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SOUTH SALT LAKE - Hser Ner Moo was not walking into the unknown when the 7-year-old girl disappeared Monday afternoon, sparking a frantic search that ended tragically a day later just 50 yards from her family's home.

The girl went to a residence where she had played many times, and where she encountered a man who was a family acquaintance, according to police and neighbors.

Police booked the man, 21-year-old Esar Met, into Salt Lake County jail Wednesday on suspicion of aggravated murder - which carries the possibility of the death penalty - child kidnapping and evidence tampering.

Esar Met allegedly held the girl in the apartment, killed her, hid the body in his basement room, then took off - all within an hour of when the girl left home, police said Wednesday.

South Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Snyder said there was a physical altercation and that "trauma" was inflicted on the girl's body. But he revealed no motive or cause of death, and would not say if the girl was sexually assaulted.

On Wednesday, families of Hser Ner Moo and Esar Met were mourning at their apartments, which are just 50 yards apart and separated by a parking lot. Esar Met's parents expressed sympathy for the girl and her family but defended her son, saying he is innocent.

The girl left her apartment in the South Parc Townhouses, 2250 S. 500 East, on Monday at about 2 p.m. Her body was found about 7 p.m. Tuesday in nearby apartment No. 472.

The apartment was the last in the complex to be searched during a massive police and volunteer effort lasting 29 hours.

The family did not report the girl's disappearance to police until about 6 p.m.

Meanwhile, neighbor Ma Sei Myint said someone answered the door at No. 472 when she and Hser Ner Moo's father went looking for the girl about 5:30 p.m. The man who answered indicated he had not seen the girl, Ma Sei Myint said.

But nobody was home at No. 472 when police began searching door-to-door for the girl shortly after 6 p.m., or during two extensive searches through the night and the next day, police said.

It was not until 7 p.m. Tuesday that FBI agents made contact with four other men who live at the apartment. Allowed to come inside, officers found the girl's body in a basement bathroom. Police said they had no reason to believe the roommates had knowledge of the killing.

Snyder said they were not home when the girl was killed, and they did not go downstairs, where Esar Met - who moved in a month ago and reportedly stayed home most days with no job - had his own bedroom and bathroom.

Than Hti Ke, a neighbor, said Esar Met stopped by to watch television at his apartment about 1 p.m. Monday, shortly before the girl disappeared. At about 3:30 p.m., Met showed up at his aunt's Fort Union area home. Mi Cho said her nephew stayed the night and displayed no unusual behavior.

Mi Cho had heard that a little girl was missing at the complex, but the topic had not come up by the time officers kicked in her door and took a silent Esar Met into custody about 9 p.m. Tuesday, Mi Cho said.

On Wednesday, the family of Hser Ner Moo mourned in their apartment. One of her brothers strummed a guitar while the family prayed - a custom in Karen hill tribe tradition, according to friends.

The girl's father, speaking through an interpreter, thanked everyone who helped look for his daughter.

"I thank all of Salt Lake City for their help and comfort," said Cartoon Wah, as his sons, KerKer Po, 20, and KyiKyi, 18, stood somberly behind him.

The father said Esar Met has nothing to do with him and he had no comment about the homicide suspect. Wah said he would let the police deal with him.

While Cartoon Wah spoke, neighbors watched as well-wishers brought flowers, stuffed animals and balloons to a makeshift memorial to Hser Ner Moo at a nearby corner. Trees and fences in the apartment complex were adorned with pink ribbons.

Across the parking lot, Esar Met's family and friends sat quietly in their sparse apartment, expressing shock and saying they refused to believe he had committed the slaying. Esar Met, however, admitted the slaying to police, according to a probable cause statement filed at the jail.

"That girl was so young," Esar Met's mother, Ra He Mar, said through an interpreter. "I feel unhappy and sympathy with her parents. That girl was innocent."

Ra He Mar recalled seeing Hser Ner Moo playing around the complex and said she had just met the girl's parents last weekend.

New to the complex, Ra He Mar sought a ride to a grocery store. Hser Ner Moo's father, Cartoon Wah, obliged, she said, and then stopped by later to check on the family's air conditioner and heating.

When the two sets of parents met again this week, it was Hser Ner Moo's mother reaching out to Esar Met's parents as they searched for their little girl.

Esar Met's family said he had never run afoul of the law before or displayed any behavior indicating he was capable of killing. Ra He Mar said he arrived in South Salt Lake a month ago after 18 years at a refugee camp.

Esar Met and Hser Ner Moo had lived at the same refugee camp in Thailand before coming to South Salt Lake. Their families originate from the same area in Burma (now called Myanmar) but belong to separate tribes, family members said.

Ra He Mar said she wanted to reach out to Hser Ner Moo's parents to offer her support, but was reluctant to interrupt their mourning.

"I also have a daughter," Ra He Mar said. "So I feel empathy for the family."

Quietly wandering through a parking lot filled with television cameras and media, 8-year-old Brielle Vargas said Wednesday she didn't know what to make of Hser Ner Moo's violent death and the chaos that has dominated the apartment complex where the two girls lived and played together.

"She was nice to me and to other people," said Brielle, who said she often played games of tag and checkers with Hser Ner Moo. The girl left a candle and a picture of her friend at a memorial at the complex.


* PHOTOS: A photo gallery of the tragedy and the community reaction.

* UPDATES: Get updates and details on the case as they unfold.