He lured the child with games and treats. He made her laugh, helped her feel safe and welcome in the depths of his basement home.
But on March 31, 2008, a jury ruled Friday, kindness turned to violence as Esar Met sexually assaulted, beat and killed 7-year-old Hser Ner Moo.
Jurors entered the courtroom Friday after more than five hours of deliberation looking haggard and spent. They had sat through nine days of testimony, 41 witnesses and more than two hours of closing arguments that morning.
Two female jurors held tissues at the ready. Their eyes looked as if they had already been crying.
In the gallery, packed with friends and family of the young victim, a tense silence filled the air, punctuated only by the quiet sobs of Pearlly Wa — the mother who lost her only daughter nearly six years ago.
Met was convicted of child kidnapping and aggravated murder, both first-degree felonies that could land the 27-year-old Burmese refugee in prison for the rest of his life.
For the victim’s family, Friday brought the long-awaited answer to a heartbreaking mystery. It brought justice and closure.
But it did little to ease their suffering.
“Still no more daughter,” Hser Ner Moo’s father, Cartoon Wah, croaked in heavily accented English outside the courtroom, his eyes brimming with tears. “My only daughter is still no more.”
Hser Ner Moo was last seen by her family on March 31, 2008. She was happy and healthy and wanted to go play.
Her body was found the next day, crumpled, bloody and broken in the basement bathtub of Met’s South Salt Lake apartment.
Met, who shared the apartment with four other Burmese men, was arrested at a relative’s home in Cottonwood Heights. He had been in the country just one month, and would spend the next six years behind bars awaiting trial.
On March 26, prosecutors and defense attorneys will argue whether Met should get life without parole or 20 years to life in prison.
Sentencing by Judge Judith Atherton is set for May 7.
Defense attorneys argued Friday in 3rd District Court that their client was innocent — that he never laid hands on Hser Ner Moo and was not at home when the child was brutally slain.
“Esar got along with everyone; he was friendly,” argued defense attorney Michael Peterson. “Esar played in a friendly manner with Hser Ner Moo. They played chase, they played tag. Esar helped her learn how to ride a bike around the complex. ... Mr. Met never acted inappropriate.”
But prosecutors said it was this relationship that put Met in the perfect position to kill the child.
“None of [Met’s roommates] wanted to play with Hser Ner Moo, but the defendant did,” prosecutor Matt Janzen said. “Who had the time to lure this girl into the basement? ... When you look at the relationships in this case, all we have is Esar Met alone in the basement with this little girl.”
Despite the defense’s assertions that Met’s roommates or another unknown person may have been responsible for killing the girl and dumping her body in the basement of Apartment 472, whose doors were habitually unlocked, prosecutors urged jurors to use their common sense.
Salt Lake County Deputy District Attorney Robert Parrish asked jurors to follow the logic of how Esar Met had the opportunity and ability to kill Hser Ner Moo rather than rely on their imagination to wonder who else may have murdered the girl.
“Let’s talk about the truth, ladies and gentlemen,” argued Parrish. “The truth is it makes no common sense that when the defendant left that afternoon Hser Ner Moo was still alive and well in the basement. ... Hser Ner Moo was dead.”
As Parrish addressed the jury, the slain child’s mother and father wept in the gallery.
The girl’s aunt, among the last to see her alive, wiped tears from her eyes as she whispered what sounded like a prayer in her native language of Karen.
“This was a special child, an amazing girl with a promising future,” Parrish said. “She’s only dead because of one selfish act by the defendant.”
Prosecutors allege Met kidnapped, sexually assaulted and killed the girl in his basement apartment during the short window between the time she disappeared about 1:30 p.m. and when Met boarded a bus about an hour later.
He fled to his aunt and uncle’s Cottonwood Heights home, Parrish said, because he was trying to get away from the scene of his crime.
“Hser Ner Moo was sexually abused, repeatedly beaten, strangled, had her arm bent and broken and ultimately killed by a massive blow to her chest. ... After that happened, Esar Met had to get away,” Parrish said. “He throws her underwear in the shower by her dead or dying body, turns on the shower to wash away any evidence and then gets on a bus.”
No eyewitnesses could place Met at the scene of the crime or say that he was with Hser Ner Moo on the day she vanished, but it was unreasonable to expect such a witness to exist, Parrish said.
“There are only two possibilities: the defendant did it, or someone else did,” Parrish said. “But there’s no evidence of anyone else having hurt Hser Ner Moo. And there’s really only one person who was in a position who could have done this. That’s Esar Met.”
By the time Parrish had concluded his closing remarks, four of the five women who decided Met’s guilt were wiping tears from their eyes.
This sadness, defense attorneys said, was a natural response to such a horrific crime.
“No child should ever endure the pain and suffering that Hser Ner Moo did, and no family should ever have to endure the suffering, the pain and the loss that Hser Ner Moo’s family has had to,” said defense attorney Michael Peterson. “When something like this happens, the cry of a family goes out, the cry of a whole community goes out. We want justice.”
He urged the jurors to deliberate based on the merits of the state’s case, rather than their emotions, noting that justice is only done if the right man is convicted — not simply if any man is.
Peterson called the state’s case circumstantial and weak, offering alternate explanations for the DNA evidence found under the slain child’s fingernails, blood on Met’s jacket and location of the child’s body.
The DNA could have transferred as the two played, Peterson argued. A bloody nose could have left traces on Met’s jacket as he carried the girl. Her family members had testified that she had a cut on her finger from days before.
Her nails, Peterson said, could have scraped the man’s skin as the two played tag.
Peterson argued that the state had not proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Met was, indeed, the killer.
“I ask that you come back with a not guilty verdict,” Peterson said. “And this is very difficult because we have a family here suffering. We have a community here suffering. But the judge has given you very clear instruction: Perform your duties fairly.”
Met stood as the verdict was handed down Friday. He wore a yellow shirt and headphones through which he heard the verdict translated into Burmese.
His face remained as it had for the majority of the trial — expressionless and calm.
Met will be sentenced at a later date. He faces either life without parole or 20 years to life in prison.
Prosecutors decided to forgo seeking the death penalty in this case to speed up the case after years-stalled proceedings.
Family members weren’t the only ones moved by the jury’s decision Friday.
Parrish has been assigned to this case since the day after Hser Ner Moo’s lifeless body was found, and on his way out of the courtroom Friday, the prosecutor paused to say a few words:
“This has been a very long time coming,” he said. “It’s finally time for Hser Ner Moo to receive justice.”
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 have 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.