Editor’s column: An epic tragedy plays out in a Utah courtroom

By Terry Orme

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: January 10, 2014 08:02AM
Updated: January 17, 2014 09:09AM
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Terry Orme

Another chapter in the story of Hser Ner Moo is being written this month in a Utah courtroom, but it won’t be the last. The chronicle of a vibrant little girl savagely murdered is actually part of a much larger drama — a tragedy about a country built on the optimism of immigrants and refugees, expectations that often, sadly, never materialize.

The Salt Lake Tribune first became aware of Hser Ner Moo (pronounced “Soo-nah-Moo”) on March 31, 2008. That afternoon, she left her parents’ South Salt Lake apartment to play. That night, neighbors, friends and police searched frantically.

The next day, after a news conference during which her father begged for her return, her bloodied body was found in a neighbor’s bathtub. Another refugee from civil-war-ravaged Burma was arrested.

Almost six years later, Esar Met, now 27, is on trial. The case has frustrated police and prosecutors who have had to navigate unfamiliar cultural landscapes and dialects. For the parents — father Cartoon Wah and mother Pearlly Wa — “frustration” doesn’t begin to describe their pain. Their grief initially was so overwhelming that they left the state.

The murder of the friendly girl who loved to dress in pink appeared, at first, to be a straightforward crime story. But it soon became much more, a window into a community in the Salt Lake Valley that most of us didn’t know existed. Who are these people who live in the South Parc apartments? Where did they come from? What is their story?

To find out, former Tribune reporter Julia Lyon, with a grant from the International Reporting Project, traveled to Southeast Asia, and the refugee camps in Thailand, where Hser Ner Moo was born, and where her family and Esar Met’s family lived before coming to Utah. Lyon’s prize-winning report is available at sltrib.com.

Cartoon Wah and Pearlly Wa had walked from Burma (now known as Myanmar), where life among warring factions had become too hard and dangerous, to the Thailand camps.

But, as Lyon reported, they didn’t escape the violence, because the camp was never completely safe from storms of artillery shells. For the family of Esar Met, it was he — the then-teenage boy — who insisted his family leave for the promise of the United States. Separately, Hser Ner Moo’s family came to the same conclusion. Their lives would intersect in South Salt Lake amid a small refugee community.

Now, these stories are being retold in a court of law. The Tribune’s Marissa Lang has captured the unspeakable heartache as Hser Ner Moo’s parents and extended family testify about that fateful day and how their escape from violence led to the worst violence of all.

For Hser Ner Moo’s family, the trial finally begins to deliver the promise of justice for their little girl’s death.

For Esar Met, who has been in jail for the past six years, he finally gets his days in court and the chance to tell his side.

For us, the tragic story of Hser Ner Moo engenders a deeper understanding of people who live among us, whom we see every day, yet we have no clue about the forces that brought them to be our neighbors.

In the process, we see commonalities. Any parent who listens to Cartoon Wah and Pearlly Wa describe their daughter has two immediate reactions: profound sorrow and tender empathy.

Even more sad is that it took something like this for us to connect to this community. We all need to do better.

Terry Orme is The Tribune’s editor and publisher. Reach him at orme@sltrib.com.

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.