Whitney Heichel's killer to spend life in prison
With his head hung low and a chain around his waist shackling his hands, Jonathan Daniel Holt stood before a Clackamas County judge on Monday, July 8, ready to formalize a plea agreement he signed a week earlier.
By pleading guilty to three counts of aggravated murder, one count of kidnapping and two counts of robbery in the Oct. 16 shooting of his neighbor Whitney Heichel, Holt, 25, would avoid a trial, a possible death penalty and would spent the rest of his life behind bars with no possibility of parole.
In exchange, four other counts would be dismissed. So would Multnomah County charges of burglary and encouraging child sex abuse stemming from the investigation into Heichel's disappearance. The investigation revealed that earlier during the summer, Holt entered the apartment Heichel shared with her husband, looked through the couple's belongings and stole her husband's cellular phone. Investigators also recovered images of child pornography on Holt's laptop computer, external hard drives and flash drives.
But agreeing to a plea deal on paper is different than giving voicing to the horror inflicted on an innocent young woman, cutting short a life full of promise.
One by one, Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Robert D. Herndon walked Holt through each of the charges he was pleading guilty to.
Count one: Aggravated murder with a firearm. "And how did you kill her?" the judge asked.
"A gun," Holt replied.
"You shot her with a firearm?" Herndon pressed.
"Yes," Holt tearfully confirmed.
On the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 16, Holt waited outside Heichel's apartment, which was in the same Gresham complex where Holt lived with his wife. When Heichel came out at 6:45 a.m. to go to her job as a barista at a nearby Starbucks, he asked her for a ride.
Once inside the car, he forced her at gunpoint to the area of Rosyln Lake in Clackamas County. There, he reportedly sexually assaulted the young woman, shot her four times, then dumped her body on Larch Mountain, before abandoning her 1999 Ford Explorer in the parking lot of the Wood Village Wal-Mart.
The case made national headlines as police, Heichel's large tight-knit family and members of her Jehovah's Witness church searched for her.
Just before nightfall on Friday, Oct. 19, a Gresham police detective found Heichel's body in the rugged terrain on Larch Mountain located east of Corbett in rural Multnomah County.
Police arrested Holt, who in addition to being a trusted neighbor, attended the same Jehovah's Witness church that the Heichels did. Holt's wife has since divorced him.
One by one, four of Heichel's loved ones sat directly in front of Holt and expressed their profound loss and anger.
Heichel's sister Chelsea Sauer looked squarely at Holt and told him he is weak, ugly, a coward, dishonorable, a thief, pervert, rapist and murderer. "And the men you're going to prison with will know who you are and what you are," she added.
Marylin Heichel, the victim's mother-in-law, recalled the moment when her son Clint told the family who'd spent days searching for the missing woman that Holt had taken her into the woods outside of Sandy and shot her.
"It was the worst moment of our lives," she said, adding that the ordeal changed her son. "I didn't recognize him. ... I used to love to watch him watch her. His love for her was written all over his face. But all of that has been taken away. I'm grieving for the loss of both of them."
Heichel's mother Lorilei Ritmiller began by recognizing the pain, "an agony of the heart that is unfathomable," that Holt's family is experiencing. She blames Satan and Holt for being "eager to be his puppet." For using brute force to overpower her 5-foot-2-inch, 120-pound daughter. "You preyed on someone loved and cherished by Jehovah, her family and her husband," Ritmiller said.
Then Clint Heichel, the victim's husband, addressed Holt.
Dressed in a black suit, he stared at Holt, waiting for him to raise his head and meet his gaze.
It took one minute. One long, silent, torturous minute for Holt to raise his eyes.
"What do you say to the man who has taken the love of your life?" he asked. "What do you say? Do you tell him that there are so many more victims than her? Do you express the guilt his former wife has? ...My life has been ripped apart and turned upside down thanks to your lack of self control and selfishness. But know this: I will see her again. You, however, will not."
With that, Holt's head dropped, sobbing.
Holts defense attorney Conor Huseby said Holt is thoroughly destroyed and remorseful.
Following Holt's confession to the police, Holt insisted on not putting his victim's family through any more pain and made it clear he didn't want the case to go to trial.
When given a chance to make a statement to the more than 60 relatives and church members who packed the courtroom Holt stood, and again bowed his head.
I want to say that I am sorry but at the same time I know that that doesnt mean anything, Holt said crying. "I accept full responsibility for what I did. All of the things that are said about me are true. Because of my selfishness, I have stolen a daughter, a sister, a wife ... I am sorry for what I did.
Judge Herndon commended Holt for "stepping up and not torturing your victim's family by having this play out for months and months."
Like so many sentences, this one doesn't seem like enough, Herndon said. But with the death penalty being "such an imperfect process," Holt's life sentence without a possibility for parole is a good outcome.
He will be locked up forever.
"It is a true life sentence," said Multnomah County Senior Deputy District Attorney Don Rees, who prosecuted the case with Clackamas County Deputy District Attorney Steven Mygrant. "He will spend every day of his life in prison."