Memorial at Vadnais Lake in Vadnais Heights on July 5, 2022 where the bodies of the three children and their mother were recovered over the weekend. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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A relative of three children who police believe were drowned by their mother over the weekend spoke out Tuesday, expressing surprise and grief over the tragedy. 

Chong Lue Lee, 60, was at a loss to explain the events on July 1 that began with his relative, Yee Lee, committing suicide and ended with Lee’s wife, Molly Cheng, apparently drowning the couple’s children and then herself at Vadnais Lake.

*Lee had been identified at a July 5 news conference organized by the Hmong 18 Council as the children’s paternal grandfather. The Hmong 18 Council has since clarified that Chong Lue Lee is not the grandfather. He is Yee Lee’s relative, and culturally serves as a grandfather-like figure, the council said.

The council mediates issues within the Hmong community. Yee Lee, Cheng, and their children are Hmong.

Lee said both families are having a tough time coping with the losses, and that he misses the children—Phoenix, Quadrillion, and Estella Lee, ages 3 through 5—terribly.

“They are so young, and they had a bright future,” said Lee, who spoke through an interpreter. “I wish this never happened to them.”

Lee, who said Yee Lee and Cheng’s families had designated him to speak on their behalf, said “there were things happening” in the couple’s relationship. But, he urged others to avoid speculation and rumor about what caused the events, which made national headlines and attracted dozens of comments on social media over the holiday weekend.

The family’s deaths are among recent Minnesota cases where parents harmed or were suspected of harming their children. On July 3–a day after Molly Cheng and the last of her children were recovered from the lake–Northfield police announced that they were looking for missing 6-year-old Elle Ragin. Police said Ragin’s mother, Lisa Wade, had committed suicide in her home and “may have been involved” in her daughter’s disappearance, which remains under investigation.

In May, Julissa Thaler of Spring Park allegedly shot her six-year-old son, Eli Hart, nine times and placed him in the trunk of her car after the boy’s father filed court documents seeking custody. In late 2019, David Schladetzky fatally shot his 8- and 11-year-old sons, Nelson and William, in Minneapolis and then killed his ex-wife, Kjersten Schladetzky, and himself.

Experts who study filicide—parents who kill their children—said it’s unclear how often such acts occur, but that there are key commonalities among them.

“This is a horrific crime for people to understand and imagine, and that’s why it’s helpful to be aware of the different essential motives,” said Susan Hatters-Friedman, a professor of forensic psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. “A lot of times people rush to judgment about what was the motive in a certain case, but until all the facts come out it’s difficult to say in some cases.”

Chong Lue Lee, a family member from Yee Lee’s side of the family speaks to members of the press about the deaths of Molly Cheng, Yee Lee, and their three children on July 5, 2022. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Hatters-Friedman said researchers have identified five main reasons for filicide: the death is the result of chronic abuse, the child was unwanted, one parent wants to exact revenge on the other parent, the parent feels it’s “altruistic” to spare the child pain, and “acute psychosis.”

“A loving parent who, either because of psychosis or depression, etc., thinks that they love their child and that they’re really saving them by killing them,” Hatters-Friedman said of the “altruistic” motive. “A parent who’s severely depressed and is going to kill themselves, who loves their child, may think, ‘I’m leaving this awful world myself, but I don’t want to leave this child who I love here alone in this awful world without a parent.’ ”

Sixteen to 29 percent of mothers also kill themselves when killing their child, she said, adding that it’s more common for fathers to commit suicide in such scenarios.

Lee said he wasn’t aware whether Yee Lee or Cheng struggled with mental health issues. He described the two as nice, kind people. Yee Lee, 27, and Cheng, 23, were both born in Thailand and grew up in the Thai refugee camp, Wat Tham Krabok.

“They are the last wave of Hmong refugees from Wat Tham Krabok,” Lee said of a group of Hmong refugees who left the camp in the early 2000s. 

Both met in the Twin Cities and had been together for seven years. At the time of their death, they both ran a nail and hair salon in Brooklyn Park, Lee said. Before then, Cheng trained to do cosmetic eyebrow tattoos at E & S Lounge in St. Paul.

Lee said when he and others arrived at the couple’s home on July 1, police had sectioned the house off with yellow tape and wouldn’t let them inside. Cheng and all three children were present. 

The Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office later ruled that Yee Lee died of suicide from a gunshot wound to the head. 

According to Lee: The extended family discussed what to do with the children, and eventually agreed that Cheng’s father would take them for the night. Cheng opposed the plan and told police that the children had to stay with her.

The family soon left, trusting that police would control the situation, Lee said. Police left Cheng and the kids after a few hours of supervision, he added, saying he wishes police would have stayed for 24 hours. 

“We greatly appreciate that the police were present at the scene when [Yee Lee] passed away,” Lee said. “But we wished they could do more to prevent the loss of the other four lives.”

Maplewood police declined to comment about the case Tuesday, and referred questions to the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office deferred to their news releases on the case, which said Maplewood police “arranged for social workers to come to the scene” to assist Cheng and her children.” The news releases did not elaborate on why and how Cheng was able to leave with her children.

The afternoon of July 1, a friend of Cheng’s alerted her family that Cheng called her and told her she was in the car with the children and said “she would do something to the kids,” Lee said. 

They quickly alerted the police. Medical examiners said that Cheng took the children to Vadnais Lake in Vadnais Heights that evening, walked the three of them together into the lake and drowned them, and then drowned herself. Deputies discovered the first body Friday night and the last three Saturday morning.

Cheng and Yee Lee lived in a gray home with bright green shutters in the Rolling Hills Estate mobile home park in Maplewood. Loved ones set up a small memorial on their front porch with two red star-shaped balloons, flowers, stuffed animals, half-empty bottles of beer, and a bottle of Pepsi. The children’s toys were still sprawled out on a patio swing. Two cereal bowls and spoons sat on the ledge of the porch.

Memorial set up on stairs of the residence of Molly Cheng and Yee Lee in Maplewood on July 5, 2022. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Rebecca Urrutia lives across the street. She said she hadn’t interacted much with Cheng or Yee Lee beyond a neighborly wave. 

“From what we saw, he was a great dad. We always saw him with the kids. He would go with them and walk around. You could see them in that stroller right there,” she said, pointing at a red wagon parked near the family’s front porch.

Urrutia said she saw Cheng drive away on July 1 with her three children in a gray pickup truck.

 “One thing that we don’t understand is why the police let the kids go with the mom,” Urrutia said.

Urrutia remembered the children being friendly and talkative with neighbors. 

“For me, it’s shocking,” she said.

Her aunt chimed in in Spanish and Urrutia translated: “It’s really sad what happened.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends that if you or someone you know is in crisis, whether or not suicide is being contemplated, to call a free, 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Chong Lue Lee as Yee Lee’s father and the grandfather of his three children. The Hmong 18 Council has clarified that Chong Lue Lee is not the grandfather. He is Yee Lee’s relative, and culturally serves as a grandfather-like figure, the council said.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.