like many in the community, the investigation resonated with Junginger because of his own children.
In her, people saw their daughter, their family member, their friend. The way she lived her life was relatable, as much for the police as it was for the public.
Shes a sweet, bubbly, friendly, nice gal, like anybody else you would know, Grandjean says.
Its that thought that drove everyone involved in the search Gresham police, Oregon State Police and crime lab, search and rescue teams, FBI, Multnomah and Clackamas county sheriffs deputies, and Troutdale and Fairview police.
From Monday night, Oct. 15, to Saturday morning, Oct. 20, Detective Hogan never saw his family. He arrived home well after they fell asleep and was out the door before sunrise.
Officers easily worked 18-20 hour days. They went without food and sleep. Eventually, they had to be told to go home.
They werent just working for the case. They were working for Whitney, their emotional investment disproving the hardened stereotype of seen-it-all cops.
During the moments on the trail of the investigation, their pain, anger and sadness was buried so they could focus on their jobs.
Their vulnerable side only appeared in the quiet moments away from the case.
The perception that weve become numb is true, to some extent, because if you get a steady dose of anything you become numb to it, Grandjean says. During the time youre working the case you have to set that aside and theres a lot of emotional energy involved in doing that. Thats all the more reason why its harder.
But with the investigation over, police finally decompressed.
Officers spent the following days in different ways, each finding time to process the emotions theyd stored away all week.
For Grandjean, that time came Sunday alone with his wife. During a quiet moment at home, he thought of his three sons, two daughters-in-law and soon-to-be daughter-in-law, each close to Heichels age.
I started relating it to my family, he says.
For Huffman, it also came over the weekend. Driving home from coaching a youth football game, the radio was off and the peaceful sound of wind allowed his mind to wonder. He thought of Heichel, who she was and the senselessness of it all.
Just having intimate knowledge of the case, theres anger knowing what I know about the case and feeling that frustration about why the human race sometimes has to do things to other people; why we have to kill each other, he said. Those type of things start to come through.
To a certain extent you have a feeling of not understanding why this stuff happens. You need to allow yourself to be human. You have to let yourself digest (your emotions) at a different level at a different time, because youre working for Whitney, youre working for God and youre working for her family.
For Hogan, he needed to reconnect with his family. His teenage son has been eager to learn how to drive, so the two chose to hit the road.
Hogan spent a couple hours teaching his son the basics, forging memories that bring a smile in times of pain.
The thought of Heichel is still all too fresh.
Her glowing personality, her radiant smile and the scene he uncovered are still unforgettable. Maybe they always will be.
But in the toughest moments, he knows he found closure.
She was back with her family, Hogan said. It was time for me to spend time with mine.