It had been two weeks since Esar Met moved into Apartment 472, and his roommates still did not know his name.
When police searching for a missing girl asked the four roommates about the man who lived downstairs on April 1, 2008, roommate Maung Myo Mye testified Tuesday, they offered descriptions: He was the Muslim, the Indian.
They didn’t learn the man’s name until later that day, until police arrested all five of the men who lived in the South Salt Lake apartment, where the body of 7-year-old Hser Ner Moo was found crumpled in a bathtub.
This rift, defense attorneys said during the sixth day of testimony, runs deeper than the two flights of stairs that separated the four men from Met.
Met, 27, who has been charged in 3rd District Court with child kidnapping and aggravated murder in the 2008 slaying of Hser Ner Moo, speaks Burmese. His roommates speak Karen.
Met is Muslim. His roommates are Christian.
Met did not eat meals with the men. He didn’t often hang out with them in the apartment’s living room.
“He doesn’t eat pork,” said roommate Myint Kyi. “So, no, he doesn’t usually eat with us.”
Added roommate Po Dee: “I didn’t see him much.”
Met has pleaded not guilty to all charges, and his lawyers have maintained it was his roommates who may have been responsible for the girl’s disappearance or death.
But under oath Tuesday, all four fervently denied having done anything to harm the girl or knowing of her whereabouts.
“Did you ever do anything to hurt Hser Ner Moo?” prosecutor Robert Parrish asked each of the men.
“Never,” Maung Myo Mye said.
“No,” Po Dee said.
“I never hurt that kid,” Myint Kyi said.
“Why do you ask that? She never even talked to me,” Ku Nu said. “We never got close to each other.”
The four men said they didn’t know the girl had been missing for as long as she was when police found her lifeless body in the bathroom below.
Some had noticed an increased police presence in the community, but didn’t realize it was a wide-scale search for the little girl — until police found her in their home.
Apartment 472 was the last to be checked after law enforcement spent all night and all day searching nearby apartments, cars and individuals for any trace of Hser Ner Moo.
Officers testified last week that they had tried to make contact with the residents of that apartment, but got no response, despite knocking, calling into the home and shining flashlights through the windows.
The roommates said police came after dinner. They were seated in the living room together watching a movie.
At first, the search seemed routine. Police checked in the bedrooms upstairs, which were shared among the four men, and found nothing.
Then, the officers descended to the bottom level.
A call came up from below. Police ordered the four roommates to sit still and not move.
“[Police] said Hser Ner Moo was gone, that Hser Ner Moo’s body was found in our basement,” Maung Myo Mye testified through a Karen interpreter. “I was so surprised, I can’t believe that was happening.”
They were taken away to be questioned at the South Salt Lake police station.
On the stand Tuesday, two of the four men recalled seeing her around the apartment — she would come by to watch movies sometimes with her big brothers, said Myint Kyi.
The others said the only had seen her playing outside in the South Parc complex, which was home to many refugee families.
None had seen her in the hours surrounding her disappearance.
But they hadn’t seen their fifth roommate, Esar Met, either.
On March 31, 2008, the day when prosecutors believe Hser Ner Moo perished, Maung Myo Mye said he left his home for work about 5:30 a.m. and did not return until 4:20 p.m.
Myint Kyi left shortly there after — about 6 a.m. — and returned around 4:30.
Po Dee and his brother Ku Nu left for work after 7 a.m., and didn’t return home until after 5 p.m.
Hser Ner Moo was last seen by her family sometime between 1:30 and 2 p.m. that day.
Met, who bumped into his uncle on a bus that afternoon, would have had to leave the South Parc apartment complex where he lived no later than 2:39 p.m. to catch that bus, police said.
That means, Met would have had to kill Hser Ner Moo during a window of about an hour between the time she vanished and the time he boarded a bus to his aunt and uncle’s home in Cottonwood Heights.
Met’s defense attorneys have maintained that’s not what happened.
The lawyers, who said their client loves children and never did anything to harm Hser Ner Moo, implied his roommates know more about what happened to the girl than they’ve said.
Defense attorneys have pointed to the roommates’ seemingly indifferent attitudes toward the child’s parents when they came to the apartment door searching for the missing girl as well as the ethnic differences between the men and their client.
Maung Myo Mye, who spoke to the girl’s father the day she disappeared, said it was not clear how dire the situation was.
“He said ‘Have you seen my daughter?’ ” Maung Myo Mye said of Cartoon Wah. “We said, ‘no, we didn’t see her.’ Then we went back to watch a movie.”
On Monday, Utah’s chief medical examiner testified that Hser Ner Moo suffered more than a dozen “excruciating” injuries, including a fatal tear to the girl’s heart.
Todd Grey walked an 11-person jury through each wound: bruises to the child’s face, back and chest, internal bleeding from her skull and her heart, her lungs, kidney and pancreas were scraped and bruised, her left arm was broken in two places.
In an autopsy performed the day after Hser Ner Moo’s body was found, Grey ruled the sum of these injuries caused the child’s death. But the wound to the girl’s heart, a tear in its right atrium, was the most lethal.
“This was a homicide,” Grey said, “a death due to an intentional action by another person.”
Prosecutors decided to forgo seeking the death penalty against Met last year to speed up the proceedings in the nearly 6-year-old case. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life behind bars.
During cross-examination by the defense, Grey said he couldn’t be sure what time the girl died.
It was likely a minimum of 12 hours before she was found, which was at about 7 p.m. on April 1, 2008, Grey testified, but it could have been as much as a day and a half before.
Esar Met timeline
March 31, 2008
• 1:30 to 2 p.m.: Hser Ner Moo last seen by her family.
• 2:39 p.m.: The latest Esar Met could had left his South Salt Lake apartment to catch a bus to Cottonwood Heights, where he stayed the night at the home of his aunt and uncle.
• 3:30 to 4 p.m.: Esar Met arrives at his aunt and uncle’s home.
• 6:30 to 7 p.m.: Hser Ner Moo’s father, Cartoon Wah, knocks on the door of Esar Met’s apartment; Met’s four roommates said they hadn’t seen the girl.
• Evening: Hundreds of volunteers scour the area looking for the 7-year-old girl.
April 1, 2008:
• 4 a.m.: Detectives knock on the door of Apartment 472 , get no response.
• 7 p.m.: Hser Ner Moo’s body found in Esar Met’s basement apartment.
• 10 p.m.: Esar Met arrested at his aunt and uncle’s home.
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.