Death In The Family
In the middle of page 59, Khoua Her smiles out from the pages of Johnson High School's 1991 yearbook. At first glance she is virtually indistinguishable from her peers--just another healthy, good-looking junior. But a closer look reveals a hint of melancholy. The thin shoulders are hunched slightly forward, and the broad, brave smile doesn't reach the eyes. If the photo had been a full-length shot, it might have explained the expression on her face. At 17 Her was pregnant with her fourth child.
Seven years later a photo of Khoua Her made the front pages. In this one Her, now 24, looked almost twice that age; her once long, jet-black hair had been cut to chin length and sported the brassy glow of a recent henna job. Under the thick fringe, her eyes were vacant, her mouth slack, and the baggy mock turtleneck had been replaced by what appeared to be a hospital gown. This was the mug shot police took September 3, after they arrested Her for allegedly killing her six children.
In the past year, the Twin Cities Hmong community has been wracked by a series of highly publicized tragedies. In December 1997 five young men were arrested in connection with the rapes of at least four girls they'd lured through teenage chat lines. This past spring four men and two juveniles were convicted for the allegedly gang-related rapes of nearly a dozen more girls. Over the summer a 13-year-old Eau Claire girl was arrested for killing her newborn, and another 13-year-old was raped and killed in Brooklyn Park. In late September a Hmong father of seven committed suicide; police believe he may first have murdered his wife, who is missing to this day.
But no case drew more attention than that of Khoua Her. It captured national headlines and sparked debate locally about teen marriage,
domestic abuse, welfare reform, and child protection. In the days after her arrest, news reports were dominated by statements from her ex-husband and his clan, condemning her as "an evil stepdaughter" who was "short-tempered" and who "should have killed herself" instead of the children. Community leaders added that Her had disrespected the traditional clan system. And social welfare officials took pains to announce that they'd had no way to prevent the disaster: "I don't think that we can conclude that any one organization or one person failed, or that [she] slipped through anything," Ramsey County Human Services Director Tom Fashingbauer told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
More than two months later, much about Khoua Her's life remains a mystery. Most documents relating to the case are sealed. Her's attorney, Ramsey County Public Defender Bruce Wenger, has not allowed the media to interview her, and neither he nor Ramsey County prosecutor Chris Wilton will discuss details of the case on the record. Many of those who knew Her before the deaths--including her husband and his family--refused to speak to City Pages.
Still, what can be discovered about the case suggests a story far more complex than that conveyed in the barrage of headlines that followed Her's arrest. Public records and the accounts of dozens of people in the Hmong community--including some who spoke to Her extensively after the children's deaths--yield a portrait of a woman whose life went awry almost from the moment it began. They also indicate that Her repeatedly sought help, first from family and clan and then from police and the courts. Neither system appears to have been able to help her. Many of those who know Her say her experience was not that different from those of many other Hmong women--until the day six children were found strangled in a small townhouse on Timberlake Road.
Khoua Her was 9 months old and living in the mountains of Laos when her parents separated. In a traditional Hmong divorce, one spouse is typically assigned fault for the breakdown of the marriage while the other--in Her's case the father--is awarded custody of the children.
Nhia Khoua Her soon remarried; his new wife disliked Khoua immensely, says Mee, a local legal professional who spoke extensively with Her after her arrest. (Mee refused to have her real name used, fearing repercussions in the American courts and in the Hmong community.) "She would hit her and call her names," Mee recounts. "Even though she had a father, she was like an orphan. No one loved her." When Her was 4 years old, the family fled Laos for Ban Vinai, a refugee camp in Thailand.
For most Hmong families, the transition from rural life to encampment was jarring. In their native mountains, they'd spent their days working the land and tending livestock. In the camps, explains Mee, who lived in a camp from the time she was 5 until she was almost 9, "There were no jobs, no money, and only public rations. It was much easier on the kids, but the adults would worry about what the family would have to eat that day and how they would find clothing for the children."
Privacy, too, was at a premium. Refugees lived in barracks in which each family, regardless of size, was allocated a section that measured about 10 by 12 feet. There was no indoor plumbing, and all cooking had to be done outside. The only commodities in plentiful supply, says Mee, were time and gossip.
Mee says Her told her that when she was 8, she accompanied three other girls on a visit to another camp. When the trip took longer than anticipated, they rented a room and spent the night. They also ran into neighbors from their own camp, and news about their trip quickly spread back home. "It was unheard of for a girl to go out on her own," Mee notes. "You had to stay with your parents until you married, and then you went directly to your husband's. Only prostitutes rented rooms."
The rumors didn't improve relations between Her and her stepmother, says Phoua, a mental-health worker who has met with Her several times since the children's deaths (and who also requested that her real name not be used). Phoua says Her rebelled at the domestic chores assigned to her, and that the older woman lashed out at her physically and verbally. One night when she was 12, Her told Phoua, her stepmother locked her out of their unit, and Tou Hang, a 17-year-old who was smitten with her, came by and took her home with him.
In news accounts, Hang and his mother Pang Yang have characterized the beginning of their relationship as a traditional Hmong courtship, saying the pair were "teenagers in love." But Mee says Her told her a different story: Once she had gone home with a man, "Her reputation was ruined and her family didn't want her. She had no choice but to marry." (Despite numerous requests from City Pages, Tou Hang declined to comment for this story, as did most members of his clan.)
The couple married in 1986. In June 1987 Her gave birth to their first child, Koua Eai. Fifteen months later she had another son, Samson, and within another year the first girl, Nali, was born.
In accord with Hmong custom, the couple lived with the husband's parents--a setup Her found less than ideal. "She told me her mother-in-law would beat her, and her husband was out all the time," Mee says. "She had to stay home and take care of his mother and siblings." (Hang and his mother have said the opposite was true: Her refused to touch her firstborn for the first year of his life, Yang told the Pioneer Press, and left her husband with most child-rearing responsibilities.)
It took eight years for the Hang family to get permission to leave Ban Vinai and emigrate to the U.S.--much longer than usual, according St. Paul School Board member and longtime community activist Neal Thao. Most refugees spent only about three years in camps, Thao says, adding that "When somebody stays for too long, it changes them. You're totally dependent on others, have no sense of self-worth, and there aren't the roles to guide you like life in the traditional village. People play soccer all day, party all the time. You never know what's going to happen from day to day."
Hmong immigrants have been coming to Minnesota steadily since the late 1970s; the state is now home to the largest Hmong population in the nation. Many families spend their first years in America at the McDonough public-housing complex in St. Paul, where 62 percent of residents are Southeast Asian. The Hangs settled into one of McDonough's beige stucco townhomes in 1990.
Like many of the families around them, they were battling culture shock. "Being new immigrants, you have to struggle with so much," says Kou Som, a cousin of Tou Hang and spokesman for his clan. "It's difficult learning a new language and adapting to a new society. It either has a positive impact on the family or serves as a bond-breaker."
Adding to the stress is the impact of American culture on gender roles, notes Gaoly Yang, one of the first Hmong immigrants in Minnesota and a co-founder of the Women's Association of Hmong and Lao. "In Laos the man is the head of household," Yang says. "Here you have women entering the workforce and making decisions. And when they carry that into the home and she starts questioning the decisions the husband makes about things like the discipline of a child or the family's finances, it becomes a problem. Any time you see unequal progress within a family, you'll see problems."
By all accounts Khoua Her picked up on the new language and culture faster than her husband. So it was she who pursued her education, enrolling at Johnson High School while Hang stayed home with the kids.
Her drew little notice from either administrators or students. "I don't remember her at all," says Tom Farrell, the counselor assigned to her. Another counselor, Cherzong Vang, says that although Her wasn't one of the teens he worked with, she'd sometimes accompany her friends to his office. "She seemed to be very hot-tempered," Vang recalls. "She thought she was more right than the other person and seemed to me arrogant, like she was better than the other person." Vang also says Her had a lot of friends, including his daughter. (Vang's daughter refused to be interviewed for this article, as did several other young women who knew Her. Relatives of Khoua Her also declined to comment for this article.)
Aside from Vang, none of a dozen teachers and fellow students contacted by City Pages remembered Her--not surprising, says Farrell, when you consider that she was either pregnant or caring for a newborn during most of her school years and had little time for extracurricular activities. When Her graduated in 1992, the only marks she left besides the tiny junior-year picture were mentions of her name in the "camera-shy" sections of her senior yearbook.
After graduation Her got a job assembling computers with an Eden Prairie firm. (Officials at that company and others where Her worked did not return calls seeking comment for this story.) "She was very ambitious," says Mee. "She liked to work and one day hoped to obtain her real estate license." But her career goals were hampered by the need to care for her growing family. According to Mee, Her had wanted to go on birth control after the third child, but her husband forbade it. Their sixth child was born in 1994, when Her was 20.
Kou Som saw the Hangs about once a month, mostly for extended-family functions and church events, and says that outwardly the family appeared to be doing well. He describes Khoua as a "traditional wife," despite the fact that she dressed Western-style and was the family breadwinner. "They seemed like a loving family," he says. "The children were happy, and they were both pretty quiet people. There was no evidence of tempers on either side."
According to Som, the couple did meet twice with clan leaders to resolve problems--the kind of routine arguments that plague most marriages. "The disputes were about each of them causing trouble for the other," he asserts. "Just minimal stuff like communication problems. You know, he or she isn't listening to me, those kinds of things."
Her's mother-in-law told the Pioneer Press that some of the tensions stemmed from the young woman's bucking of Hmong tradition: She dressed "nice, like she's single," Pang Yang said, and "would always tell us that she didn't need the grandmother, the grandfather, the husband or anyone." Another relative told reporters that "in the last couple of years [Her] was not acting right... She began acting like a runaway teenager."
In the spring of 1997, Her and Hang announced to the clans that their relationship was irreparably damaged. They were separated in a traditional divorce.
Once rare in Hmong culture, divorce is becoming more common in the West, says Yang Dao, cultural specialist and assistant director of the St. Paul Public Schools' English Language Learner Programs (ELL). The reasons have to do with the new expectations families face, he says: "In Laos everyone has to work. But unlike here, we only work in the daytime. And in Laos we work together--the children go with the parents to work each day. Here, while both parents may still work, they don't work together or at the same time. They don't have time to meet together and discuss issues.
"It may also be that Khoua was disappointed with her husband," Dao adds. "Wives all over the world want their husbands to be successful, and she could have felt frustrated with him and their life."
Neal Thao agrees--up to a point. "Role distribution is different now, and it's creating a lot of confusion and chaos," he says. "I know that she had married early, had a lot of kids, and she wasn't getting enough support. But she wasn't behaving responsibly. She was trying to be an American kid."
Gaoly Yang believes that what most troubled Khoua Her and Tou Hang was a phenomenon common in many cultures: One spouse outgrew the other. "The main problem here is that you have two individuals, and he doesn't have the appropriate education," says Yang. "He can't help the family on the same level that she can, and this negatively impacts his self-esteem.
"When someone is making rapid progress, they'll change rapidly," she goes on. "And one partner takes this to mean that the other is trying to dominate or is being Americanized too fast. To the one that trails behind, it means less power and less control. And when it's the woman who's changing, there's a lot more tension and a much greater struggle."
It's unclear precisely when the problems in the Hang household came to the attention of local authorities. St. Paul police say they were called to the Hang residence at least 17 times, but refuse to release most records relating to the incidents, citing privacy laws in cases involving child protection. What information has been made public indicates that the couple's domestic disputes took a turn for the worse last year.
On June 2, 1997, St. Paul police took a report from Hang alleging that two months earlier Her had "without any reasons...used a shotgun (20 gauge) pointed at him, his children and their friends...and told them to stay put or she will shoot." One of his friends, Hang told police, "got on his knees and begged Khoua to let go of the shotgun. Khoua then lowered the shotgun and took off with it in her vehicle." Mee says Her told her about pulling a gun on her husband and his friends but said she did so in self-defense. "Tou had come home with three men and demanded $3,000 from Khoua, saying he wanted to go to Laos and marry another woman," she recounts. "Khoua told him that even if she had it, she wouldn't give it to him. Tou then told her to give him the money or all of them were going to beat her up. And that's when she pulled out the gun."
On May 29, four days before Hang told police about the alleged gun incident, Khoua Her filed for an order for protection against her ex-husband. According to Ramsey County District Court records, she gave her residence as 888 Desoto Street and noted that she had temporary custody of 5-year-old A-ee and 4-year-old Tang Kee; Hang, she said, was living on Timberlake with the other children.
In a sworn statement given through an interpreter at the time, Her asserted that Hang had "threatened to kill her on almost a daily basis for the last year." She also alleged that he would "push her when he is very upset, usually about once a month." On May 24, Her claimed, Hang had shown up at the house where she was staying and asked her to come back to him, threatening to poison himself if she did not. When she refused, she stated, he "put poison in his mouth." When Her called 911, Hang took off and called her from home.
According to St. Paul police records, officers were dispatched to the house on Timberlake that night and found Hang sleeping on the floor. "He said he was depressed because his wife didn't love him anymore," the officers wrote. "He was crying and told us he had taken some pills...He told us he thought he wanted to kill himself." Hang complained of a headache and dizziness, and the officers took him to Regions Hospital for treatment.
When the order for protection came up for a court hearing on June 20, neither Her nor Hang showed up, and the matter was dismissed. In a subsequent court filing, Her claimed Hang had held her captive in the house that day.
On July 19 of last year, Her called St. Paul police from a gas-station pay phone alleging that her ex-husband had assaulted her. According to the police report, she told officers that she and Hang had been arguing and that he'd said, "I'm going to kill you if you ever leave me." Hang, she added, "pulled her hair, pushed her head into the wall, and began punching her on top of her head." The officers noted that Her showed them "small scratches on the right side of her neck" as well as "several broken nails on both hands, and bruising on both left and right knees." Her also told police that Hang had hit her before but had never been arrested.
When police went to the Timberlake address, Hang gave them a drastically different version of events. Her had "started it," he said, and he displayed "minor scratches on his chest. She pinched him, and she had a knife, so he pushed her to the ground." The officers arrested Hang and booked him for domestic assault. No charges were ever filed.
Within days of that incident, Her fled with her two youngest children to the home of her birth mother in Pontiac, Mich. That same day, Hang filed a complaint with St. Paul police alleging that his ex-wife had taken his green card and Social Security card.
Accounts vary as to why Her left the state. Kou Som contends she ran off with a man. "I was told she moved to Michigan because she had a boyfriend there," he says. "And when things didn't work out, she came back." But both Mee and Phoua insist that Her left because she was terrified of her ex-husband, and returned more than a month later because he continued to harass her at a distance. "He kept calling, threatening to kill her mother and anyone who dated or married her," Mee says Her told her. "He didn't want anyone else to have her."
In November Her took a job with a Hmong-owned firm called Interpreter Transportation Services Inc. (ITS). Less than a month later, she filed for a restraining order in Ramsey County District Court against her supervisor and the owner of the company.
According to Her's affidavit in the case, on her first day at work, the supervisor took her to lunch and "touched my body parts which I did not want him to." The same thing happened the next day, she alleged. Two days after that, the affidavit continued, on Thanksgiving Day, she was on call when the supervisor paged her, picked her up, drove her to a park, and raped her: "I told him to stop many times, but he never listened and continued raping me. After he finished raping me, I told him that I was not happy with what he had done to me."
Her also alleged in the affidavit that two days later the owner of the company asked her to go to a marketing conference with him; when he drove her back to her car that night, she charged, "He asked me to marry him as his second wife, at the same time he also touched my body parts stating 'how juicy my body looked.'
"I told him to stop many times," she alleged. "He kept touching me and asking me to be his second wife. I totally don't understand why he did this to me. I told him that 'you already have a wife and I don't want to marry you.' I got out and went to my car." Her didn't go to work the day after Thanksgiving; the following Monday her supervisor called and told her she was fired.
The restraining orders Her had requested were granted in two separate court appearances in January. The alleged attackers admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to abide by the orders, which prohibited them from having any contact with her. No charges were filed in connection with the alleged incidents. (Neither Her's attorney nor the lawyers representing the two men returned City Pages' calls requesting comment for this story.)
While the orders were wending their way through the court process, police paid another visit to the house on Timberlake Road. According to a January 11 incident report, Hang called authorities to report that Her had phoned him and threatened to "blow his brains out." Hang told police they'd been arguing because she wanted to live at the house, and that she "ran away and would not take care of the children."
While the officer was taking the report, Her phoned and presented her version: "She said she didn't threaten to kill him," the officer noted. "He was the one who threatened to kill her and her boyfriend." According to Mee and Phoua, for several months during this time, Her had been living in a battered women's shelter. Advocates at the shelter won't comment on the matter, citing the facility's privacy rules.
In February, Mee says, the couple came to an agreement about custody. "Hang agreed to split up the kids," she explains. "He was to take the three boys and she the three girls. But when they went to a [county] advocate, he said he didn't want them." Not long afterward, Her made her most explosive allegation yet: She notified authorities that her 8-year-old daughter Nali had told her she had been sexually molested by one of her father's friends.
According to an incident report in the case, on February 25 Her came into the office of A Community Outreach Program (ACOP), a special unit that works in the area around the McDonough projects. She told the officers that she had recently moved back into her house "after [her] husband agreed to move out;" Hang, she said, had no permanent address. When an officer went to interview Nali, he found that she was "intimidated about speaking to an adult male officer," but agreed to tell her story to a female interpreter.
According to the report, Nali told the interpreter that at some point that winter, her father had left home while two of his friends were visiting, and that as soon as their father was gone, the friends came into the girls' bedroom. One of them, she continued, put his hand over her sisters' mouths while the other man fondled her and then tried to rape her. Nali's graphically detailed account was confirmed by the two sisters.
Two weeks later, another officer interviewed one of Nali's brothers at school. He confirmed his sister's story, adding that he had seen the alleged attackers before, that he knew they were "bad men," and that he'd once seen them "trade" handguns with his father on a basketball court. Nali and her brother repeated their story in two more interviews--one with another officer and one with a child-protection worker--over the following month. The children also picked the alleged assailants out of a photo lineup.
On March 24, police arrested one of the suspects, a juvenile, who claimed not to know either Hang or the other suspect. When pressed, he acknowledged that the other suspect was his cousin, and that the two of them had been to Hang's house several times for dinner and martial-arts instruction. Their last visit, he said, had been the previous summer, and he denied having had "any sort of contact" with Nali. Police later interviewed the other suspect at a group home; he told them he had been to a party at Hang's once and had seen the children, but that he had never touched any of them and "appeared stunned that [an officer] would even ask such a question."
When police questioned Hang, he told them that he had never had either of the suspects in his home, and that nobody--including his daughter--had told him of the alleged assault. In another police interview, Hang alleged that he believed "his estranged wife was putting the victim up to this due to [his] seeing another woman."
On March 26, assistant Ramsey County Attorney Chris Wilton ordered the juvenile suspect released from jail. No charges were filed.
As her problems mounted, Her found herself increasingly lonely. Her parents lived in other states; her local relatives and acquaintances had grown distant following the divorce. "She lived in total isolation," Phoua says. "Not like most Hmong women, who, while they marry young and have children, have some kind of connectedness.
"Divorce is tough on the women," Phoua continues. "No one wants to befriend you. Most husbands won't let their wives associate with divorced women, because they view them as bad; they're afraid they'll influence their wives."
Gaoly Yang concurs. "Our tradition indicates that you should be married for life," she says. "And once you go out of the norm, you are ostracized by the majority. People will look down on you, no matter how hard the marriage was."
That was especially true with Her because she had shown a rebellious, independent streak, adds another St. Paul legal professional who has spoken with her since the deaths. "Khoua's bright and ambitious, but she didn't expect things to be handed to her," says the professional, who asked not to be identified. "She's a hard worker, but every time she tried to do something to better her life, things would fall apart. She got little to no support from her husband, and there didn't seem to be anyone else she could turn to. If you go against your husband or the clan, you'll find yourself alone."
Kou Som, the cousin of Tou Hang and spokesman for his clan, says Her brought some of her problems on herself. "If she'd stayed within the [clan] system, none of this would have happened," he insists, adding that he and other clan leaders didn't learn of the police calls to the Hang residence until after the children's deaths. Som says traditional methods can help families and couples solve their problems, and that it is the clan leaders who will, when necessary, steer individuals toward the American justice system.
"Let's say the husband is abusing the wife," he explains. "The wife would bring this to the husband's clan, and they will talk to him. If he doesn't change, then the wife's family will meet with the husband's family and both sides will listen to testimony and decide upon an appropriate course of action. If the husband is hitting his wife, the clan will tell him to immediately cease. If it continues, the wife will go back to the clan, and if the husband again refuses to stop, and it's obvious the clan can't control him, then they should go to the police."
But sometimes the clan system doesn't work, counters Gaoly Yang. "I have heard from colleagues that if everyone followed the traditional approach, none of these problems would happen. But this couple tried the traditional approach and it failed. The problem here wasn't that they stepped outside of the clan system. They needed to have more options."
The St. Paul Public Schools' Yang Dao speculates that if Her turned to police without the clan's approval, it was only a matter of time until relatives washed their hands of her. "They will say that you made your decision, so now you are on your own," he asserts. "And she loses whatever family support she had."
One consequence of Her's isolation was that she had trouble finding help to take care of the children; police records suggest that she increasingly left 10-year-old Koua Eai in charge. On June 3, for example, Her called 911 saying she'd come home and found the kids missing. Officers discovered the children playing in the woods next to the housing complex.
In his report, St. Paul Police Officer Steven Frazier noted that Her told him she feared the children's father had taken them away. He indicated that he would forward the information to a special St. Paul Police unit assigned to the area around the McDonough projects so they could "assist the family with setting up a system of daycare and visitation so that the parents will know where the children are. It should be noted that this is not the first time that Her has left the children alone."
Mee, the legal professional who has met with Her, says Her told her she occasionally left home without the children. "I know that once she went grocery shopping and had to leave the kids," Mee recalls. "But her car wasn't working and she had to take the bus. It's hard to handle six small children on your own." At least once, Mee says Her told her, she "went to a party, got dressed up, left her children alone. She was lonely, needed help with the kids, and said she went because she needed to find love." That time, Mee says, Hang showed up at the same party and called police to report that she'd abandoned the kids.
A couple of days after police found her children in the woods, Her filed for a second order for protection against her ex-husband. In a June 9 affidavit, she maintained that Hang had threatened her life several times, that he had followed her on outings with the children and attacked her, and that he'd stated that "as long as he is living, she will not have a life." There is no record of a hearing date on the matter having been set.
A week after filing for that order, Her was stopped by St. Paul police for driving with expired tabs and without insurance. Her car was impounded, and misdemeanor charges were filed. Around the same time, the management of McDonough notified her that they were about to begin eviction proceedings against her. Hang had removed her name from the lease when she went to Michigan, and she'd never filed the paperwork to be reinstated. Mee says that as Her scrambled to assemble the required documentation, another problem arose: She was told that her subsidized rent was being raised from $76 to $140 a month, retroactive to February. (Neither McDonough housing manager Bee Vang nor St. Paul Public Housing Assistant Executive Director Al Hester would consent to be interviewed for this story.)
Even without that increase, Her had been struggling to pay the bills. "She was very conscious about how poor she was," recalls mental-health worker Phoua. "She would say, 'Because I'm so poor, nobody respects me.'" Making matters worse, she says, in August Her's welfare check did not come through because "she didn't get some paperwork turned in on time." Welfare records are not public. But if Phoua's account is accurate, Her spent that month without a vital source of income, without transportation, facing homelessness and the possibility of jail time for the misdemeanor charges.
According to police and Ramsey County District Court records, at approximately 11 a.m. on September 3, Chee Yang saw his neighbor Khoua Her walking around in a "red dance dress." At that time, Yang said, he saw four children peering out the window of Her's townhome. Six hours later neighbors Der Her and Fue Thao spotted two of the children near the playground outside Her's front door. After a while their mother, wearing a "nice red dress," brought them inside.
At 7:10 p.m. a St. Paul 911 dispatcher took a call from a dazed-sounding woman who mumbled something about "suicide." After repeated questions from the dispatcher, the woman said that she had tried to hang herself. According to the transcript, the woman kept repeating, "I don't know, I don't know, I don't know."
"You don't know what?" the dispatcher finally asked.
"I don't know why I killed my kids," the woman said.
When Officers Sheila Hoff and Joseph Chaffee arrived at the townhouse where the call originated, they found Khoua Her lying near the steps with a brown extension cord around her neck and a portable phone in her hand, wearing what their report described as a "red ceremonial dress." The 911 operator was still on the line.
The officers stepped in and spotted 6-year-old A-ee lying face-down on the floor with a piece of black material tied tightly around her neck. The girl's body was still warm. While Hoff ripped off the fabric and attempted resuscitation, her partner raced upstairs.
According to the incident report he later filed, Chaffee was no stranger to 1541 Timberlake Road. "I am familiar with Her and have had numerous contacts with her in the past," he wrote. "The last time I was at this apartment, the children were home and would not answer the door. When I gained entry that time, I located all the kids in the entry to the stairs, on the top floor. I thought that this could be where they were hiding, so I immediately went up the stairs to look."
What he found were two more bodies: 11-year-old Koua Eai was lying on the landing, and one of the boys was in the upstairs bedroom. (None of the incident reports stated conclusively whether that body was 9-year-old Samson or 7-year-old Tang Lung.) They too were still warm. Chaffee yelled for the paramedics, who had since arrived.
Down in the basement, the officers discovered the third boy and 8-year-old Nali, both with black material around their necks, both "still warm." The last victim to be found was 5-year-old Tang Kee. She was on the floor in the bathroom, black strip around her neck, her body warm to the touch.
Another officer later noted that "each child was in a separate room on each floor level, away from the others." That detail, along with the St. Paul medical examiner's finding that "the bodies of the children were in different stages of rigor," suggests they were killed at different times, and possibly out of sight of each other.
As a paramedic treated Her on the front steps, a crowd began to gather. Watching Her sitting there in the red dress, head lolling from side to side, one neighbor recalls, "I didn't know she was the parent. I thought she was the kid. She's so small." When Her's condition stabilized, an ambulance transported her to Regions Hospital in St. Paul.
Meanwhile police scoured the scene for evidence. Among the items they collected, according to their report, were three pieces of mail addressed to Her, including a letter from "Ying Yang, AKA Tiger;" a torn-up note, possibly in Her's handwriting; five pieces of cut telephone cord; two "suspicious" bloodstains on a basement doorway; a sword and a case; eight pieces of a torn photo; and a Medical Assistance application in which someone had listed the children's names and then crossed them out.
Detectives also confiscated seven drinking glasses, which were sent to the crime lab. Press reports following Her's arrest speculated that the children had been poisoned or sedated. The initial toxicology report on the Hang children showed no drug traces, says Ramsey County Medical Examiner Keith Mortenson, but he adds that his office is not ruling out the possibility. (According to Phoua, police have questioned a friend of Her's about whether she concocted some kind of herbal sedative at Her's behest, a charge she denied.)
Last Friday Khoua Her--dressed in orange jail-issue pants, a drab olive sweater, and beige sandals--stood in Ramsey County District Judge Charles Flinn's courtroom weeping audibly as the names of her children were read aloud. Public defender Bruce Wenger answered for his client as prosecutor Chris Wilton enumerated the six counts of second-degree intentional murder against her: "Not guilty," he said on each count. Her's sobbing continued as Wenger challenged the state's case, saying that prosecutors had not established probable cause. He noted that he had never received a tape of the 911 call and that he'd had to download the transcript from the Star Tribune Web site. (It was also from a Star Tribune report that Wenger learned about the details of the sexual-abuse allegation involving Nali; police and prosecutors, he says, refused to give him access to reports in the case, and he did not discover that they had been made public until reading about them in the paper this Sunday.) No one had yet proven, Wenger told the court, that the voice on the tape belonged to Her, or that she had really said, "I don't know why I killed my kids."
When Flinn ruled that the state has probable cause to charge Her, Wenger asked for a change of venue on the grounds that local publicity about the case has made it impossible to find an impartial jury. Flinn granted the request; oral arguments in the case are scheduled for December 15.
Her's gaze remained fixed on the floor throughout the 10-minute hearing.
If Her is convicted on the current charges against her, she could be sentenced to as many as 153 years in prison. Wilton says he has not ruled out first-degree murder charges; if he gets the upgrade, Her could receive a mandatory sentence of 180 years. Wenger is still mulling a mental-illness defense. His decision will rest in part on a still-secret psychiatric evaluation of Her prepared while she was held at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter.
One criminal-justice professional who has spoken with Her says it's obvious she is mentally ill. Her demeanor "is flat," he says. "She says, 'I miss my children,' as if they were separated and not dead." The professional says Her exhibits symptoms common in rape victims and may have a dissociative disorder--an illness in which a person "splits off" parts of her experience as if they weren't her own--or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Even if Her is found to have one or more mental disorders, it may not spare her from a life behind bars. Minnesota has some of the toughest standards in the nation for mentally ill defendants: Only if it can be proven she could not understand her actions were wrong may she be found not guilty by reason of insanity. According to Wilton, in the past three decades only one defendant has successfully argued mental illness in Ramsey County. (In 1993 Debra Jackson, who had a history of psychosis, quit taking her medication and killed her two children after "voices" told her they would be taken to hell if she didn't.)
A diagnosis of mental illness would be of little comfort to the Hmong community, says Gaoly Yang of the Women's Association of Hmong and Lao. "Mental illness is not something our culture understands or accepts," the Hmong advocate explains. "When someone is depressed after the loss of a spouse or a child, we call those feelings 'hopelessness.' But that word doesn't allow anyone to lose control. Mental illness--we don't have a word for that."
The St. Paul Schools' Yang Dao adds that he believes psychological and stress-related problems were rare among the Hmong in their homeland: "In Laos we have all kinds of counseling. We have the family, the clan, and the community leaders. We never have to deal with our problems alone. It's not the same here."
Mee says that in her conversations with Her, she got the impression that Her "felt abandoned and was very isolated and depressed. She loved her children very much and felt that if she died, no one would care for them or love them." She notes that on the day of the deaths, Her chose formal garb rather than the casual clothing she usually favored--a detail she believes shows that Her was serious about killing herself along with the children. "You only wear the ceremonial dress for special occasions like New Year's, or when you die," Mee points out. "You can only be with your ancestors if you wear the Hmong clothes."
For Dao the Hang family tragedy hearkens back to events he witnessed two decades ago. In 1980, when he was living in Paris, he got word that a Hmong couple had killed their three children and attempted suicide. "I went to the hospital where they were being kept and spoke to both the mother and the father," he remembers. "They told me they were trying to emigrate to the U.S., but the government had turned them down. As a last resort, the husband and wife decided to commit a family suicide.
"They told the children it was time to go to bed and had them drink the poison and lay down next to each other," Dao continues. "The husband and the wife then drank the poison and lay down on the bed next to their children, expecting to die with them. But they survived."
Dao says such events are uncommon among the Hmong. But, he adds, in a way they are not inconsistent with his culture's beliefs. "According to Hmong tradition, children are more precious than anything in the entire world," he explains. "They are considered a blessing from God, and parents will do whatever is necessary to protect them."
If Her did kill her children, Dao says, "It was probably in her mind: 'I want to die, but I don't want my children to be miserable. So before I die, I will kill them, and my children and I will go together to live a new life with happiness.' This is both cultural and spiritual thinking. In Laos when someone within the family dies, it's not unusual that the survivor will try to kill him- or herself, thinking that they will live with that family member in another world."
According to Dao, the Hmong believe that those who kill another without reason will be punished in the reincarnation cycle. But as he sees it, Her, like the couple in France, had her children's interest at heart, so she may not suffer in the afterlife. "They loved their children more than anything," he says. "They were just trying their best to protect them."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.