The police officer took the witness stand Thursday in his uniform blues, a radio affixed to his right shoulder.
Mikal Wersland is a sergeant with the South Salt Lake Police Department. He’s worked homicides and seen children disappear. Violence, trauma and loss come with the job.
But there was something different on March 31, 2008, the sergeant testified Thursday, something different about Hser Ner Moo.
The 7-year-old girl with the warm smile and bright eyes disappeared that afternoon after announcing to her aunt and uncle that she was going to play “for just a little while.”
Hours later, Wersland and six detectives canvassed the neighborhood, knocking on doors and searching homes. They worked tirelessly, into the dark of night.
By 4 a.m. the next morning, the six detectives had searched every home in the largely refugee community save one — Apartment 472.
Later that day, Hser Ner Moo’s bloodied body would be found bent and broken in a basement bathroom. She was beaten, raped and killed.
Wersland fought tears in court Thursday as he recalled the phone call he received from a colleague, telling him the child was dead.
“They told me they found what they believed to be blood evidence in the stairwell of one of the apartments we hadn’t been able to search,” the officer said, wiping his eyes with a tissue. “I just thought about this poor family and having to — just the thought of having to tell this family what had happened to their little girl.”
Wersland was the latest of several veteran officers to break down on the stand over the last several days in the trial of Esar Met, a Burmese refugee accused of kidnaping, raping and killing the little girl.
The officers all told the same tale: In their gut they knew it would not end well.
“I just didn’t feel good about it,” Wersland said. “I didn’t think we were doing a thorough enough search.”
Emotions ran high during the first three days of testimony in the 3rd District Court trial, which was expected to continue through Jan. 24.
On Wednesday, the child’s family testified about the kind of girl she was and the loss they have struggled with since her death. Their cries and their words, delivered by a Karen translator, moved at least one juror to tears.
On Thursday, the third day of proceedings, prosecutors brought in Wersland, a refugee caseworker, several forensic experts and the girl’s uncle — one of the last to see her alive — to testify to a panel of 11 jurors.
“She was a happy, healthy little girl,” uncle Say Blowh said through a translator. “She was always happy to see you, always ready to give a warm welcome.”
Prosecutors allege that Met abducted the child on March 31, 2008, brought her down to his basement apartment — just doors away from the girl’s own home — where he sexually and physically assaulted the child before killing her.
Defense attorneys have said that Met and the child were friends and playmates, that he cared for her and other children in the apartment complex.
There were no witnesses who saw Met abduct or slay the girl, defense attorneys said in opening statements Tuesday, noting the evidence the prosecution does have — DNA collected from Met’s denim jacket and from under the child’s fingernails — were remnants of games the two had played days before.
Met has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him: first-degree felony counts of child kidnapping and aggravated murder. If convicted, Met could spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Hser Ner Moo was found by FBI agents after more than a daylong community-wide search that case worker Carrie Pender said swept the refugee community.
“We were all looking for Hser Ner Moo,” said Pender, who befriended the family after she assisted them in registering Hser Ner Moo and her brother Sunday Moo in a local public school. “There were so many people in and out of the apartment. ... We ended up sending people away.”
Pearlly Wa, the child’s mother, was frantic, Pender said. She kept running outside to search for her daughter’s footprints in the slow-melting snow even after officers asked her to stay put.
“I’ll never forget the look on her face, just the fear in her eyes that she couldn’t find her little girl,” Pender said. “When it came to be nighttime and we still couldn’t find her, she was just desperate.”
The family did not know Met or that the girl had visited his apartment before.
Defense attorneys have implied one of Met’s four roommates could have been responsible for the girl’s disappearance and death.
Met, who had also been living in a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand before moving to the U.S., arrived in the apartment about a month before the slaying. The other men had been there longer.
Met’s roommates were arrested on April 1, 2008, but later released.
Police said at the time that the four men were not home when the girl was killed and did not know her body was in Met’s basement bathroom.
Forensic experts walked a jury through the bloody crime scene Thursday as prosecutors projected graphic photographs in court.
Blood streaked the white walls and dotted the carpet in the basement where Met had been living. Trickles of red dotted the linoleum floor of the bathroom, a trail that led investigators to find the child crumpled in the tub.
She was facedown, one arm broken. Someone had stuffed her discarded underwear beneath her head and bent her legs to fit the child’s small body into the narrow basin.
Her hair and skin were wet, as were her clothes, said investigator Brent Marchant, who worked on the case for the medical examiner’s office. He guessed the perpetrator had tried to wash her.
“She was very cold,” he said, estimating she had been dead for at least 18 hours. “She had been through quite a struggle, a violent struggle.”
On Friday, prosecutors will likely call relatives of the defendant to testify.
A Missing Peace
Reporter Julia Lyon traveled to Thailand to trace the journeys of Hser Ner Moo and Esar Met from the Mae La refugee camp to Salt Lake City. Her series, reported in collaboration with the International Reporting Project, also explored the challenges their families and other refugees face in America. See the series at http://extras.sltrib.com/thailand.