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Where tragedy struck, hope now lives; A Hmong shaman and a police chaplain helped turn a St. Paul townhouse, where six children were killed two years ago by their mother, into a community outreach office.

BY: Kimberly Hayes Taylor; Staff Writer - November 3, 2000, Friday

Tong Kai Yang, a Hmong shaman, blessed each room of the St. Paul townhouse on Thursday where six Hmong children were killed by their mother two years ago. Outside, he lit incense and burned spirit money and then proclaimed the house free of the children's spirits.

The cleansing ceremony was part of a celebration to transform 1541G Timberlake Rd., scene of the state's worst mass murder, into the St. Paul Police Department's headquarters for A Community Outreach Program (ACOP). The office, together with the St. Paul Public Housing Authority, will serve residents of the city's 16 high-rises and four family complexes.

After the September 1998 killings, many in the Hmong community worried that the spirits of the children remained in the townhouse. Neighbors were afraid to enter the vacant apartment, said John Harrington, senior police commander.

So the department planned the ceremony, which included prayers by a police chaplain, to help welcome the community into the space. It also was a way to let the community know that the doors are open for them to file a report, hold community meetings or resolve disputes.

  Sports teams, scout troops and other activities will be coordinated at the office.

ACOP, a nearly 10-year-old partnership between the Police Department and public housing, will move from a nearby two-bedroom unit into the four-bedroom townhouse.

"We're going to do a lot more here," Harrington said. "It provides a memorial for what those kids' future could have been."

Although a handful of neighbors, police officers and public housing officials milled about the newly remodeled townhouse eating cookies and drinking coffee, members of the Hmong community didn't join them.

Two of the children's uncles stood outside, arms crossed over their chests, and said it was too painful for them to enter the townhouse.

One uncle, Paul Kong of St. Paul, said it was insulting to have a shaman conduct a ceremony, because the children were Christian.

"I disagree with the shaman to be here," said Kong of St. Paul. "They are doing something I don't believe they need."

He also found it telling that members of the Hmong community didn't attend.

"It's not what the Hmong want," he said. "This is an ACOP office. Maybe they are too scared to come here. Maybe they don't want to remember the bad memory."

On Sept. 3, 1998, police found six children dead in separate rooms of the townhouse. Each of the children _ ages 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 11 _ had been strangled with strips of black fabric.

Their mother, Khoua Her, now 26, pleaded guilty to the murders and is serving a 50-year prison term. Because of the crime, Soliving Kong, another uncle, said Thursday that he was offended by what seemed to be a show with television cameras and reporters.

"If they want to open a police office here, just open it," he said. "They don't need a shaman and a minister."

Harrington said he understood the opposition to the ceremony, but he wanted to ensure that the entire Hmong community felt comfortable coming to the ACOP office. To respect the family's wishes, the ceremony, originally scheduled for 10 a.m., was moved to 9:30 a.m. and held privately.

About 60 percent of the public housing population in St. Paul is Southeast Asian, and most are Hmong. ACOP, formerly known as the Asian Community Outreach Program, was formed to help police understand the growing number of Southeast Asian public housing residents, their languages and cultures.

But as public housing became more diverse, the program expanded to reach out to other ethnic groups. Thirteen sworn officers and three community liaison officers will work from the office.

MayKao Hang, the resident services director of the St. Paul Public Housing Authority, said the police office is a good use of the space.

"This is going to promote some healing," she said.

Kimberly Hayes Taylor can be contacted at 612-673-4456 or

  ktaylor@startribune.com

Key facts:

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ACOP HQ

The St. Paul Police Department's new A Community Outreach Program (ACOP) headquarters opened Thursday. Residents can file reports, hold meetings and participate in other activities at the office.

  What: ACOP, 1541G Timberlake Rd., St. Paul.

  When: 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week.

  To contact ACOP: Call 651-558-2305.