Mitchell Heng dissolved into tears and collapsed to the floor outside the courtroom Thursday evening after a Clark County jury found him guilty of killing a clerk and setting fire to Sifton Market in January 2017.
As a shackled Heng sobbed uncontrollably, two corrections deputies helped him up and, with one at each side, assisted Heng out of the courthouse.
His family and friends, also in tears, trailed behind yelling that they loved him and to stay strong.
The Clark County Superior Court jury reached its verdict in about two hours’ time, to the surprise of many who sat through the trial, and convicted Heng of first-degree murder in the death of 47-year-old Amy Marie Hooser, as well as first-degree arson. He was acquitted of first-degree robbery.
Heng, 24, was emotional before learning his fate, tearing up at defense counsel’s table and exclaiming, “Oh, God!” as he waited. “Keep it together,” defense attorney Matthew Hoff told him. But as the verdict was read aloud, Heng buried his face in his hands and quietly cried. He turned to his supporters after and mouthed, “I love you.”
He will be sentenced Oct. 11.
“I think justice has been served,” Hooser’s mother, Gretchen Edwards, said after the verdict, adding, “It’s been a long time coming.
“My heart breaks for his family,” she said, choking up, “because clearly they had a troubled human among their midst, and we did, too, so we understand how heartbreaking it can be for them. It truly is.”
Heng testified Wednesday that he didn’t kill Hooser on the morning of Jan. 15; he claimed a mystery methamphetamine dealer known as “Zip” was behind the crimes.
Heng — who sold marijuana and cocaine — said he came to the market to collect drug money from Hooser. He sold to her, Heng said, and she would resell some of the product and give him his cut. She had the same arrangement, he said, with Zip for methamphetamine.
He claimed that Zip became enraged when he saw Hooser giving Heng money, because she apparently owed Zip thousands of dollars. Zip beat Hooser and ordered Heng to rob and set fire to the store, or risk facing the same fate, Heng testified.
However, during closing arguments Thursday, a prosecutor said Heng’s testimony about Zip was just part of a long list of fabrications.
Deputy Prosecutor Aaron Bartlett said, “Zip is basically what you get when all of the evidence conclusively” points to Heng.
“There is no evidence Zip exists. He’s no more the killer than the others (Heng) tried to blame it on,” Bartlett said. “Zip doesn’t exist.”
Heng was the only person captured on store surveillance footage with Hooser on the day of the killing. He arrived at the store shortly after 5 a.m. and is seen following Hooser to the back deli area, where there were no working cameras.
That was the last time Hooser was seen alive.
Bartlett said the cameras show Heng emerge about four minutes later. He opens a couple of coolers and selects a drink. He walks to the front office, where blood is seen on his shirt, and takes a sip of soda. He steals a lighter and cigarettes and returns to the deli area.
When he returns to the front office a second time, his shirt is buttoned up, covering the blood, Bartlett said, he has coffee filters in hand, and then he starts a fire. Heng then fiddles with the safe in the office, but when he’s unsuccessful, he turns his attention back to the fire. He then grabs a stack of timecards and returns to the deli area, Bartlett said, where he presumably sets another fire.
By the time Heng emerges again, the store is thick with smoke. He’s seen one last time near the front when the cameras cut out at 5:29 a.m.
“We only see him,” Bartlett said. “We know what Mitchell Heng was doing, and we know he was alone.”
The three-alarm fire destroyed the four-unit Sifton Plaza, which also housed a barber shop, pet supply store and pet-grooming business.
Several animals died in the blaze.
Hooser’s body was located that afternoon in the deli prep area under rubble. An autopsy found she died of blunt-force trauma to the head and smoke inhalation, and her death was ruled a homicide by the Clark County medical examiner.
The store’s surveillance system was recovered, and one of Heng’s friends identified him as the person in the footage.
Investigators subsequently found footprints at the crime scene with tread that matched Heng’s several pairs of 2007 Nike Air Force Premium shoes. Bartlett said Heng disposed of the exact pair he wore during the slaying. Investigators also found blood on the floor mat in Heng’s vehicle that later came back as a match to Hooser.
Heng changed his story more than a half-dozen times and attempted to tamper with witnesses in the case, Bartlett said. At one point, Heng claimed Hooser’s boyfriend was present that morning and that Heng sold him $60 worth of cocaine. His story changed again when he said a black man who frequents the corner by the market pressured him to rob the store.
When Heng changed his story again to Zip, Bartlett pointed out that despite having been outside Zip’s apartment and knowing him for years, Heng said he didn’t know Zip’s real name. He also couldn’t remember what Zip was wearing on the day of the killing or any details about it.
“The only evidence that Zip exists is Mitchell’s word, and we know that’s not worth much,” Bartlett told the jury on rebuttal.
In the defense’s 2 1/2 -hour closing argument, Hoff spoke of confirmation bias by law enforcement and state witnesses, and said the defense is “putting pieces of the puzzle together that the government is ignoring.”
He argued the major pieces of evidence are: Hooser did not die from smoke inhalation or carbon monoxide poisoning; she had a lethal dose of methamphetamine in her system before she died; and a third person was at the market with Hooser and Heng.
Hooser is not captured on camera entering the store, Hoff said, arguing that she must have been there all along in the back with someone else. He said it wouldn’t be a stretch to think she was back there smoking methamphetamine before work; a pipe was found with her belongings and she had a lighter in her pocket.
Hoff said Hooser was keeping secrets, and it’s not unreasonable to believe she was selling drugs to feed her own habit.
Hooser’s mother said she doesn’t believe any of that.
“Amy was an addict. She used methamphetamine for 20 years and lived the typical life of a methamphetamine addict,” said Edwards, 69.
But six years ago, Hooser got clean and stayed that way until just before her death, and Edwards said she hadn’t seen evidence of her daughter using again. But based on toxicology reports that found the drug in her system, Edwards said she must have been.
Still, Edwards said she doesn’t believe Hooser was selling drugs or that she would have jeopardized her job by carrying out drug transactions at the market.
A detective on the case testified that investigators did not find any evidence at Hooser’s residence or in her vehicle that she was selling drugs.