Drawing Dead

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

Laura's 15-year-old niece, Masna Lee, was the first one to enter, through the garage. She was followed by her 17-year-old sister Champa. The room was dark, but Masna noticed something lying in the middle of the floor. She asked Champa to turn on a light. "I just thought it was like, whoa, there's something black on the floor, this is kind of weird," Masna testified. "And then right when my sister turned on the light I moved the pillow, and then I saw Dao laying there.... And when I looked at Uncle Dao's head, it looked like somebody hit him on his right side. And I thought, okay, is he faking or something? And when I moved it there was tons of blood on the floor."

Laura entered the house carrying her two-year-old daughter. Upon realizing that her husband was lying in a bloody heap in the middle of the basement floor, she directed her two nieces to check upstairs and see if the house had been burglarized. "You're entitled to use your common sense in analyzing that," Hersey told the jury in his closing statement. "Is a person who's just come into a residence and seen their spouse dead on the floor, in a pool of blood, with gunshot wounds to the back of the head, going to tell other relatives, children, to go upstairs to see if anything is missing? The killer could still be up there. That's putting those people at risk. Unless, as Laura knew, the killer was long gone, and that killer was the defendant."

Masna and Champa proceeded upstairs, but quickly returned because they were scared that the perpetrator might still be somewhere inside. But they had seen enough to establish that the house was ransacked. Laura called 911. She was calm and collected, but at least one of her nieces could be heard wailing hysterically in the background.

Police officers responding to the scene discovered what at first blush looked like a home burglary gone awry. Dao was sprawled facedown on the basement floor in a pool of blood, still wearing a leather jacket emblazoned with the Dart Transit logo. The family's gun safe, located in the master bedroom, had been thrown open and emptied. Property was strewn about the floor. Numerous items were missing from the residence, according to Laura Xiong: $3,000 in cash, five guns (two rifles and three handguns), a Samsung VCR/DVD player, a JVC digital camera, a Toshiba laptop, two PlayStation consoles, 11 PlayStation games, jewelry, and numerous DVDs (including How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Ran, and Me, Myself & Irene).

But investigators also noticed a few oddities. Valuable items that seemingly would have been taken in a burglary—a VCR, TVs, expensive power tools, Dao's credit cards—were left behind. Subsequent crime-scene analysis also indicated that the window that the perpetrator had seemingly broken to enter the residence had actually been smashed from inside the house. In addition, Dao's tennis shoes lacked any glass shards, suggesting that the window may have broken after his death.

Inver Grove Heights police officer Evelyn Duchene was the first cop to arrive at the scene and interview Laura. Duchene testified that, despite having just discovered her dead husband's body, she was very composed. In fact, she never saw Laura shed a tear.

Laura's late husband, Dao Xiong, was born in Long Cheng, Laos, on September 12, 1972. Nine months later his father, Nao Xue Xiong, was killed while fighting in support of the CIA during the Vietnam War. According to a family history written by an uncle, Cherney Thai Xiong, Dao was separated from his mother at the age of six and eventually ended up in a Thai refugee camp with his grandmother. In 1982 Dao and his grandmother immigrated to the United States, moving in with a relative in St. Paul. His mother finally arrived in this country five years later. Each of his five siblings eventually made it to the United States as well.

Dao attended Humboldt High School, according to the family history, working at an Old Country Buffet in his spare time. After graduating he enrolled at St. Paul Technical College, specializing in auto body repair. He subsequently worked at Sears and Auto Glass Specialist.

In 1993 Dao began dating Laura Vang. The first of their three children was born the following year, and the couple married in 1997. The same year they wed, Dao began working as a long-distance truck driver for Dart Transit Company, the job he held until his death. The work entailed brutally long hours, often forcing Dao to rise at 4:30 a.m. to hit the road. But it paid well, roughly $100,000 a year, according to court documents. Dao also secured a job at Dart Transit for his uncle, Cherney Thai Xiong. "We kept in touch on the walkie-talkies [sic] radio everyday," Cherney wrote in a victim impact statement he submitted to the trial judge.

In 1996 Dao's mother, Chee Thao, was awarded a congressional commendation in recognition of her late husband's service in the Vietnam War. "For your courageous defense of your people and homeland against communist aggression and your support and sacrifice on behalf of United States military and clandestine forces," it reads. "Hmong and Lao units in the Royal Lao armed forces operated in crucial air and combat support missions for United States military and clandestine forces, including the rescuing of downed air crews and the interdiction and destruction of enemy troop and supply convoys."

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