Into the Unknown: Hang Lee
"If I don't come back, come and look for me."
If those words were spoken in a horror movie, we'd all know the person who said them was doomed. But in real life, nothing is as clear as that. When seventeen year old Hang Lee said them to her brother on January 12, 1993, he never dreamed they'd be the last words he'd ever hear from his sister.
Some of the content in this post may disturb or upset sensitive readers.
I do not post graphic pictures, but websites found by following links in this post might. Reader discretion is advised.
THE HISTORY: St. Paul, Minnesota is often grouped in name with its neighboring city, Minneapolis as over time the two cities have grown into one large, heavily populated metropolis, which is also frequently referred to as the "Twin Cities."
St. Paul is the capital city of Minnesota, and its second-most populated city after Minneapolis. It is also the county seat of Ramsey County. In its early days, it was known by the Dakota Sioux as Imnizaska, and as Pig's Eye after its first tavern's owner, Pierre "Pig's Eye" Parrant. When the predecessor of Saint Paul Cathedral, a log chapel, was first built by the territory's first Catholic pastor, he changed the name of the town to Saint Paul, and the name has remained to this day.
As of 2018, St. Paul has a population of approximately 308,000, and as of 2010, 15% of that population was of Asian descent. In 2004, 10% of the city's population was of Hmong descent alone, a high percentage for any United States region. This influx of Hmong began after the Vietnam War, when St. Paul established a settlement program for refugees of the troubled nation in Frogtown, a region of the city that had previously housed Austrian-Hungarian immigrants following World War II. The city is home to the Hmong Archives, a museum and research facility founded with the goal of researching and preserving Hmong heritage. The Hmong American Freedom and Sports Festival is held in the city every year, and is the largest Hmong sports festival in the country.
As of 2010 census, the United States is home to over a quarter million Hmong, and there are approximately 14-15 million worldwide.
THE MISSING: Hang Lee was a seventeen year old Asian female. Her family was from originally from Laos, and had come to the United States as refugees when Hang was young. She had thirteen siblings. She spoke both English and Hmong at the time of her disappearance. She was a small woman in 1993, and stood just five feet tall and weighed 90 pounds. She had tan skin and dark hair and eyes. In some photos, she wore her hair teased in the common style of the late 80s and early 90s, and in others she wore it down, but it appears to have been quite thick at the time.
Hang was wearing a black leather jacket, a black Skid Row t-shirt (probably a reference to the band of that name), and black pants that may have been either jeans or slacks, sneakers and several pieces of jewelry. She was described as an avid reader at the time of her disappearance, and wanted to become a writer. She was quiet and naive, according to family and friends, and had plans to attend the University of Minnesota after she graduated high school.
The night Hang disappeared, she told her family she was going to a job interview. Her brother, Koua, said she was making around $7 an hour at the time working at the Wong Cafe, a Chinese restaurant, and wanted to make more in order to help her family. The man she was going to interview with, Mark Steven Wallace, owned a small carpentry/painting business, and one of Hang's friends had helped set up the interview. Kia "Nikki" Lee, no relation, went with Hang the night of the interview, and returned shortly after they left without Hang.
THE INVESTIGATION: Hang's parents reported her missing after she didn't return home for several days. They did not speak English at the time, and that may have contributed to the length of time before reporting.
Police interviewed Nikki, as she was potentially the last person to see Hang alive. She initially told them that Hang had left with a group of young men. Later on, she changed her story to the one I've detailed, that Hang had a job interview with Mark Wallace, who was Nikki's own employer. Nikki admitted she thought this situation was odd, because Wallace didn't have enough work for the people he already employed, let alone another worker, but she'd suggested Hang anyway. She told police she'd lied before because Wallace had asked her to, and because she thought Hang might have run away.
According to Nikki, she and Hang went to the interview together, and met Wallace in a white pickup truck. For reasons unknown, he switched vehicles to a tan or silver 1988 Chevrolet Cavalier, then dropped Nikki off at home and left with Hang. This was the last time Hang was seen. Wallace was supposed to drop her off at home later, and claimed he dropped her off near the Wong Cafe, but she was never seen again once he drove away from Nikki's house with her.
THE SUSPECTS: The only suspect in Hang's disappearance is the man she was leaving home to go to her job interview with, Mark Steven Wallace. At the time Hang went to the job interview with Wallace, he had been out of prison for less than two years after serving time for two sexual conduct offenses. In one of the offenses, he had lured a young woman with the promise of a job interview, then tied her up and raped her. Afterward, he told her he would kill her and her family if she told anyone what he had done.
Wallace was arrested again in 2016, and remains in custody on charges of kidnapping, stalking, and possession of methamphetamine. According to the young woman he is accused of kidnapping, he told her there was a young woman in St. Paul who "entered [his] business, but never came out." In the criminal complaint, she also claims he threatened to do the same to her as he did to a girl in St. Paul in 1993. He also made other incriminating statements suggesting he knows how to kill a person and get away with it during the victim's confinement with him in a motel. At the time of this posting, Wallace himself has not spoken to St. Paul police since his arrest, and it's not clear at the time of this posting whether they have any further information in the Lee case because of these statements.
Wallace has never been charged, but police describe him as a person of interest in the case.
THE AFTERMATH: In 2017, Hang Lee's family organized a spirit release ceremony, a traditional Hmong practice that is normally held following a funeral. This ceremony releases the spirit of the deceased so it is free to be reincarnated. Going through with the ceremony was something her brother Koua Lee struggled with in the years after she disappeared. Without a body, or any information on what may have happened to his sister, Koua found it difficult that his family accepted Hang was dead all these years.
In the years since Hang's disappearance, both Wallace and Nikki Lee have stopped cooperating with investigators and hired lawyers.
Police have not given up on solving Hang's disappearance, and attended the spirit release in hopes they might learn new leads.
Hang's father died in 2012, but her mother and siblings are all alive and waiting for news. Her mother, Chong Vang, says she has forgiven whoever hurt her daughter, but wants her body back so she may have a proper burial.
THE CONCLUSION: In 1993, the world was not as aware and awake to those around us as we are now, but lessons can be learned in this case, even now. We must be wary of those around us, who may not have our best interests at heart. Hang Lee was simply looking for a better job to help her low-income family and she may have made the worst mistake of her life getting into her potential employer's car.
If you have any information about the murder / disappearance of Hang Lee, please contact the St. Paul Police Department at 651-266-5903.
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