Vulnerability, secrecy shroud teen victims of domestic violence

LYNNWOOD — In the hours before she was killed, Mountlake Terrace High School junior Kandra Tan was texting her best friend about the dress she planned to wear to the homecoming dance.

That night last fall, Tan’s much older boyfriend showed up at her home near Lynnwood. She had broken up with him only days before. He shot and killed her then took his own life.

That’s about all Snohomish County sheriff’s detectives were able to determine about the deaths, including a possible motive. Domestic-violence experts say that abusive relationships don’t always have warning signs others can see. Too often, young women are at risk.

Tan was 16. Her ex-boyfriend, Liheang Ho, was 33. Their bodies were found Oct. 15.

The couple dated off and on for at least six months, and the girl’s mother had made clear she disapproved of the relationship.

Few details about the homicide-suicide were released before the police investigation wrapped up in December. The Daily Herald obtained the detectives’ reports through a public records request filed Jan. 22. The records, released early this month, show that multiple factors made it difficult for investigators to determine exactly what happened leading up to the killing.

The girl’s family, who emigrated from Southeast Asia, needed translators to communicate with detectives. Police saw some text messages between the former couple, but full conversations weren’t recovered. There was no evidence of a struggle in the room, no witnesses and no suicide note.

Ho, who also was from Southeast Asia, had no relatives or close friends in the U.S. His roommates said they barely saw him and didn’t know his last name. He had owned the weapon, a semiautomatic pistol, for several years.

In Washington, nearly a third of domestic-violence homicides end with the abusers taking their own lives. The majority of murder-suicides involve an intimate partner, and 94 percent of the victims are female. About a third of those murdered entered the relationships before their 21st birthdays.

In many cases, abusers had made threats of suicide. In addition, about half of victims who are killed by intimate partners were leaving or trying to leave relationships, state data show.

Several witnesses told detectives that Tan had broken up with Ho.

Tan hadn’t told anyone who talked to detectives about any previous violence or suicide threats by Ho. Relatives told police Ho had not been at Tan’s house for awhile. However, a short time before the killing, he and her mother had discussed the mother’s concerns about the relationship, detectives learned.

It was unclear how much her family knew about the recent breakup, records show.

Young victims of abusive relationships seldom tell their parents and friends about what’s going on, said Jenny Wieland, who works in teen dating violence prevention for Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County. The nonprofit runs the local shelter for victims.

“Domestic violence is not always physical,” Wieland said. “It’s about power and control. When abuse is emotional or psychological, it may be difficult to know if abuse is happening.”

Wieland pointed to national studies showing that teen girls who date older men are more vulnerable to domestic violence and other risky relationship outcomes. A large age difference can create an imbalance of power, one study found.

In 2004, Stanwood High School senior Dayna Fure was shot and killed by her 23-year-old ex-boyfriend, who then killed himself. Fure had broken up with her killer two months earlier.

Sometimes, abusers who are losing control will target a victim’s loved ones. In Pierce County in January, a 19-year-old man was accused of killing his ex-girlfriend’s mother.

Teresa Ryan, 46, had warned the young man to stay away from her daughter, who was then 15. The girl broke up with him 10 days before the slaying.

Investigators found texts showing Jaylen Fryberg, who killed himself and four others at Marysville Pilchuck High School in 2014, had been threatening his ex-girlfriend with suicide in the days between their breakup and the murders.

Many cultures , including some Asian cultures, stigmatize talking about domestic violence, Wieland said. Many parents, regardless of culture, don’t recognize the risk of violence in teen relationships, she said.

It will take compassion, understanding and education for society to overcome domestic violence, said the nonprofit’s director, Vicci Hilty.

“Every tragedy reminds us of the daily challenges victims face at the hand of their abuser,” she said. “It reminds us of the pain it causes so many people, victims, families, loved ones, friends and our community as a whole.”

Tan lived with her younger brother, her mother and her mother’s friend, whom the kids called “Grandma.”

Family members last saw Tan on Oct. 14, after she arrived home from school and went into her room.

The detectives believe Ho showed up at Tan’s house that night and joined Tan in her room. It was not unusual for him to visit her at the house.

Detectives were told that her mother arrived home from work about 1 a.m. and her grandmother left for work about 4 a.m.

Her family had knocked on her bedroom door that night and the next morning, but she didn’t respond.

In the morning, family saw her backpack in the living room after she normally would have left for school. They assumed she was staying home sick for the day. That was unusual for Tan, who “was a vigilant student and rarely missed school,” detectives wrote.

Tan’s family still hadn’t seen her by that afternoon, Oct. 15.

The girl’s bedroom door was locked, and the family forced their way inside.

She and Ho were found on the bed, both dead from gunshot wounds. The handgun was between them. Tan would have died instantly from her injuries, detectives wrote.

The family alerted a neighbor, who called 911.

When police searched the home, they found a notebook in Tan’s backpack that detailed her goals for the future. An autopsy showed Ho had been drinking but wasn’t legally drunk. Police believe the shooting happened sometime after 9 p.m. No one in the house reported hearing gunshots.

Tan’s best friend later told police that Tan broke up with Ho a week earlier, and the pair had been arguing in the days afterward.

Tan reportedly had told her friends from school that she wanted to start spending more time with them.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449;

For help

If you or someone you know needs help regarding domestic violence, contact the Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County hotline at 425-25-ABUSE, or 425-252-2873. The hotline is free and confidential, and advocates can help with safety plans. Friends, families and colleagues of victims also are encouraged to call. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.

The nonprofit also offers free Teen Dating Violence Prevention presentations for high schools and youth-based organizations, including summer programs, throughout Snohomish County. More info: 425 259 2827 ext. 1025.

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