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Monday, November 12, 2012

When Tragedy Strikes - The Whitney Heichel Story

Whitney Heichel was kidnapped at gunpoint and murdered on October 16, 2012. She was a beautiful, sweet 21 year old wife, daughter and friend to many. This story was sent to me on November 2, 2012 by a friend who had received it from a friend of one of the elders in Whitney's congregation. The events that follow are presented by that elder in timeline fashion as they occurred and describe the tragedy that took place approximately three weeks ago in Greshem, Oregon. Although sad and horrific, the incredible strength shown by her husband, family and congregation during this nightmare give strong testimony to their faith in God and his ability to sustain us when tragedy strikes.
We have a rather large family in our congregation, one of which is a very sweet, young sister named Whitney. She married a brother in the congregation next to ours a year and a half ago and left our congregation for his. I had gone over part of her baptism questions with her five years earlier, and we became good friends. This year, Whitney turned 21 years old, her husband Clint, 29 years old. Let me try to recount the events that took place here since October 16th.
Tuesday, October 16th: Whitney got up as usual to go to her job at the local Starbucks coffee shop – she had the 7:00 am  shift. She said good bye to her husband at 6:45 am and left for work, a drive of only a couple of minutes from their apartment. At 8:30 am her boss called Clint wanting to know if Whitney was sick, as she had not come to work. Clint immediately knew something was wrong. He tried calling her several times on her cell phone. There was no answer. He called her parents, thinking that she may have stopped by to see them for something, but they had not seen her either. After trying to call her several more times, Clint calls the police at 10:00 am to report her missing. They can’t do anything till a person is missing for 24 hours. So Clint calls one of the elders. He is at a local coffee shop. After Clint tells the elder the situation, the elder asks him which bank they go to. It happens to be the one right across the street from where he is. He goes to the bank to see if there are any unusual activities on her account. He knows personally one of the bank officers, so privacy rules are dropped and they look into her account. Sure enough, someone has filled up with gas miles away, using Whitney’s credit card. Clint and the elder rush to that gas station, and after explaining the situation, are allowed to view the security tape for that time frame. There is her vehicle, with a man’s arm sticking out of the driver window, pulling away. By now, all the circuit knows something is very wrong. An elder with search and rescue experience now starts putting together teams of brothers and sisters for an organized search pattern of the area. Within hours, there are hundreds of volunteers from our local congregations. Some congregations even cancel their meetings to participate in the search.
Wednesday, October 17th:  The police can now begin their search and are brought up to date with what the Brothers have already discovered. One of the teams finds a jacket in a park some 12 miles away. Clint identifies it as belonging to Whitney and gives it to the police. Another team finds her vehicle in the local Wal-Mart parking lot, tires full of mud & the passenger window smashed. Some children playing in a field find a cell phone. They later recognize the picture on the cell phone as the same lady being shown on TV and turn it in to the police. Police begin the first of twice a day TV updates with Clint and Whitney’s mother and father, appealing to the public for help to report and sightings. It now becomes the lead story on all TV stations in the city.
Thursday, October 18th:   One of our elders (Scott, her uncle) is in the car group that decides to search the road that leads up to Larch Mountain, in the Cascade Mountains. They stop at aisle marker 10 where they spot tire marks on the side of road, some broken glass and a bent up license plate lying in some tall grass. It is Whitney’s license plate! Scott knows the county sheriff, and immediately calls him. The sheriff drops everything and speeds to the mountain. The road and mountain is immediately closed off, the brothers told to go home. The FBI and the local police begin the search of the mountain. The TV news conferences meanwhile continue.
The family just can’t sit still, so they decide to organize the friends in the congregations to go up to the mountain and feed the authorities breakfast, lunch and dinner. The authorities are amazed to see the parents there feeding all these people and comment how they have never seen a people so organized and so giving of themselves. We are prepared to continue doing this for however long it takes.
Friday, October 19th:  An arrest is made. It is a neighbor of Clint’s and Whitney’s, living just several doors down from them. Why, he even has gone to some meetings at their Kingdom Hall! He confesses everything. The authorities find where he hid Whitney on Larch Mountain. He apparently lay in wait for her to come out of her apartment to her car at 6:45 am.   He then forced her into the car, as he had a gun. He has her drive to a remote location where he sexually assaults her and shoots her four times, killing her. Everyone, from family to congregation to the overall community is devastated.
It is announced on TV that the Kingdom Hall is going to have an open house the next Friday, October 26th from 12:00 to 5:00 pm for any who wished to meet the family and express their condolences. This is announced as their lead story on all TV stations every night the entire week. Newscasters actually learned to properly pronounce “Jehovah’s Witnesses” (instead of Jehovah’s or Jehovah’s witness, etc.) The Starbucks where Whitney worked has been turned into a memorial, as local people start leaving flowers in front of the coffee shop. On tonight’s TV news, one week later, they commented that this is the largest flower display of emotion in Portland’s entire history. People in the territory step out from their doors and are hugging the brothers and sisters in field service, and are asking why does God allow things like this to happen? Twelve new Bible studies were started by a car group just this morning!
Wednesday, October 24th:  We gave the Service Meeting over to the family as they explained to us many of the goings on within the police department. The Chief of Police has said that it is obvious that “God is with you people”, and the stories of how the evidence was so quickly found by the Brothers and Sisters and all came together so quickly, there is little doubt as to who was helping! The family made a comment at the end of our meeting which really set the tone for everything that followed the days to come, “The devil made a BIG mistake when he attacked this family. We are determined to turn this tragedy into a victory for Jehovah and give our community the biggest witness it has ever received.”
Thursday, October 25th:  Someone calls with a large wedding tent that they would like to donate and set up in the Kingdom Hall parking lot for the public memorial on Friday. A floral shop calls and asks if they can donate flowers to the event. They fly in on special order thousands of dollars worth of floral arrangements from Hawaii and fill the Kingdom Hall. The Society got involved and had the circuit and district overseers come and serve Clint’s congregation this week – the district overseer also gave the private memorial talk on Saturday. The friends were frantically working to prepare food for the Friday event, but we didn’t have a clue how much food we would need. There was now enough food for 1,400 people. But was that enough? The brother in charge offered a prayer to Jehovah with the group, and as they said “Amen” the telephone rang. It was the manager of Wal-Mart saying he wanted to donate 4,000 sandwiches. Then the telephone rang again and again – from Albertsons and Safeway also wanting to make donations of food.
Friday, October 26th:  All the departments have been put together. Outdoor parking attendants. Indoor parking attendants. Greeters. Food service. Sound. Restroom monitors. Cleaning crew. Literature. Press (TV & newspaper). The clouds were dark and low, 80% chance of heavy rain predicted. A Brother said, “With all of Jehovah’s direction and support this week, he isn’t about to let it rain.” Sure enough, it didn’t rain that day! The family gathered to the front of the Kingdom Hall to greet our guests.  At 12:00 pm, we were ready and opened the doors. A line soon formed out the door, down the driveway and down the street. At 5:00 pm, the line was still out to the street, so the local meetings had to be canceled for that evening. Finally, the last person was welcomed in just after 7:00 pm.     Starbucks employees came with three large boxes filled to the top with money they had collected to help the family with funeral expenses. Strangers came with gifts of flowers, cards and money. It was indescribable, an incredible experience for all of us. We were all ecstatic and exhausted! Two cartons of Bibles and a carton of Teach books had been placed. I was amazed how people who came that didn’t even know Whitney, but simply felt a need to be here and comfort the family. But the family was doing just fine, as they would often say, “they were basking in the arms of Jehovah”. They were hugging and giving comfort to our guests! The brothers in charge of taking count gave up when they reached 2,400 people. So many were coming in, they simply couldn’t be counted. But we estimate that there were between 3,000 and 4,000 people that came.
Saturday, October 27th:  This brings us down to today. We had a simple, private memorial service where only the family, Clint’s congregation and my congregation was invited. So were the police department and any Starbucks employees. All others were literally turned away, and shown the tent out in the parking lot if they wished to stay. The district overseer gave a very good half hour talk. Sitting arm in arm with the family was the chief of police and a number of other officers, and the mayor came too. I think we about hugged the life out of them. But we have clearly won them over and think the world of Jehovah’s Witnesses now. The chief of police said that the next time someone goes missing in Portland, he is going to call on Jehovah’s Witnesses. For this simple, private service, we had an attendance of 840. Not bad. The service was concluded with a very tearful singing of song #111, “He Will Call”.
On Friday, October 26th, Jonathon Holt, 25, was indicted on charges of kidnapping, robbery and sodomy. He had earlier been charged with aggravated murder. CBS news reports that Holt, a neighbor of Whitney's, confessed to asking her for a ride that morning. He told the police that he then pulled a gun on her and forced her to drive to a neaby lake where he sexually assaulted and killed her. He later disposed of her body on Larch Mountain.

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