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

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.

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."

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."

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.

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.

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.

Laura Xiong initially refused to testify at Tran's trial. Her lawyer, Earl Gray, told Judge Carolan that she wanted "transactional" immunity, basically a guarantee that she would not subsequently be indicted on charges related to her husband's murder. Gray also wanted any testimony sealed from public view. "That's what concerns me the most. Without a sealed record, my client is walking into being blindsided, because it was even apparent in chambers that Mr. Hersey fully intends to prosecute my client," he told the judge. "They're going to take this young lady, whose husband was murdered, and pound on her in front of the jury, and she really doesn't want to be confronted with that."

Judge Carolan was unswayed by Gray's arguments. Xiong was found in contempt of court and booked into jail. After a brief incarceration, however, she agreed to testify. Xiong admitted before the jury that she'd conducted a lengthy affair with Tran, even acknowledging the she'd had sex with him at her house on the day of her husband's murder.

Hersey: "And you've told the defendant that you love him and you miss him?"

Xiong: "Yes."

Hersey: "And you've talked about your future with the defendant, correct?"

Xiong: "Yes."

Hersey: "And you have an ongoing relationship with the defendant?"

Xiong: "I think so."

Laura continued to insist, however, that the cell phone that had been used to communicate with Tran 32 times on the day of Dao Xiong's murder was never in her possession. She also claimed that Tran had left her house immediately after their sexual liaison on the day of the murder. "He left before I left," Xiong told the jury.

Following Dao Xiong's death, a lawsuit was initiated in Dakota County Probate Court to determine what should happen to the deceased's assets. At issue, mainly, were two life-insurance policies totaling $850,000. An attorney, Christopher Lehmann, was appointed to represent the interests of Dao's descendants. The insurance companies voluntarily relinquished the funds to an account overseen by the Dakota County Court Administrator. As of January, with the accrual of interest, the sum had grown to $901,452.84.

Under the terms of the life-insurance policies, Laura Xiong was the presumed heir. But Minnesota law prohibits anyone who is complicit in the death of a policyholder from collecting benefits. Another attorney hired by Lehmann to assist on the case, James Erickson, initiated proceedings to bar Xiong from receiving any benefits, arguing that she was an accomplice to the murder.

On September 20 of last year, Xiong was slated to testify under oath regarding her husband's murder. But on the day before her scheduled deposition, Xiong's attorneys contacted Erickson and announced that she would not testify. They also informed him that she was giving up all claims to the disputed life-insurance benefits. The next day, under oath, Xiong formally renounced any claim to the insurance windfall. "That's something that she and I made as a tactical decision," says attorney Richard Malacko, who represents Xiong in the matter. "If it's going to go to her children anyway, we didn't see any need for prolonged litigation."

The exact dispensation of the money is still unknown. Presumably the couple's three children, who remain in Laura's custody, will ultimately be the beneficiaries. But one fact is already clear: A substantial chunk of the life insurance money will end up in the hands of lawyers. On April 7, Dakota County District Court Judge Richard Spicer ordered that nearly $200,000 be paid to Erickson's law firm for its work on the case. Lehmann will eventually submit a bill to the court as well.

It's impossible to say whether Laura will ever face charges stemming from the death of her husband. The eight-member jury that found Tran guilty of murder raised the matter with Judge Carolan at the close of the trial. They were told that, at present, there was insufficient evidence to charge Laura. Two years later, it appears that nothing has changed.

"The way it was explained was that unless Tony Tran would cave and speak against her," says Lianne Cero, one of the jurors, "they would not be able to do anything about it."

Another juror, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity, was left with a similar impression. "In my opinion the only way she'll ever be charged is if he turns on her," the juror notes. "That may or may not ever happen.... My opinion of him was he was a real gamer and he got caught in his own game."

Part of the problem may be that Laura was granted "use immunity" before testifying in Tran's murder case. Under such an agreement, none of her statements under oath can be used to prosecute her at a later date. "It means basically we're not going to use your testimony against you, but we can still prosecute you," says Barry Feld, who teaches criminal procedure at the University of Minnesota Law School. "Once you've given a witness immunity, it may be very difficult to come up with independent evidence that would enable you to successfully prosecute."

Tran did not respond to two letters from City Pages seeking comment for this article. According to his caseworker at the state prison in St. Cloud, Robert McLellan, he is still exploring options for overturning his sentence and does not want to jeopardize that possibility. On April 20, however, the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected his appeal for a new trial, leaving him with very few legal options.

There is no incentive for Tran to cooperate in the prosecution of Xiong. He's been sentenced to life in prison and no deal with the Dakota County Attorney's Office can overturn that decision. Only Tran can say whether he'll ever turn on his lover. He'll have plenty of time to mull over that decision. But so far he's not talking. 

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