Monday, September 14, 2009
The small graves of six young siblings slain by their mother in 1998 went unmarked — until now
By Nick Ferraro
Updated: 09/13/2009 11:49:45 PM CDT
Eleven years ago today, six St. Paul children slain by their mother were laid to rest at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Maplewood.
Their graves were unmarked — despite being the victims of the worst mass murder in St. Paul history. But the children — ages 5 to 11 — were not forgotten.
On Sunday afternoon, about 100 people gathered at the cemetery to memorialize the children and mark their gravesites with tombstones. The mourners included the children's father and other family and friends, Hmong community leaders and St. Paul police officers who worked the case.
The ceremony was the culmination of nearly a year's worth of planning by a group of local residents, people who did not know the family but who last October read Pioneer Press columnist Rubén Rosario's story about the unmarked gravesites.
Six 2-by-1-foot flat, gray stones identify the graves of Koua Eai Kong, 11; Samson Kong, 9; Nali Kong, 8; Tang Lung Kong, 7; A-ee Kong, 6; and Tang Kee Kong, 5 — all of whom were systematically strangled by their mother, Khoua Her, then 24, on Sept. 3, 1998, at their North End apartment.
"These graves have been unmarked, but today we mark them for the family and the community," Pat Hogan, the cemetery's superintendent, told the gatherers. "They will be marked forever, and we will never forget."
Billy Leepao Xiong, a family friend, said financial hardship of the father, Tou Kong, was the reason grave markers were never bought. Speaking through Xiong, Tou Kong called the tombstones "the most valuable thing in his life."
The stone markers, which include each child's name and dates of birth and death, were donated by Schoenrock Monument, a nearly century-old, family-operated monument business in St. Paul.
"Everybody should have some kind of marking after they pass away," said owner Chester Schoenrock, 84, who attended the ceremony with his wife, Ann. "And I certainly feel those kids needed something, so when somebody tries to find them, they have some identification. They deserve it."
Shelia Larson and fellow St. Paul police officer Tony Chaffee, now retired, were the first officers to respond to the call from Apartment G at 1541 Timberlake Road at McDonough Homes, a public housing complex.
The call came in as a 911 hangup, but a dispatcher updated it to a possible suicide. The officers got no response at the front door, Larson said. After forcing open a screen door, they found the grisly scene: Two kids strangled on the main floor, two more in the basement and two on the second level.
Larson, who had been a patrol officer for about three years at the time, said it was the hardest call she has been on. She has since been promoted to sergeant.
"Being a police officer, you're supposed to be tough," Larson said before the ceremony, at which she spoke. "But nothing could prepare someone when you see six little kids."
According to court records, Khoua Her told investigators she separated the children by getting them to play hide-and-seek with her. She said that with the children hiding throughout the apartment, she went to each separately and, wrapping a strip of cloth around their necks, strangled them. She said none of the children resisted.
Khoua Her then tried to strangle herself with an electrical cord. She was found semiconscious.
Khoua Her, who once lived in a refugee camp in Thailand, pleaded guilty to the murders and is serving a 50-year sentence at the state women's prison in Shakopee.
The first two years after the murders, the split-level apartment sat empty. There were some concerns in the Hmong community that the spirits of the six children remained in the house, said St. Paul officer David Yang, who also responded to the call.
"People went in and out of there because nobody wanted to live there," Yang said Sunday.
In November 2000, the city's housing agency and police department transformed the apartment into the headquarters of a community-based police outreach program.
Larson said she visited the gravesite about a year after the murders and was surprised there were no headstones. But she thought maybe unmarked graves were common in Hmong culture and let it go.
"These kids are not forgotten and forever will be in our hearts," she told the crowd.
MEMORIES LIVE ON
For Hogan, Sunday was also a personal anniversary he wishes he could forget.
On Sept. 13, 1998, Hogan dug the massive hole at Lot 134, Block 33 in the cemetery's northwest corner.
"Many people have walked these graves and not even realized they were there," Hogan told the crowd.
About a week after the children were buried, Hogan cleared the site of flowers and a few other personal items that were left. But one item — a small Wilson football — stood out, he said.
"So I kept it safe," Hogan, 38, of North St. Paul, said. "And I taught my kids to play catch with it, and I remembered those children."
On Sunday, Hogan, who helped plan the event, presented the football to the children's father "as an example of how the memories live on."
Tou Kong said a few words in the Hmong language before breaking down and receiving a hug from Tziaeng Vang, who served on the planning committee and led the ceremony.
"Grief is something that you cannot translate," Vang said. "But I think you all know his message."
In July, planning committee members Cindy Xiong, a community corrections aide for Ramsey County, and her older sister, Ong Xiong, a St. Paul charter school teacher, met with Khoua Her.
The committee agreed to include the mother in the ceremony. On Sunday, Ong Xiong read her prepared statement.
"I love you," Khoua Her wrote. "Thank you for giving me a chance to be a mother. It had been a great gift to share the experience with you. Thank you for being a blessing to me. You are my strengths, my hope and motivation. You are my everything and all that I have and treasure. I am truly sorry you had to pay the price in which you didn't deserve."
Ka Houa Yang, chairman of the Lao Family Community of Minnesota, told the crowd to think about what the children could have become.
"One day, they could have been the president, or a doctor, lawyer and wealthiest leader of our community," he said.
After the markers were unveiled, the children's family and friends and community members placed 66 white roses — to mark the 11 years since the six deaths — on the headstones.
Then a bell tolled six times — once for each child.
Nick Ferraro can be reached at 651-228-2173.