Death In The Family

First Khoua Her asked the clans for help. Then she went to the courts. By the time police found her six children dead, she'd run out of places to turn.

Even without that increase, Her had been struggling to pay the bills. "She was very conscious about how poor she was," recalls mental-health worker Phoua. "She would say, 'Because I'm so poor, nobody respects me.'" Making matters worse, she says, in August Her's welfare check did not come through because "she didn't get some paperwork turned in on time." Welfare records are not public. But if Phoua's account is accurate, Her spent that month without a vital source of income, without transportation, facing homelessness and the possibility of jail time for the misdemeanor charges.

According to police and Ramsey County District Court records, at approximately 11 a.m. on September 3, Chee Yang saw his neighbor Khoua Her walking around in a "red dance dress." At that time, Yang said, he saw four children peering out the window of Her's townhome. Six hours later neighbors Der Her and Fue Thao spotted two of the children near the playground outside Her's front door. After a while their mother, wearing a "nice red dress," brought them inside.

At 7:10 p.m. a St. Paul 911 dispatcher took a call from a dazed-sounding woman who mumbled something about "suicide." After repeated questions from the dispatcher, the woman said that she had tried to hang herself. According to the transcript, the woman kept repeating, "I don't know, I don't know, I don't know."

Janet Hamline

"You don't know what?" the dispatcher finally asked.

"I don't know why I killed my kids," the woman said.

When Officers Sheila Hoff and Joseph Chaffee arrived at the townhouse where the call originated, they found Khoua Her lying near the steps with a brown extension cord around her neck and a portable phone in her hand, wearing what their report described as a "red ceremonial dress." The 911 operator was still on the line.

The officers stepped in and spotted 6-year-old A-ee lying face-down on the floor with a piece of black material tied tightly around her neck. The girl's body was still warm. While Hoff ripped off the fabric and attempted resuscitation, her partner raced upstairs.

According to the incident report he later filed, Chaffee was no stranger to 1541 Timberlake Road. "I am familiar with Her and have had numerous contacts with her in the past," he wrote. "The last time I was at this apartment, the children were home and would not answer the door. When I gained entry that time, I located all the kids in the entry to the stairs, on the top floor. I thought that this could be where they were hiding, so I immediately went up the stairs to look."

What he found were two more bodies: 11-year-old Koua Eai was lying on the landing, and one of the boys was in the upstairs bedroom. (None of the incident reports stated conclusively whether that body was 9-year-old Samson or 7-year-old Tang Lung.) They too were still warm. Chaffee yelled for the paramedics, who had since arrived.

Down in the basement, the officers discovered the third boy and 8-year-old Nali, both with black material around their necks, both "still warm." The last victim to be found was 5-year-old Tang Kee. She was on the floor in the bathroom, black strip around her neck, her body warm to the touch.

Another officer later noted that "each child was in a separate room on each floor level, away from the others." That detail, along with the St. Paul medical examiner's finding that "the bodies of the children were in different stages of rigor," suggests they were killed at different times, and possibly out of sight of each other.

As a paramedic treated Her on the front steps, a crowd began to gather. Watching Her sitting there in the red dress, head lolling from side to side, one neighbor recalls, "I didn't know she was the parent. I thought she was the kid. She's so small." When Her's condition stabilized, an ambulance transported her to Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

Meanwhile police scoured the scene for evidence. Among the items they collected, according to their report, were three pieces of mail addressed to Her, including a letter from "Ying Yang, AKA Tiger;" a torn-up note, possibly in Her's handwriting; five pieces of cut telephone cord; two "suspicious" bloodstains on a basement doorway; a sword and a case; eight pieces of a torn photo; and a Medical Assistance application in which someone had listed the children's names and then crossed them out.

Detectives also confiscated seven drinking glasses, which were sent to the crime lab. Press reports following Her's arrest speculated that the children had been poisoned or sedated. The initial toxicology report on the Hang children showed no drug traces, says Ramsey County Medical Examiner Keith Mortenson, but he adds that his office is not ruling out the possibility. (According to Phoua, police have questioned a friend of Her's about whether she concocted some kind of herbal sedative at Her's behest, a charge she denied.)

Last Friday Khoua Her--dressed in orange jail-issue pants, a drab olive sweater, and beige sandals--stood in Ramsey County District Judge Charles Flinn's courtroom weeping audibly as the names of her children were read aloud. Public defender Bruce Wenger answered for his client as prosecutor Chris Wilton enumerated the six counts of second-degree intentional murder against her: "Not guilty," he said on each count. Her's sobbing continued as Wenger challenged the state's case, saying that prosecutors had not established probable cause. He noted that he had never received a tape of the 911 call and that he'd had to download the transcript from the Star Tribune Web site. (It was also from a Star Tribune report that Wenger learned about the details of the sexual-abuse allegation involving Nali; police and prosecutors, he says, refused to give him access to reports in the case, and he did not discover that they had been made public until reading about them in the paper this Sunday.) No one had yet proven, Wenger told the court, that the voice on the tape belonged to Her, or that she had really said, "I don't know why I killed my kids."

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