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(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Esar Met, left, sits with his defense team and translator at the beginning of his murder trial in Salt Lake City, Tuesday Jan. 7, 2014. Met is accused of killing 7-year-old Hser Ner Moo in 2008.
Burmese refugee no stranger to girl he allegedly killed
Trial » Esar Met is accused of killing Hser Ner Moo, 7, in 2008.
First Published Jan 07 2014 11:15 am • Last Updated Jan 08 2014 09:50 am

From outside, the black door and white walls of Apartment 472 looked no different than any other in the South Salt Lake refugee community.

But inside, beneath cramped quarters and two flights of stairs, a 7-year-old girl’s lifeless body lay crumpled in a bathtub.

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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.

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Hser Ner Moo was killed in Apartment 472.

Nearly six years later, questions remain: Who killed the child? And why?

On Tuesday, prosecutors kicked off a three-week trial with evidence and testimony they hope will convince a jury that Esar Met, a Burmese refugee who had befriended the little girl, is the one to blame.

Met, 27, is charged in 3rd District Court with first-degree felony counts of child kidnapping and aggravated murder for the slaying of Hser Ner Moo. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life behind bars.

As the prosecution and Met’s defense attorneys made opening statements, the defendant leaned forward in his seat and furrowed his brow, eyes darting back and forth between lawyers and a Burmese interpreter expressively translating every word:

"On March 31, 2008, Hser Ner Moo was healthy and happy. She was excited for life and she went out to play — never to return," prosecutor Matthew Janzen told the jury.

The next day, police found her body.

"She was no longer happy and healthy," Janzen said. "She had been sexually and physically abused. The life was beaten out of her."

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But defense attorneys told jurors that no evidence proved Met was the killer.

There were no eyewitnesses who saw him abduct or slay the girl. And at no point while Met was questioned and detained, said defense attorney Michael Peterson, did he behave like a guilty person.

The DNA collected from Met’s jacket and from under the girl’s fingernails that prosecutors would blame on a violent struggle was actually the result of games and play from days before, added Peterson.

Met and Hser Ner Moo played together in the apartment complex where they both lived.

Once, Peterson said, Met cooked the girl and "her little friends" dinner. He would take her on bicycle rides and carry her around on his back.

"Esar Met loved the kids in this complex," Peterson told the jury. "Hser Ner Moo enjoyed this play. It made her happy. She was never upset at all by any of this activity with Mr. Met. There is no evidence that Mr. Met mistreated her. Ever."

But it was this playfulness, prosecutors said, that allowed Met to get close to the girl he allegedly would kidnap, and then rape and murder inside his basement apartment.

Hser Ner Moo’s disappearance prompted hundreds of volunteers to search for her. Police said she was recognized throughout the community, though no one had seen her that day.

The child’s family lived in the same complex and was friendly with several of the men who lived in Met’s apartment, including at least one roommate who had been approached by Hser Ner Moo’s father on the day the girl disappeared.

"The father came to their door asking, ‘Have you seen my little girl? I’m looking for my little girl,’ " Peterson told the jury. "[The men] say, ‘No, we haven’t seen her.’ But then what do the roommates then do? Knowing that this gentleman is looking for his little girl, do they call out to the basement to see if Esar might be down there? To see if he had seen Hser Ner Moo? No."

This indifference, defense attorneys said, was unusual.

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