I responded to a fair amount of calls similar to this in my career. Call it a gut feeling, call it a mother’s reaction, it wasn’t just a normal missing child that hadn’t returned from school. – Former South Salt Lake police officer Jacob Burto
SALT LAKE CITY — Paramedic Andrew Maurer well remembers being led into a South Salt Lake basement where the body of 7-year-old missing girl had just been found.
"It was spooky that night," he testified Tuesday, noting the dark basement and all the flashes going off from police investigators taking pictures. "It just looked like a horror scene to me."
Maurer was one of 10 people who testified on the first day of the murder trial of Esar Met, which began nearly six years after the body of young Hser Ner Moo was found in Met's basement bathroom.
Met, 26, is charged with aggravated murder and child kidnapping, first-degree felonies, in the March 31, 2008, death of the Burmese refugee girl. Her disappearance sparked a wide search effort, leading to the discovery of her body the next day.
Maurer and former South Salt Lake Fire Capt. Paul Rasmussen were called by police to the basement of Met's apartment to confirm what detectives already suspected, that the little girl was dead.
"I observed a body that was in the bottom of a shower area. I was taken back by what I saw," Rasmussen testified. "She had a lot of blood all over her."
Hser's hair was matted with blood. Rasmussen bent down to touch her skin and try to move her leg, and found she was "very, very cold." Rigor mortis had already set in.
"I saw the girl in the bottom of the shower stall, curled up, face down, her head was away from us," Maurer testified. "I could see that (her left arm) was bent back, broken."
The testimony of the paramedics describing the gruesome crime scene was accompanied by graphic photos that were shown to the jury.
Prosecutor Matthew Janzen told the six-woman, five-man jury during his opening statements that over the next three weeks, they would hear from people who knew Met, medical professionals, and testimony about DNA evidence.
"That evidence will prove beyond a responsible doubt that this defendant killed Hser Ner Moo," Janzen said.
But defense attorney Michael Peterson countered during his opening remarks that while "there's no question that the death of Hser Ner Moo is tremendously sad, tremendously tragic, shocking," the evidence presented by the state is circumstantial.
"This is not a case of an eyewitness," Peterson said.
He asked the jury to keep an open mind and not to let the emotional evidence that will be presented cloud their judgment. While the state will argue that Hser's blood was found on Met's jacket, and Met's DNA was found on her fingernails, the defense is expected to argue that the forensic evidence could have come during normal horseplay, as the two were known to play with each other.
Peterson also asked the jury to pay attention to Met's demeanor through the ordeal, which he called calm, and noted that the behaviors and demeanors of Met's four roommates should also be taken into consideration.
All witnesses called to the stand Tuesday were law enforcers or paramedics. Former South Salt Lake police officer Jacob Burton was the most emotional on the stand, wiping away tears as he recalled meeting with Hser's mother for the first time, who was crying and asking for help finding her missing daughter. He said he knew right away this case was different.
"I responded to a fair amount of calls similar to this in my career," he said. "Call it a gut feeling, call it a mother's reaction, it wasn't just a normal missing child that hadn't returned from school."
Families that typically live in the apartment complex where Hser lived are tight-knit, and children didn't typically wander off, said South Salt Lake Police Lt. Ron Lance.
Four FBI agents who searched the apartment where the child's body was found were called to the witness stand first. Met was not home when the FBI arrived. The other four roommates took between five and 10 minutes to answer the door when agents arrived.
The agents testified that when they went into the basement, they immediately saw two brown stains that appeared to be dried blood on the carpet.
"I thought, 'Boy, this is not good,'" testified FBI agent James Olsen. "I think this is where Hser Ner Moo was either beaten or was murdered."
Olsen said he was most concerned by a blood spatter on the wall. "This appeared to me to be someone who was struck with an object," he said.
When a photo of the girl's lifeless body in the shower was shown, most jurors, as well as Met, watched without showing any visible emotion.
FBI agent James Lamadrid said it appeared Hser had been dead for some time.
By this time, a fifth person, a neighbor, had entered the apartment. After FBI agents discovered the body and went back upstairs to contact other law enforcement agencies and start sealing off the apartment as a crime scene, they observed the expressions and demeanors of the five other people in the house.
"I wanted to see if I they had wide-eyed scared (looks)," Olsen said. "But I did not see any kind of a change in demeanor at all with them. … Nothing that would cause me any concern at all."
FBI agent Lance Edwards concurred. "Nobody was visibly nervous or concerned or interested in what we were doing," he said.
Investigators do not believe any Met's roommates were involved with the killing or had any idea what had taken place in the basement.
Though the girl was killed in March 2008, the case has stalled due to language barriers and the Burmese man's struggles to understand the court process. Translators are being rotated during the court hearings, constantly interpreting to Met what others are saying. Several times during Tuesday's hearing, attorneys were asked to slow down while questioning witnesses so the translator could relate everything to Met. Met wore a set of headphones as the interpreters spoke softly into a microphone so he could hear.
Because of the extreme language barrier the case has presented, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill decided not to seek the death penalty in the case.
Several of Hser's family members were expected to be called to the witness stand on Wednesday.
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