Drawing Dead

Tony Tran and Laura Xiong started out as small-time gamblers. Then they became lovers. And then her husband turned up murdered.

Tony Tran and Laura Xiong started out as small-time gamblers. Then they became lovers.

And then her husband turned up murdered.

by Paul Demko

Robin Eley

Illustrations by James Dankert

O n October 2, 2004, a 12-member Dakota County jury found Thanh "Tony" Tran guilty of murder. The then-36-year-old defendant was convicted of one count each of premeditated first-degree murder and second-degree murder stemming from the death of Dao Xiong. Judge Robert Carolan then immediately issued his sentence: lifetime incarceration.

The theory that the Dakota County Attorney's Office had laid out in meticulous detail during the nearly month-long trial was that Tran had been having an affair with Dao Xiong's wife, Laura Xiong. The affair had blossomed as they gambled compulsively at the Canterbury Park Card Club and other area casinos. But their relationship was imperiled by massive, spiraling, gambling-related debts. According to the case presented by Assistant County Attorney Scott Hersey, the couple had then hatched a plan: murder Dao Xiong and collect $850,000 in life-insurance policies attached to his name.

"Both of them were going through a perfect financial storm," Hersey told the jury in his closing argument, "but for them there was a pot of gold at the end of their rainbow, and that was the life insurance on Dao Xiong. With that amount of money, almost a million dollars, $850,000, they could be together without financial worries. They could support themselves. They could continue their lifestyles."

The jury obviously bought the prosecution's theory of the case. When jurors left the courtroom that day, they likely assumed that Laura Xiong would also soon face charges related to her husband's murder. "They have enough from this trial alone to indict her," says Barry Voss, the attorney who represented Tran. "So why hasn't she ever been charged?"

Indeed, almost two years after Tran was sent to prison for life, Laura Xiong remains a free woman. No charges are pending against her and there are no indications that an indictment is forthcoming. "Since that trial they've been uncharacteristically quiet about this case, in terms of what's going to happen next," says Voss. "We haven't heard anything."

The Dakota County Attorney's Office won't comment on the specific reasons why Xiong has not been charged with any crimes related to her husband's murder. "The case still remains under investigation," says Phillip Prokopowicz, chief deputy of the Dakota County Attorney's Office. "It's not considered a closed file. There's no statute of limitations on murder in the state of Minnesota."

The Inver Grove Heights Police Department, which investigated the case, is only slightly more forthcoming. "I don't think that door has been closed, but we don't have the evidence to charge her right now," says Lt. Jerry Smalley, the department's spokesmen.

Laura Xiong's attorney, Earl Gray, says she isn't interested in discussing the murder. "She is not going to give a statement to anybody," he says. When asked why Xiong isn't willing to talk about the case, his response is blunt. "I don't think I have to explain that," Gray says. "You might want to check the statute of limitations on murder."

On December 18, 2003, Laura Xiong placed her first call of the day to Tony Tran at 8:15 a.m. Through the remainder of the day, according to the prosecution, they would be in touch by phone another 31 times via call or text-messaging. Over Xiong's lunch break from work, the couple shared a rendezvous at her house in Inver Grove Heights. They had sex and then ate lunch. Xiong subsequently returned to work.

At 5:20 that afternoon, Laura called her husband. Dao reported that he was just exiting Highway 55 at Barnes Avenue, about a half-mile from their home. He was going to drop off his tractor-trailer cab and pick up the family's Toyota Corolla. The plan was for him to then gather their son at his sister-in-law's house and take him to karate lessons in Roseville. Cell phone records appear to indicate that right after talking to her husband, Laura called Tran.

Dao parked his tractor-trailer cab at the side of the house and entered through the garage. Immediately upon stepping into the house he encountered Tran. The first nine-millimeter round struck Xiong in the left hand. A second shot went through the left side of his head, disgorging copious amounts of blood. "Any type of scalp wound bleeds a lot," Dakota County coroner Lindsey Thomas testified at Tran's trial. "There's a lot of blood vessels in the scalp." Tran, however, was apparently uncertain whether Xiong was dead. He went upstairs, retrieved a pillow, placed it over his victim's skull, and shot him a final time in the back of the head. Tran then called Laura.

At approximately 5:45 p.m., Laura left work, stopping at a Blockbuster video store to drop off a copy of Seabiscuit. She was accompanied by two of her nieces, who had been helping her out at work that day. Xiong then proceeded to her sister's house to pick up her own kids. Dao had never shown up to take their son to karate lessons.

At about 6:40, Laura headed toward home. Her three children, along with three nieces, were also in the cramped Toyota 4 Runner. "We were going to go use their internet for some homework for school," Champa Lee, one of Laura's nieces, told the jury. But they noticed two odd things as they approached the house in Inver Grove Heights. The garage door was wide open and there were no lights on in the house.

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