Drawing Dead

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

But just as the Xiongs had fulfilled so many other aspects of the American dream, their lives were being sabotaged by another hallmark of life in the U.S.: spiraling debt. They seemingly owed money to everyone. The Internal Revenue Service was seeking more than $70,000 in unpaid taxes. They had accumulated roughly $60,000 in credit card bills. Then there was the $300,000 mortgage, with a monthly payment of roughly $2,700. The financial problems were nothing new for the couple: They had previously declared bankruptcy in 1998. "Basically it was a financial nightmare for Laura Xiong," Hersey told the jury.

One possible explanation for the family's financial troubles was Laura's gambling. She was a regular visitor to Canterbury Park, mostly playing $3/$6 Texas hold 'em. She testified at Tran's trial that she went there an average of twice a week, occasionally skipping work to gamble. Sometimes Laura was accompanied by her husband, but more often she went to Canterbury with a sister-in-law, Katherine Vang. She also occasionally gambled at Mystic Lake and other area casinos. In a police interview following her husband's death, Laura estimated that she wagered $5,000 monthly.

Laura and Tony met in 2002 at Canterbury Park and eventually began having an affair. In early December of 2003, according to testimony by Inver Grove Heights police officer Jessica Danberg, Tran purchased a cell phone for Xiong. The illicit couple didn't want Dao Xiong to get suspicious when he reviewed the monthly cell phone bill, which detailed each call. It wouldn't have been difficult to spot the pattern. In the early weeks of December the lovers were in near-constant contact, talking on the phone up to 20 times per day.

Robin Eley

On December 13 Xiong and Tran traveled to Grand Casino in Hinckley, accompanied by another couple. The group gambled at the casino and booked a hotel room. That night, according to Xiong's testimony, the couple had sex.

"This was an intense affair," Hersey told the jury. "The defendant was obsessed with Laura Xiong. He wanted that relationship and he was willing to do what it took to have that relationship."

In the days and weeks following the murder of Dao Xiong, Tony Tran and Laura Xiong resumed their affair. Cell phone records suggest that they spoke at least 32 times by cell phone in the ensuing week. On January 9, three weeks after the murder, they stayed overnight together at the Park Inn hotel, in Shakopee, right next door to Canterbury Park, and had sex.

By this time, though, the police were closing in. Scrutinizing Laura's cell phone records, they noticed that she made a peculiarly high number of phone calls to one particular number and linked it to Tran. He was brought in for questioning on January 14. In a fairly amicable interview, Tran repeatedly denied having an affair with Xiong, insisting that they were just "gambling buddies." He admitted visiting Xiong's house just once, the previous November, to pick up Laura and her sister-in-law for a trip to Canterbury Park. Tran tried to make his denials of a sexual relationship more convincing by exploiting his Asian heritage. "We don't do that because it's taboo," he told the officers. "That's a no-no. We get into big trouble for that." Tran could not provide an alibi for the date of Dao's murder, however. He voluntarily provided officers with fingerprints and a DNA sample before leaving.

The very next day, however, under questioning from officers with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), Xiong confessed to having a sexual relationship with Tran. She insisted, though, that they'd slept together just once, after she'd had too much to drink.

The BCA forensics laboratory conducted tests on blood samples recovered from the murder scene. A sample lifted from the inside of a storm door connecting the garage with the interior of the house came back as a positive match to Tran. According to a search warrant filed in Dakota County District Court: "The BCA analysis stated that the profile obtained from the blood from the door would not be expected to occur more than once among unrelated individuals in the world population."

On February 5, members of the Inver Grove Heights police department were conducting surveillance in Shakopee when they saw Tran driving a Toyota Corolla. A check on the vehicle revealed that it was registered to Dao and Laura Xiong. That same day a BCA special agent visited the Shakopee apartment of Chorren Rose Crowley, a Canterbury poker dealer with whom Tran had been living, and found him in the residence. Two days later Tran was arrested and booked for murder.

Search warrants executed in the ensuing days recovered almost all of the property reported stolen by Laura Xiong at the time of her husband's death. On February 18, for instance, officers seized the Samsung VCR/DVR, the JVC digital camera, a PlayStation console, and several video games from the apartment of Charles Abdul-Wahab, an acquaintance of Tran's from Canterbury Park. Abdul-Wahab subsequently testified that Tran had given him the items. The jewelry reported stolen was recovered from a safety deposit box rented under Laura Xiong's name. The only items that have never been located are the five guns taken from the residence. However, Crowley testified that Tran told her he threw them in the river after she objected to their presence in her apartment.

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