The sudden and tragic disappearance of Gresham Starbucks barista Whitney Heichel, 21, occurred on the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 16, as she was headed to work. She was first reported as missing, but police found Heichel’s body on Larch Mountain later that same week on Friday, Oct. 19.
The accused killer was later recognized to be an acquaintance and neighbor of Heichel. The suspected murderer Jonathan Holt, 24, was arrested after having admitted that he had kidnapped, sexually assaulted and shot Heichel multiple times before she died.
This incident arose much public interest. People in the Gresham area and beyond have been constantly following up on any further news and updates on the Heichel incident during the four days she was missing. The community was engaged in the follow up of Heichel at every moment and supported in every way possible.
“While Whitney was missing, I felt terrible grief. She never left my mind and all I could do was replay what I knew over and over in my head. It just didn’t seem real and throughout the investigation, I was beyond paranoid and worried,” recent graduate Ashley Johnson, a close friend of Heichel’s sister, said.
Once the unfortunate news was released Friday night, many people in the community were extremely shocked and devastated, as they had grown so attached to Heichel while she was missing.
“When the conclusion was announced, I was heartbroken. My heart ached for her family and all of her loved ones, especially because she was the sister of one of my very close friends,” Johnson said.
Many community members showed empathy toward the friends and family of Heichel.
Additionally, the aftermath of Heichel’s incident resulted in people in the Gresham area, especially young women, to take extra caution.
Senior Carmella Gemmato works at the Gresham Martial Arts Fitness Center, which is located in the same strip mall as the Starbucks Heichel had worked at.
“Since Whitney went missing I have felt a lot less comfortable coming to and from work every day. I used to park far away across the parking lot and not worry at all about going to my car late at night, but now I take the closest parking place and sometimes make people walk me to my car,” Gemmato said.
According to Gemmato, she is skeptical of everyone now and tries to not talk to anyone walking around that strip mall. She is a lot more cautious and feels that what happened to Heichel is really sad, as it makes her wonder what other sick people could be out there.
Johnson had a similar response.
“For the first few days I was incredibly paranoid. Walking from my house to my car felt like a scary movie,” Johnson said. “The incident made me very aware of my surroundings. I even attached my pepper spray to my keys.”
The unexpected abduction and murder of Heichel have left many people suspicious and leery of their surroundings and approaching strangers or even second guessing the validity of their own neighbors.
Junior Cason Xerxes stated that it has changed her perspective on going out of her way to do nice things for others.
“[Now,] I would not give any of my neighbors a ride–and not think anything of it. But I don’t want to live my life always scared and suspecting that someone will do something like that to me,” Xerxes said. “I also believe that the incident will make everyone in Gresham realize that things can happen here.”
Xerxes and her family used to attend the same church as Heichel and her husband, Clinton Heichel. The Heichel couple even sat in front of Xerxes’ family on a regular basis at church.
According to Xerxes, it is crazy how something that she thought could never happen, hit so close to home, and she feels as if the incident was both scary and sad.
For many people in the community, this incident really had a huge impact because it happened right in the center of the city of Gresham.
“I feel like these incidents happen all the time in the USA, however, it really hits home when they happen in your corner of the world, or the corner of my parking lot,” Gemmato said. “I also feel really bad for her husband and family. I have no idea how he will be able to get over this and trust the world again.”
It came as a shock to many that incidents like this could happen anywhere. Many people in the local area are rethinking and second guessing the extent of safety in the Gresham community.
According to Gemmato, she used to think that Gresham was a safe place and a tight community where people do not try to harm each other. This incident has made her question that.
“If her neighbor is a murderer, it makes me wonder about my own. People can’t be trusted completely, even if it’s in a cute town like Gresham,” Gemmato said.
Despite the fact that this incident served as a reminder to take more caution, this occurrence also provided a chance for the community to come together and support the Heichel family.
The church helped fundraise and search for Heichel, seven Dutch Bros. coffee shops donated half their sales to the Heichel family and other ordinary citizens of the area have raised awareness and funds in support of the family.
“I believe what happened to Whitney has changed our view on the world and has motivated us to be more cautious,” Johnson said. “But even more so, Whitney’s life has inspired us to be the best we can be. Whether it’s the bright smile that shines through the photos we’ve seen of her or it’s the appreciation we have gained for the people around us, she has reminded us to love, support and be thankful for the people in our lives.”