Ka Lee Yang, 49, who was killed Monday in a fire at his apartment on St. Paul's East Side, was the first Hmong to become a Ramsey County sheriff's deputy and, before that, was a St. Paul police officer, his former colleagues said.

The fire in Yang's apartment at 1615 Sloan St. has been ruled accidental, St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard said Tuesday. He said the fire started on the second-floor apartment's balcony and spread to the living room. Firefighters arrived about 7 p.m. Monday and were able to quickly knock down the fire.

They found Yang's body in the bathroom. He died of smoke inhalation, Zaccard said.

Sheriff Bob Fletcher said he worked with Yang in 1991 when both were on the St. Paul police force. Yang had been hired as a community liaison officer to work with the Asian Community Outreach Program.

Yang joined the Sheriff's Office the following year. He worked primarily in the jail but also worked as an interpreter and on some civil process work, the sheriff said.

Yang left the Sheriff's Office in February 2001 to try other business ventures. Fletcher said he doesn't know what his old friend has been doing since then.

The stench of smoke still permeated the halls of Yang's eight-unit building Tuesday afternoon. Neighbors said they didn't know him except to say hello in passing. He lived in the apartment with his wife and children, a resident said.

Yang was the only one home at the time of the fire, Zaccard said. He said investigators can't rule out smoking or cooking as the cause, although "we may never know for sure."