It was a tense scene Wednesday morning as dozens of people crowded into a courtroom for the arraignment of Mitchell Heng, the man accused in last month’s homicide and arson at Sifton Market.
There were two distinct groups — those for the victim, 47-year-old Amy Marie Hooser, and an even larger group for Heng. Court officials kept the groups separated and warned some of Heng’s supporters to keep cool heads after they clashed with the media who were present.
Heng, 21, showed little emotion as he entered not-guilty pleas to first-degree murder, first-degree arson and first-degree robbery. His trial in Clark County Superior Court was set for March 13, though it’s likely that will be changed. In the meantime, he is being held on $2 million bail. His defense attorney, Matthew Hoff, said he may address the bail amount at a later date.
The case is not being charged as aggravated murder, which carries the possibility of the death penalty.
Based on the information so far from police reports and detectives, prosecutors are not certain they could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the slaying was premeditated — a requirement to win a conviction on aggravated first-degree murder, said Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kasey Vu, who leads the prosecuting attorney’s office’s major crimes unit. If at any point during the investigation the evidence supports the crime was premeditated, the prosecutor’s office will reassess the case, and could amend the charges, he said in a phone interview.
According to court records, Heng was a frequent customer of the convenience store at 13412 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd. He told detectives he went there the morning of Jan. 15 to rob the clerk. Hooser, who was the store manager, was opening the store when he arrived.
Heng told detectives he followed her to the back of the store and robbed her, taking $80 and a carton of cigarettes. He then started the fire and fled, a probable cause affidavit in support of the charges states. Hooser’s body was found in the rubble of the market after a three-alarm fire destroyed the four-unit Sifton Plaza, which also housed a barber shop, pet supply store and pet grooming business.
Heng, a former Heritage High School student, was arrested days later at a relative’s apartment near the gutted strip mall.
He refused to tell investigators how Hooser was killed, the affidavit said. An autopsy found she died of blunt force trauma and smoke inhalation, and her death was ruled a homicide by the Clark County medical examiner.
Hooser, a Vancouver resident, was a mother of three daughters. She had attended Fort Vancouver High School and Washington State University, according to her Facebook page. An online fundraiser has been set up for Hooser’s daughters under the name Help Support Amy’s Daughters.
Market video surveillance recovered after the fire shows Hooser arrive at work at about 5:10 a.m. and begin preparations to open the store. Then a man, later identified as Heng, enters the store and appears to ask for a key. Hooser walks toward the rear of the store, and Heng follows her. She is not seen on the video footage again, the affidavit states.
Heng eventually returns to the camera’s view with a dark-colored stain on his shirt that appears to be blood, court records said. He then takes a carton of Marlboro cigarettes and sets it on the counter. He is next seen carrying a lighter and coffee filters, which he appears to ignite in the office area of the store, according to court documents.
Another market employee recognized the man in the video footage as a regular customer and said he frequents a nearby marijuana shop. An employee there identified the suspect as Heng, court records show.
After he was arrested, Heng was shown the store’s video footage. He told detectives, “That’s me,” the affidavit states.
On Wednesday, Heng’s family and friends gathered in the ground floor lobby of the courthouse to catch another glimpse of him as he was escorted back to the jail. At one point, corrections deputies threatened to kick people out if they continued to be disruptive. Heng was escorted out a back exit to avoid the crowd.