Las Vegas Sun

November 20, 2018

Currently: 63° — Complete forecast

Friends, family grapple with Hawaiian woman’s senseless death

Heather Vitarelli grew up eating at the same dinner table as her aunts and uncles and hitching rides down a lush volcanic slope to Maui's Ho'okipa Beach. She died on the floor of Harrah's casino, surrounded by clanging slot machines.

She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, a Hawaiian tourist in Las Vegas for one day to celebrate a 30th birthday with friends. She died from a stray bullet in the back fired by a small-time thief early on the morning of Sept. 8.

Heather had planned to spend three days with friends on a houseboat on Lake Mead, but instead her body was flown back to Hawaii. On Sept. 16, family and friends gathered for a seaside memorial service.

Last week, another circle of friends in Heather's life confronted their grief as they returned to university classes in California and found out about her death. They hope to establish a scholarship in her memory.

Two drifters captured at Harrah's have been charged in her death.

Stephen Mullen, 32, admitted responsibility for killing her.

According to police reports, he had stolen a purse from a Harrah's customer. Security guards chased him down and wrestled him to the floor. Mullen pulled a semi-automatic pistol from his waistband and fired at least two shots. One bullet wounded a guard and one hit Vitarelli.

Mullen's partner, Michael Frimmel, 31, also faces charges of murder and attempted murder.

The likely outcome of those charges is small solace for Heather's far-flung circle of friends struggling to accept the death that was seemingly as random as the table game she loved.

By all accounts, Heather was a woman of contrasts. She was unapologetically fashionable. She was classy. Yet she couldn't keep from stopping to help perfect strangers. She was always bringing home strays who often ended up staying with her family for weeks at a time, said her aunt Sandy Vitarelli.

She loved people is what everyone says. She was brought up by her grandparents who had been raised as Quakers in Pennsylvania. She had a "lightness of being."

New York musician Bob Fitzgerald said if Heather was part of a group out dancing at the clubs, he knew the night would be fantastic.

He remembered what another of her friends said about her. "Once you met her, you couldn't help falling in love with her."

Heather had enrolled this fall for her senior year of undergraduate classes in human development at the Contra Costa satellite campus of California State University, Hayward. She planned to work as a counselor or social worker.

Heather spent the eight years before she moved to California working and taking classes part-time at Maui Community College, on the island where she grew up.

Tat Mccall, who taught history and math in the early 1980s at Maui's St. Anthony High School, a small school of about 300 students, remembers her as a rebellious beach girl who had a question for everything.

Sandy Vitarelli, a well-known potter on Maui, says Heather was like royalty to the rest of her extended clan. They revelled in her independent ways.

"In our family, she was the youngest, like the princess. She always took good care of herself, had nice clothes. She cared about that kind of thing. The rest of us went around like mud-dabbers. But Heather was always looking spic and span. At an early age, she told my father she wasn't working in the garden. She was working in the house."

Island lifestyle

Sandy's parents, William and Henrietta Vitarelli, also were Heather's parents. They raised Heather from the age of 2. And they legally adopted her at about age 8, a few years after they moved the family from Palau, a small island in Micronesia, to an undeveloped 4-acre plot in the Haiku district of Maui.

Heather's biological father, Donny, moved to Maui with the rest of the family. But he was 20 at the time, and while the rest of the family bulldozed a half-mile stretch of road to their plot of rain forest on the slopes of the volcano Haleakala ("House of the Sun"), he spent much of his time surfing. His girlfriend, Heather's mother, Maria Mersai, lived with the family for a short time before moving to Oakland, Calif., to attend school.

There were 17 family members when the clan arrived in Haiku in 1976 -- aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins. They built one house from tropical wood and lava rock and cooked under a communal shed. They cleared the land of cane grass and guava and eucalyptus trees.

Aunt Sandy, who considered herself a sister to Heather, raised the pigs. Sandy's sons, commercial fishermen, brought home ahi and mahi-mahi. William oversaw a garden filled with citrus trees, taro -- the Hawaiian potato -- flowers and other produce.

Heather's childhood friend Mia Taylor fondly remembers how the family would put her to work weeding at least one long, seemingly endless row of vegetables each time she visited.

"They're artisans, all of them," she said. "(Heather's) uncle builds big, beautiful homes, incredible furniture, just like his grandfather. Sandy has a studio for her pottery. Her sons fish. It's very communal. Every night there's dinner at someone's house."

The Vitarellis built a total of four homes on the property, as well as two wood shops and a boatyard. Heather's adopted father, William, an Italian-American who was born in the Bronx, earned a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University. He served as the family patriarch, borrowing from the Pacific Island culture of Palau.

He set up the first schools in Palau in 1950 and helped lead the islanders toward a self-sufficient economy.

"We've created a different kind of life, more Pacific," said Sandy Vitarelli. "It's more prevalent in the Pacific to have a community type family than a nuclear type."

The family has roots in many cultures, she said, including American, Italian, Filipino, Hawaiian, Japanese, Pacific and Quaker.

In April 1998, however, the strong, multicultural family bonds weren't enough to save Eric Diaz, Heather's younger step-brother. A world-class surfer who traveled regularly to Australia and Japan to compete, Diaz died from a drug overdose when he was 18. It changed the course of Heather's life.

"When I think back to the conversations, I get chilled," Taylor said. "She immediately changed. She had a lust for life that was unparalleled. She knew life was short. It changed her dramatically."

Vitarelli left her home and headed to California to establish residency before enrolling in school. She worked in the tasting room and retail store at the Niebaum Coppola Winery.

Las Vegas was never a place that appealed to the rest of Heather's family, but Heather had visited here and Lake Tahoe more than a half-dozen times.

Her aunt described Las Vegas as "the epitome of light and money. It turned everyone off. There are tons of people who go. The old people save their money for years. They get a cheap hotel and get plenty of food, and they think that's great. And they can dress up. But it's so man-made and contrived. I'd just rather take a walk in the park."

Heather and her friends had been planning the latest trip to Las Vegas since March. It would be a celebration of three 30th birthdays, all of them in September. Heather would have turned 30 on September 27.

"Heather loved, loved, loved roulette," Taylor said. "And she was always lucky, always."

The two friends decided on a king-sized houseboat as the centerpiece to their end-of-summer vacation.

Twelve other friends planned to fly in from all over the country. They would spend one night in Las Vegas at Harrah's and then go to Lake Mead.

They planned a barbecue for the first night on the houseboat, Taylor said. They would wake up the next morning and make a big breakfast. Spaghetti was on the menu for dinner.

"You know, you pull up to a cove. You pick a beach. We'd always seen the houseboats and thought how fun would that be," she said.

The group met on the afternoon of Sept. 8 at Harrah's and set off for a day of eating, touring and gambling.

Eight of the friends came back to the Strip casino at 1:20 a.m. with plans to gamble a while before going to bed. It was a turn-over day, early Friday morning, when many tourists at the hotel were enjoying the first of a four-night weekend package. Even at that hour it was still busy.

As Heather and three of her friends approached the cashier, Stephen Mullen, who had returned to the casino after allegedly making off with a purse earlier in the evening, nearly knocked over one of the group as he ran off the escalator. They exchanged words. Moments later the group heard what they thought were firecrackers.

Heather said, "Something's wrong," before she collapsed to the floor.

A friend scooped her up. She lay Heather on her right side, "so it wouldn't hurt," with her head in her lap.

"She didn't know (she had been shot), thank God," Taylor said. Within 40 seconds she was gone.

But Taylor didn't fully absorb the finality of Heather's death until later.

"This lady said, 'Don't go up there. There's been a shooting.' And then I knew something bad had happened," Taylor said. "I had such an awful feeling. It was just not a good feeling."

The night before family and friends spread Heather's ashes beyond the surf at Ho'okipa Beach, people stayed up late making leis. They dug a hole for cooking an emu.

Traditional ceremony

They wrapped the last pig of the season in chicken wire and burlap bags and buried it with turkey and fish and breadfruit on top of a fire of mesquite and lava rocks tamped down with banana leaves. Then they built a house over the cooking pig, out of tree branches with a metal roof. They stayed up and tended it all night.

"By tradition, the men make the meat, and the women prepare the starch and that way you don't have to discuss it," Sandy Vitarelli said. "In an emergency, you just do what you do. The men go fishing and get the fish. You make the emu. It's like a team."

The morning of Heather's burial at sea was overcast and rainy, but by afternoon the sky had cleared and a sizable surf was pounding the beach. About 300 people attended the service and then shared the ceremonial feast spread over two long tables.

Sixty surfers paddled beyond the breakers and formed a circle. Donny, Heather's biological father, spread the ashes while William, her 89-year-old adopted dad, watched from the shore. Other mourners tossed flowers and leis from a nearby rocky point.

"She was very lovely, a happy good student. She loved to dance," said William Vitarelli. "She was just about to graduate from college. She had loads of friends, close friends. It's a tragedy. It's just hard to imagine."

archive