Mourners gathered Saturday along a Vadnais Heights lakeshore to say goodbye to a young family of five, all dead in a tragedy that family and friends said they are struggling to comprehend.
"Right now we can't do much but be here and show love and support for the family," Sai Cheng said at the vigil for her cousin, Molly Cheng, whose body was pulled from Vadnais Lake on July 2, along with those of two of her children, all under age 6. Another child's body was recovered July 1, the day Cheng's husband, Yee Lee, died of a self-inflicted gunshot in their Maplewood home.
A large framed photo of the family sat on a table with candles, just over the sandy shoreline in Vadnais-Sucker Lake Regional Park where Cheng went into the water with her kids — Phoenix, Quadrillion and Estella. Roughly 100 mourners came and went on a tree-covered dirt path.
Parents of both Cheng and Lee were on hand, along with many family members and others, some bearing candles and buckets loaded with dozens of single-stemmed pink, white and yellow carnations and roses. Other family members held the family's surviving small dog.
Jasmine Lykhang, a volunteer with the Hmong 18 Council, translated the speeches of the fathers from their native Hmong. The council, created to combat domestic violence in 2005 after another tragedy, organized the vigil. She also encouraged anyone in the community to set aside shame and reach out if they're struggling and in crisis.
"We will find a way to help you," Lykhang said.
Authorities are continuing to investigate but said the sequence of the events seems clear-cut. Ramsey County Undersheriff Mike Martin said they don't believe anyone else was involved.
"We will look at everything we possibly can to ensure we have the most complete picture of what occurred. Part of that is just giving answers to the families — where did she go? Who did she talk to?" Martin said. "We know some of those answers but we don't know all of them."
Lee, 27, died first, from a gunshot wound to the head on the morning of July 1. Cheng called 911. Maplewood police found Lee dead at the scene, and Martin said gun powder residue and burns on his hands made clear the wound was self-inflicted.
Martin said social workers also came to the home and stayed for some time. He said police talked to Cheng, 23, and her father.
"She convinced them she was fine, which obviously she wasn't," Martin said.
A few hours later, Martin said, Cheng called a relative and said she was going to kill herself and her three children. Maplewood police tracked Cheng's cellphone to Vadnais-Sucker Lake Park about 4 p.m. Friday. Law enforcement found her car abandoned, and her children's shoes lined up nearby. One child's body was recovered Friday evening, the second around midnight that night, and Cheng and the third child were recovered Saturday morning.
The Ramsey County sheriff has jurisdiction over the deaths of the mother and three children. Maplewood police are overseeing Lee's death investigation.
Investigators are combing through messages and photos on Lee and Cheng's phones. They will look at social media and the car's black box to see where Cheng drove and who she communicated with, Martin said.
Martin said there's "never going to be a good answer" for those left behind.
At the vigil, the formal ceremony was short. Both fathers spoke briefly, expressing profound sorrow and thanking everyone for coming.
"I do not know what to say to the community at this time because it is such a heartbreaking event for me," said Molly's father, Chong X. Cheng.
Afterward, mourners made their way down to the lakeshore. They laid flowers, stuffed animals and candles in the spot where the children's shoes were found.