Drawing Dead

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

In 1998 Dao was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. Five years later his family caught a piece of the American dream when they purchased a $300,000, 1,400-square-foot one-story house with attached garage in suburban Inver Grove Heights.

Dao occasionally accompanied his wife to Canterbury Park or Mystic Lake to gamble. But he preferred the outdoors and was an avid hunter. Just a week before he was murdered, Dao had been on a deer-hunting trip in Iowa. "We also spent a lot of times together for hunting and camping many years in the past," Cherney Xiong wrote to the judge, in English both awkward and poignant. "Dao and I last deer hunting trips just came from Iowa in a week before he got murder."

The victim impact statements submitted to Judge Carolan by family members describe Dao Xiong as hardworking and fiercely dedicated to his family. "When I first heard that he's dead, it killed my heart," wrote his younger sister, Yeng Xiong. "I have never had any thing that will hurt me and my family like this before. This is a worst nightmare for our family and nothing will ever help this feeling go away."

Robin Eley

But the most wrenching testimony came from his mother. Her statements were taped and subsequently translated into English because she only speaks Hmong. "I am recording this cassette to tell the truth nothing but the truth," she began. "This is true of what I'm about to say. There's God and I raise my hand to God to tell the truth nothing but the truth." What followed was a chaotic, sometimes incoherent diatribe that saw Chee Thao frequently break down in tears. It was abundantly clear that she held both Laura Xiong and Tran responsible for her son's death. "How can they be so evil and take my child's life?" she asked near the end of the statement. "They are not good people. They disgusted the world.... You can kill them and I would not care. My child work so hard and yet some one came and killed my child. I am too upset. And this Laura and this Vietnamese [Tran] please lock them up until they die."

Thanh "Tony" Tran was born in Vietnam in 1968. His father was Cuban, his mother Vietnamese. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1975 with his mother and siblings. He eventually married and had two children, but the relationship ended in divorce. Tran is on the short side, roughly 5'6", with a compact build. He has thick black eyebrows, sunken brown eyes, and a wide nose.

By the fall of 2003, Tran was a constant presence at Canterbury Park, well known to dealers and players. When the cards were running well, and his wallet was flush with cash, he was renowned for doling out poker chips to acquaintances like they were lollipops. But when Tran was on a bad streak—as was too often the case—he regularly hit up those same people for cash. On some days he would be grinding it out at the $3/$6 Texas hold 'em tables. On others he would be playing for $30/$60 stakes, the highest offered at Canterbury, with pots easily moving upward of $300 on a single hand of poker. Tran was a regular visitor to Mystic Lake as well, occasionally playing blackjack at the $100 minimum bet tables.

But beneath Tran's chipper facade, his life had bottomed out. He was gambling continuously. According to records maintained by Canterbury Park, he visited the card room 15 times from the beginning of November through the first week of December 2003. On December 7 of that year, however he was banned from the club for drinking alcohol after he had been prohibited from doing so. He also frequented other area casinos: Mystic Lake, Treasure Island, Grand Casino. Tran had borrowed at least $13,500 from his ex-wife. A girlfriend testified that she had given him $9,000 to cover gambling debts and bought him a car. And yet another girlfriend, to whom he had once been engaged, had loaned him $10,000. "The defendant was in dire straits financially," prosecutor Scott Hersey told the jury during his closing argument. "He was a chronic, inveterate gambler."

Over the years Tran had worked a series of menial jobs, primarily as a security guard, but at the time he was unemployed. "Tony was basically a loner," says his trial attorney, Barry Voss. "He just sort of bumped around from job to job. He loved gambling and he loved women." In November of 2003, with no permanent residence, Tran began crashing on the couch of a poker dealer who had an apartment near the card club. To top matters off, he had recently been diagnosed with cancer.

On the surface Laura Xiong was leading a much more stable life. She had a degree from Concordia University and a longtime 30-hour-a-week job at Minnesota Craftsmen Painting, in St. Paul. She lived with her husband and three kids in a $300,000 home in Inver Grove Heights. Together the couple pulled in a six-figure income. They even had purchased $850,000 in life-insurance coverage, so that their three children would be taken care of financially if something happened to them.

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