Two weeks ago Sunday, Xai Vang walked into the maternity ward at Hennepin County Medical Center with an armload of food and his mother at his side. They were going to visit his sister, Mee Vang, and meet her second daughter, born a couple of days earlier.
That joyous Sunday gathering in the hospital room, sharing boiled chicken, rice and chatter, would be the last time together for Vang, his mother and sister.
Nine years after the trio joined the last wave of Hmong refugees immigrating to Minnesota from a Thai refugee camp, Vang was killed in a drive-by shooting. He was shot near his north Minneapolis home while waiting for a bus to school. He was 17.
His death last Tuesday, which police say was gang related, came
35 days after he was charged with stealing a car. He was sent to St. Joseph's Home for Children and then to the Booth Brown House, a shelter run by the Salvation Army.
He had returned home March 26 and promised his mother and sister he was going to straighten out. Tuesday was supposed to be his fourth day at an alternative school across town, far from the gang activity in the Jordan neighborhood.
"When he came home, he told me he would not become a bad person and he would listen to me," his mother, Sia Xiong Xai Vang was born Feb. 23, 1986, at the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand. When he was 9 months old, his father, Lee Fong Vang, left his wife and two children to return to his native Laos.
Lee Fong Vang's plan was to join pockets of soldiers in the jungle who were still resisting Communist forces. He was fighting with men who had served alongside American troops in the Vietnam War.
After the family arrived in Minneapolis, relatives still living in Laos sent word that Lee Fong Vang had been executed by Communist soldiers.
"Xai was always sorry that he arrived in the United States with only his mother and sister - he said it was like being a person with only one arm," said Nao Long Xiong, his uncle, who works as a machine operator at Honeywell and sponsored the family's journey to Minneapolis.
"He has spent his life with only his mother and only sees his father's picture," the uncle said. "We talked about how he needed to have good values because his father was a person of good values, and he would cry and say he understood."
Mee Vang, four years older than her brother, remembered him as an industrious child.
"When he was a kid back in Thailand, he was very little but very creative," she said. "He did things I didn't know you could do, like bringing in family income by helping storekeepers straighten their shelves and bringing them water when they needed it."
When Vang was 8, his family left Thailand for Minnesota - the first half of his life left behind at the refugee camp. The second half of his life started with great promise.
"When he arrived in this country, he loved to go to school," his mother said. "When he was young, there were no problems, nothing at all."
All that began to change about 20 months ago, according to his relatives.
"At the end of eighth grade, going to ninth grade, that's when he was growing up and stopped listening as much as he did in the past," his mother said.
Up until then, Vang would frequently visit his uncle's Minneapolis home.
"This child never liked to talk a lot and was always reserved, but he would come around to my place and we would talk about education and preparing himself to be an important person," Nao Long Xiong said. "Everything was normal through eighth grade. Since last year, he was not coming around my house very much."
His uncle said he last talked to Vang in June. A few months later, Vang's sophomore year at North High School got off to an ominous start.
"The very first day he was beaten up already," his mother said.
After the fight, which was likely a gang dispute, Vang transferred to South High, his mother said. But after a month, he said he was uncomfortable there, so he returned to North. His sister, who lives just a few blocks from her mother's house, began to worry.
"I don't know if he was involved in any gangs," Mee Vang said.
"But I know he had some bad friends."
On March 10, Vang was arrested driving a stolen car. His mother said the car had already been stolen and Vang and his friends found it and drove off. He was charged March 11 with auto theft and possession of burglary tools - both felonies. He appeared in court March 13 and was released to St. Joe's.
"I said because he doesn't listen to me, perhaps there could be a place that I could have him stay for a while," Sia Xiong said.
Two weeks later, a judge asked his mother if she wanted Vang to come home.
"I said I did and [Vang] made comments that he wanted to come home, too, so the court granted him to come home and said if he doesn't listen, let the court know," she said.
Vang was home for three weeks. His sister said he had shaved his head except for a patch on top, which he dyed blond. He told his sister he had learned a lesson making 10 cents a day picking up trash during his stay in detention.
He had enrolled at The City Inc., an alternative school with 125 students at 1545 E. Lake St. and spent three days there.
"He told me he had lost a lot of credits and now that he was at a smaller school, they were going to help him get his grades up," Sia Xiong said. "On the morning he was shot, I told him to go straight to the bus stop and don't go anywhere else."
Vang might have been shot in retaliation for another gang-related shooting the night before at Shingle Creek Park in north Minneapolis or because gang members were angered by his attempt to extricate himself from gang activity, police said.
His funeral will be held Tuesday at the Hmong Funeral Home on Dale Street in St. Paul. He will be buried Wednesday. Whether his killer is convicted doesn't seem to matter much to Mee Vang, who is back home in north Minneapolis with her 17-day-old baby girl.
"It's not as important as my brother being alive," she said.
Staff writer Margaret Zack contributed to this report.