Search leader: Heichel's sweater first clue found by searchers

Search leader: Heichel's sweater first clue found by searchers »Play Video
Whitney Heichel

PORTLAND, Ore. - Without the effort of the Jehovah's Witness Church it's likely we would still be wondering what happened to 21-year-old Whitney Heichel.

It was a week ago today dozens of members of Heichel's church were combing Dodge Park and Larch mountain in a systematic search for her just hours after she disappeared. With the help of church members, investigators located Heichel’s body on Larch Mountain early Friday evening, Oct. 19, after she disappeared earlier in the week.

Church member Bob Weaver coordinated the search. He was a Portland firefighter for nearly 30 years and a para-rescueman in the Air Force Reserve.

"We were looking for Whitney. We weren't looking for evidence," Weaver said by phone Thursday while traveling.

He said the first clue they found was Heichel's sweater.

"They found the sweater and we marked that on a map and focused on and used that as a direction to focus our search," Weaver said. "And then we found evidence at Dodge Park at two in the morning – guy called me and I said, 'wait there, call police and wait there till police shows up.'"

Church members found Heichel's sweater along Dodge Park Boulevard east of Gresham near the tiny town of Pleasant Home. It is six miles from Dodge Park where church members found more undisclosed clues.

Weaver said they started their search at Heichel's apartment and from there sent out about 60 carloads of church members to scour remote areas for her. Those dozens, even hundreds, of searchers mobilized quickly. Searchers took cellphone pictures of areas highlighted on a map to use while searching.

The searchers began to realize the situation was dire when they found Heichel's sweater.

They targeted Larch Mountain where her body was found because they figured that's as far as anyone could have driven, considering the two and a half hours between the times she disappeared and her ATM card was used at a gas station in Gresham.

"Divided that in half (an hour and 15 minutes) and we started driving and seeing how far we can go in an hour and 15 minutes. (We) ended up at Larch Mountain, because of something on the Internet about Larch Mountain, which ended up not being true, but still, you got to do with every possible (lead); one hour 15 minutes, mile marker 9 up Larch Mountain Road – mile marker 10, it all worked out," Weaver said.

Many wondered if church members were tracking Heichel’s cellphone. But Weaver said they had no way to do that. He thinks if it weren't for the church's effort, Heichel's disappearance would still be a mystery.

"Any evidence they did locate up there would have been deteriorated, and her body would probably not have been found until next year with a hunter or something. That's why we really feel like there was divine intervention on this," he said.

Weaver said he's been reluctant to talk about their effort and is emotionally drained.

The man accused of killing Heichel, now 25-year-old Jonathan Holt remains on suicide watch at the Clackamas County Jail. He's charged with seven counts of aggravated murder and is due back in court Friday.

Heichel's family will hold an open house for the public tomorrow at the Salquist Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in Gresham.

Anyone may stop by between noon and 5 p.m. but please no cameras or recording devices.