Little girl lost

Heather Opel faces 20 years to life for following mother's orders

AT 90 POUNDS, Heather Opel doesn’t take up much space in life, or in the Snohomish County courtroom. Released from her leg and wrist restraints, the 14-year-old sits in a chair in an orange jumpsuit, chin in hand, fidgeting—seemingly a child, daydreaming at times. * She is 5 foot 4, about the height of her mother, Barbara. The two share other traits as well. * Both are dark blond. Both have blue full-moon eyes. Both are accused of murder. * Barbara Opel, a 38-year-old Everett divorced mother of three, is accused of trying to hire 11 children and one male adult to kill her employer and steal his money. By all accounts, Jerry Heimann graciously opened his North Everett house to Barbara, giving her a home and a job as caretaker of his 89-year-old mother. Opel wanted more, prosecutors say. * They say she eventually hired five teens, including daughter Heather, to kill Heimann last April. * They contend that Heather, 13 at the time, was a willing part of her mother’s murder plan. When the girl and four other Everett youths allegedly beat and stabbed the 64-year-old Heimann to death, prosecutors say Barbara was in the basement of Heimann’s home with her two other kids—a girl, 7, and a boy, 11—barking out murder commands.

She is said to have paid her kiddie contract killers anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few bucks. Heather was to get a dirt bike. Her trial will begin in a few months, followed by her mother’s. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Deputy prosecutor George Appel calls the teens “monsters” and says they showed a “peculiar, cold indifference” to murder. The court seems to agree; it has decided that Heather and three of the other teens committed a crime too gruesome to qualify as merely juvenile.

Heather will stand trial as an adult. Just like mom.

The girl’s attorney calls that a crime in itself. To put Heather in an adult prison is to abuse and write her off the way her calculating mother did.

Seattle attorney Michele Shaw, who is Heather’s court-appointed attorney, says the girl was manipulated most of her life—especially in the days prior to the murder, when she was urged by her mother to sleep with a boy Barbara hoped to recruit for the killing.

“Her mother used her as payment for murder,” says Shaw, “then commanded her to kill, too. She is a victim herself.”

Like many teens, Heather kept a diary, jotting down nursery rhymes, thoughts on sports, and mundane happenings: “Today, I brought a lunch from home,” she wrote last year. The next entry, a month before the murder and in apparent reference to the dirt bike, was: “So my mom said if I helped kill Jerry I can go get one.”

If murder was equal to nursery rhymes, says psychologist Marty Beyer, who has read the diary, it’s probably because Heather thought of it as fantasy. She “didn’t believe that the murder was going to occur. And then as it started to happen, she felt that it wouldn’t have made any difference if she had spoken up . . . she did what her mother told her to do.”

ON WEDNESDAY, Jan. 16, Heather Opel’s trial was set for June 3. If convicted of first-degree murder, she faces 20 years to life in the women’s prison at Purdy. In juvenile court, she would have been released after seven years—no later than age 21.

Her mother faces life, or death. Charged with aggravated first-degree murder, Barbara Opel could become the first woman to be executed by the state. Prosecutors are still deciding whether they’ll seek the death penalty.

The murder that mom and daughter are accused of stunned Everett last spring. The old mill and Navy town has no shortage of crime. But no one could fathom a harebrained contract hit by a group of troubled teens, “masterminded” by a mom using her own daughter to kill.

It was brutal. Confessed lead killer Jeff Grote—called the “boyfriend” of Heather, though he’d met her only days earlier—swung a full-sized aluminum baseball bat against the back of Jerry Heimann’s head. Grote remembers it went “pinggg” with each blow. Then his helpers pitched in (see “Opel’s 11,” p. 22).

Heather’s knife attack was savage, too, prosecutors contend. She confessed to stabbing Heimann repeatedly, they say, alleging she told witnesses, “That was fun. I want to do it again” (which the girl denies). Superior Court Judge Charles French was persuaded that putting her in prison—if convicted—was the only way to protect the public.

“There is more to Heather’s behavior and personality than loyalty to, and manipulation by, her mother,” French said in November, deciding that Heather would become one of the two youngest defendants ever to face adult murder charges in the county (the other youngest is Heather’s friend and accused cohort Marriam Oliver, also 14).

“It is the violent ‘hands-on’ aspect of this killing that remains unexplained,” French said. “The lack of any real family support for Heather is also discouraging and is likely to result in continued frustration, resentment, and anger.”

As she prepares for the murder trial, attorney Shaw is appealing the judge’s ruling in another court. She argues the court erred in its decision to decline a juvenile trial and contends it’s unconstitutional to try teens as adults, based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. “Heather is my little golden girl,” Shaw says. “She’s no adult.”

Shaw has taken a special interest in Heather, whose framed school photograph she keeps on her office wall. The attorney concedes she spends an inordinate amount of time on the case (she’s also working long hours as one of the attorneys for accused Green River murderer, Gary Ridgway).

Of all the mistakes that adults have made in Heather’s life, Shaw says, none can top sending a mother’s compliant little daughter to prison for following orders.

“Barbara Opel gave Jeff Grote a place to live, clothes, a car to drive,” Shaw said last week. “Then she gave him her beautiful young daughter.”

Heather met Grote—at the time a 17-year-old competitive speed skater—at a rink in Everett less than a week before the murder. Prosecutors say a “romantic” relationship developed quickly between the two teens, although Shaw says Heather’s mom was behind it.

Almost immediately, with Barbara Opel’s blessing, Grote moved into the roomy remodeled house on 22nd Street, unbeknownst to Heimann. With Barbara’s approval, Grote lived and slept in the basement with Heather.

The mother, according to prosecutors, had already tried and failed to have Heimann killed, first by a group of teens (led by Heather’s friend Marriam) who backed out at the last moment, and then by a man who took her money and disappeared. Then along came Grote.

As he has confessed to a judge, he got involved with Heather and willfully agreed to Barbara’s murder plan, convincing two teen buddies to help him.

Grote pleaded guilty and is now facing 50 years in prison, but he hasn’t explained why he was so easily influenced by Barbara.

Attorney Shaw thinks that a glance into the life of Heather Opel helps explain Barbara’s power.

“Witnesses we talked to have said repeatedly that Barbara yelled constantly at Heather and the kids in public,” Shaw says. “She didn’t socialize, except with Heather’s friends. She was part of the crowd. When you have a kid living under those conditions, with verbal and psychological abuse, it’s a relationship far different from the average mom and daughter.” Or as psychologist Beyer put it after interviewing Heather, the girl didn’t “really [have] a separate identity from her mother.”

HEATHER’S FAMILY was often homeless. They lived in 22 different locations in seven years, including motels, strangers’ homes, and their car. A probation counselor calls Barbara Opel’s brood “one of the most dysfunctional families I’ve come in contact with.”

The family was evicted from rental units 10 times and left a trail of debts and legal judgments. In recent years, Barbara Opel supported herself mostly through welfare and child support. Sometimes the family moved in the dark of night to avoid paying rent. The kids attended school irregularly (Heather is still a sixth grader) and counselors say they often went hungry.

Court records show Heather Opel has been surrounded by violence since she was a toddler and has been in counseling off and on since age 6. She was the center of a years-long custody battle, as were her little brother and sister.

Barbara was married for seven years to the father of Heather and Heather’s brother (the third child was fathered by a man Barbara later lived with).

She claims her husband, William Opel, beat her; he also accused Barbara of abuse. At various times, Barbara says in court papers, her husband locked the kids in a room for punishment, hit Heather with a pan, and forced the girl to drink Tabasco sauce for not going to the bathroom when told.

Barbara obtained a series of restraining orders against William Opel before and after their 1991 divorce. Recently, after interviewing Heather’s brother, a psychologist reported that the youth couldn’t remember his father’s name but did remember the man had broken his nose when he was 5.

Court records show the children were left alone for hours at a time as toddlers. Heather was 11 months old when Child Protective Services (CPS) conducted what was the first of many investigations spanning more than a decade.

State Department of Social and Health Services spokesperson Kathy Spears last week wouldn’t comment on the state’s role or say whether any corrective action was taken. But public records show the state has long been involved in the Opel family drama.

Court files reveal that CPS investigated Barbara Opel for shooting her son in the arm with a BB gun (she said it was accidental) and for allegedly trying to “poison her spouse.” Another CPS report says that on an occasion when the son was trying to run away from his mother, “she caught him and hit him and dragged him by the hair. It was reported that [the boy] was yelling, `Don’t hit me mommy.'”

There’s no indication that CPS tried to remove the children from their mother’s custody. Their fathers have not been in contact in recent years. A probation counselor for the boy said in December that the state has offered parenting classes, nutrition education, and stress management to the family over the years, “but they failed to take advantage of any of them.”

It’s unclear if Barbara’s own young life included abuse. But according to a recent court report, Barbara Opel’s mother ” has mental health issues of her own” and has been investigated for child abuse—of Barbara’s kids.

AFTER THE MURDER last year, with Heather in juvenile custody, the state placed the boy and his little sister in foster homes (a juvenile-court report says CPS is still “dragging its feet” over a proper placement for the boy).

The girl is young enough that counselors think they can help her recover.

The boy, however, was charged in September with performing oral sex on two preschoolers. He has since spent more than 100 days in custody and is headed for a community treatment program. (Now 12, he must register as a sex offender for the next 10 years.)

In counseling since he was 4, the boy says he wants to go to jail to be with his older sister and mom. Confused, he describes his mother as “nice,” then blames her for everything. A probation counselor says the boy has regular nightmares and cries himself to sleep.

One of his foster parents calls him sweet. Yet he has become “mean and demanding to smaller children,” the counselor says. “This pattern fits his mother’s parenting to a T.”

The boy defends Heather, telling a counselor the murder is “my mom’s fault. . . . My mom brainwashed her. She said that she would give my sister money if she did this.”

French, the judge who ruled Heather must be tried as an adult, agrees the girl was abused from an early age. Her parents’ angry divorce then “became a new source of conflict,” he notes. Additionally, after Barbara took up with another man, “domestic violence appears to have been a constant” again. Heather’s attorney marvels that a child could endure such a life.

“She’s a survivor,” says Shaw. “It’s amazing that, given her life, she has never truly had any kind of behavioral problems, was an exceptional athlete in school, and despite living sometimes in a car or a Motel 6, she got A’s and B’s in school.

“She’s a respectful child. She appreciates everything we do for her, never calls the office to complain, even on those days when she’s lonely and cries. [Judge French agreed she shows no violent or even aggressive tendencies.]

“Heather loves her mother, will not tell anyone anything about her mother, which is another sign that Heather doesn’t see what went on,” says Shaw. “She remains very loyal.”

Judge French agrees Heather is “uniquely” loyal to her mother and is developmentally immature. Dr. Beyer, the psychologist, said that given “the degree to which this offense was the result of her abnormal obedience to her mother and her immaturity,” and weighing other factors, Heather would be best served in the juvenile system.

Shaw was willing to plead Heather guilty in juvenile court in return for the maximum seven years at Echo Glen juvenile facility. “There’s no evidence my kid wouldn’t do well in treatment,” the attorney argues.

But French essentially sealed Heather’s fate by deciding that she’d be tried as an adult and would require adult treatment and services. The juvenile rehabilitation system—its “procedures, services, and facilities,” as he put it—was just a bad fit for the 14-year-old.

“The court must avoid placing these children in situations where they are likely to fail, as that would not serve either their interests or that of the public,” French said. “The court must look beyond short-term interests and length of confinement.”

What it came down to, it seemed, was that Heather simply required a longer sentence with more time to be rehabilitated. Even if she gets the adult minimum, she would be released at age 34, having spent more of her life in prison than out.

Shaw wonders how that will protect the public.

HEATHER MADE her last appearance before Judge French on Jan. 10. He disqualified himself from further proceedings in her case over concern he may have been prejudiced by the considerable evidence he weighed at earlier hearings. A new judge will sit at her upcoming trial.

As her jail escorts stood by, ready to rehook her restraints for the shuffle back to custody, Heather spoke softly with Shaw.

At one point, the attorney put her face near Heather’s and touched her cheek. There was a healing sore beneath Heather’s mouth.

“How’s your lip?” the attorney asked. “You still biting it?”

“It’s better,” Heather said, still biting.

She glanced back as she departed, smiling, revealing a little-kid gap between her front teeth. She wiggled her head playfully. Whether or not she is guilty, she was, at that moment, distressingly innocent.

AN OUTLINE of the case:

After she was hired in the fall of 2000, the short, stocky, loud-talkin’ Opel had a contentious relationship with Heimann, a retired Boeing worker whom friends and family say had terminal cancer.

Though he’d taken in Opel and her kids—Heather, then 13, and a boy and girl, then 11 and 7—she took a dislike to her benefactor (one excuse: The food was bad).

“The friction in this relationship inspired” Opel to kill Heimann, according to charging papers, though her primary motivation was $40,000 in Heimann’s bank accounts. She began planning and discussing the murder with her kids in March 2001, and first got Heather’s friend Marriam Oliver, 14, to help.

Initially, Marriam and three boys agreed to do the killing. They went to Heimann’s bedroom with weapons but backed out.

Opel eventually recruited her daughter’s new boyfriend, 17-year-old Jeff Grote. He found two mostly willing partners—buddy Kyle Boston, 15, and Boston’s little cousin Mike (who would later say he agreed to help because the others “kept bugging me and bugging me”). Grote would get cash to buy a car and clothing; Opel agreed to pay Kyle and his cousin almost $300; Heather was to get a dirt bike; and Marriam, skate money.

Following Opel’s plan, the boys took up positions as Heimann arrived home around 7 p.m. on Fri., April 13. Opel, Heather, Marriam, and Opel’s two little kids scrambled into the basement.

As Heimann entered, Grote delivered the first blow with a baseball bat. The other boys began hitting Heimann in the face with miniature Mariners souvenir bats. The victim, covering and cowering, blurted, “Who are you? . . . What’s going on?” Then he begged for help, prosecutors say.

Grote used a kitchen knife to stab the man as he lay on the floor. Opel, who’d been shouting directions and encouragement from the basement, sent up Heather and Marriam to attack with knives and bats. The girls stabbed Heimann repeatedly; Marriam finished him off with a sickening blow to the skull, prosecutors say.

Opel and all the kids carted Heimann’s body in a wheelbarrow to a car, then used mops, sponges, and bleach to clean up the blood and brains. They dumped the body beside a road outside of town (en route, they picked up yet another teen, a girl who was later found guilty of rendering criminal assistance; she became Opel’s 11th helper).

Mother Opel rewarded her little killers with a restaurant meal in Marysville. The next day, she rented a truck using Heimann’s checkbook (she was already papering the town with thousands of dollars of his checks) and drove off with many of his belongings. Prosecutors say she at first considered killing her disabled charge, Eva Heimann, who has Alzheimer’s, then decided to simply leave the woman to die. (She was miraculously found alive after four days in her wheelchair without nourishment, though she had eaten strips of newspapers.)

Opel and her five accomplices were quickly arrested. Prosecutors, calling the murder a “cold-blooded assassination,” say all the suspects confessed (Grote pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Opel). Officials believe the youths, all from shattered homes, were especially vulnerable to Opel’s bribes.

Minibat swinger Kyle Boston’s parents had problems with “drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence. . . . Both parents were absent from his life at various times due to critical convictions and resultant incarceration,” court records state. He pleaded guilty to murder as an adult and will be sentenced—to up to 18 years—in June.

His cousin Mike’s mother had a series of relationships with men and was “immersed in drug addiction,” records state. When the boy was 9, his brother was shot and wounded by his mom’s boyfriend. The 13-year-old pleaded guilty and faces seven years in juvenile jail.

Marriam Oliver’s “first 13 months of life is a virtual case study of all the things parents can do to harm a child,” court records state. Her “mother is an alcoholic and addict. Her mother continued to abuse drugs while pregnant with Marriam, [who] tested positive for cocaine at birth.” Her father is unknown. Her trial for murder as an adult is tentatively set for May.

“The difficulty of [these cases],” said Judge Charles French, who decided that all but Mike would stand trial as adults, “lies in the contrast between the young age and development level of each of the [kids] and the vicious and gruesome nature of the alleged offense.”

But this is not “about saving children,” French said. “The court has no power to do so. Ultimately, the choices these children will continue to make will determine whether or not they will succeed.”

Rick Anderson