After a weeklong disappearance from her husband and their rocky marriage, Panhia Yang returned to the couple’s apartment Sunday afternoon to retrieve some clothes and discuss money matters, family members said. Her husband dropped to his knees and begged her to stay, and in an instant, a confusing fight erupted, ending with Yang, her brother and her husband dead.
Few details about what happened and how they died have emerged. St. Paul police said the cause and manner of death remain under investigation, and that there is no threat to the public. The three died at the scene in the 500 block of N. Victoria St. They have been identified as Yang, 27; her husband, Chue Lor, 31; and her brother, Kong Meng Lee, 18.
It’s unclear what type of weapon was used in the altercation, although a witness and neighbor did not recall hearing any gunshots. Lor’s mother, Mai Thao, lived in the unit with the couple and their four children. Thao was in the master bedroom as Yang pulled some clothes together, her brother standing nearby.
Lor wailed loudly for his wife to stay. She’d left before, Lor’s brothers said, but for two or three days. This time, the brothers said, she vowed not to return.
“Please don’t go,” Thao recalled her son saying. “Come live with me. Love me again.”
Thao quickly ushered the couple’s children, ages 3 to 9, out of the room where they were playing computer games and watching TV. When Thao returned, Yang, Lor and Lee were embroiled in a chaotic battle, she said.
“It was like a bullfight,” said a distraught Thao, who did not recall seeing anyone armed or hearing a gunfire.
It wasn’t until Thao fled the unit with the children and Lee ran out after them, bumping into her and smearing blood across her side, that she realized someone was hurt. The trail of Lee’s blood lingered across the apartment complex’s floor, steps and banister Monday, pooled by the entryway where he collapsed and died about 4:30 p.m. after trying unsuccessfully to open the front door.
Thao and Lor’s brothers, Lee and Houa Lor, said Monday afternoon that they don’t know who started the physical altercation Sunday. Earlier that day, Chue Lor visited the home of Yang’s parents in hopes they could talk her into returning to him, Lor’s brothers said. They were not legally married, though they were married in a traditional Hmong ceremony.
Houa Lor said that Yang also returned Sunday to discuss dividing their income-tax refund. Lee and Houa Lor said they were unaware of whether there was any prior physical violence in the couple’s relationship, but said Yang had left in the past. She may have been staying at a domestic abuse shelter the past week, Thao said.
There were no filings in family court for the couple that would document abuse, and neighbors did not report hearing or seeing altercations in the past.
Chue Lor worked as a caretaker for the apartment complex, where he needed extra prodding to complete basic tasks, said tenant David Givhan.
Givhan said he entered the front of the apartment complex about 4:20 p.m. Sunday and saw Chue Lor standing at the opposite landing that led to the back door. Chue Lor had bristled a week earlier when Givhan told him not to keep gasoline in the furnace room, so instead of exchanging hellos, the men stared each other down from across the way.
“I kind of sensed something was wrong,” said Givhan, who has lived across from Chue Lor’s unit for more than two years. “He was staring at me, and I was staring at him.”
The couple’s 3-year-old daughter was standing in the hallway, Givhan said.
“No, no, Daddy!” Givhan recalled her saying before she popped back inside the apartment.
Givhan said there was no evidence something serious was unraveling. He retired to his apartment. Ten minutes later, squad cars screamed up to the building.
Givhan said Chue Lor could be “strange at times” and would get bossy with tenants, but that he was good with his kids.
“They loved their dad,” he said. “He was good with the kids. He had them most of the time.”
Givhan said Yang was “mostly gone” in the two years he’s lived across from the couple.
“I wish I could’ve helped him,” Givhan said. “He’s probably been stewing for a while.”
Staff writer Joy Powell contributed to this report.