Youa Lee married young, bore seven children and loved a man who broke her heart with plans to take a second wife.
Her husband, prosecutors say, paid for the infidelity with his life. Youa Lee is accused of stabbing Pao Her to death in the couple's St. Paul home last year before trying to kill herself.
Youa Lee's upcoming murder trial in Ramsey County is part of a series of tragic incidents in the Hmong community. In the past few years, Hmong women have made headlines in stabbings, shootings and other acts that authorities attributed to domestic abuse and mental health problems.
Youa Lee's case now brings another painful issue to the surface: the toleration of polygamy, which many Hmong women say is widespread even among men who grew up in the United States. Male Hmong leaders say the practice of taking a second or third wife is rare and limited to older men.
Youa Lee, 44, represents two faces of Hmong women. Traditional wives in polygamous marriages identify with the pain and humiliation of feeling replaced by another woman, yet stay silent.
Younger women, however, hope that discussion of the case will shed light on Hmong marriage practices many consider outdated or cruel.
"When Hmong women start killing their husbands or children, they're out of choices," said Foua Hang, one of the few Hmong activists who talk publicly about the controversial case. "Look at Youa Lee's life -- she was in prison already."
Youa Lee and Pao Her were married 27 years ago in Laos. She was 17, he was 16 and the backdrop was a Southeast Asian country still reeling from the Vietnam War.
Speaking through an interpreter, Youa Lee said her husband's affairs began in Thailand, where the first of their seven children was born before the family moved to St. Paul in 1989. She said she treated Pao Her for sexually transmitted diseases there and tolerated his dalliances.
Once in Minnesota, Youa Lee said, she worked two jobs while her husband took classes at a community college. Medical problems prevented Pao Her from doing manual labor, and healers suggested that he sleep without a bed. Youa Lee said she handled heavy household tasks and joined her husband on the floor for 12 years. The sacrifice was made to help him get a job that would bring money and prestige to the family.
Eventually, Pao Her landed work at the Lao Family Community of Minnesota, a nonprofit social service agency in St. Paul. His children and other relatives told authorities that he began seeing another woman, described as a divorcee with several children of her own.
The affair became unbearable, Youa Lee said, when her husband gave her a sexually transmitted disease and then confided plans to take a second wife. Youa Lee was diagnosed with a possibly cancerous condition related to the infection and believed that she would die.
"I pleaded and begged him to stay with me until the cancer takes over my body and I die," Youa Lee said. "Then he could marry the second wife."
The affair continued and Youa Lee pleaded with the leaders of her husband's clan -- the Hers -- to intervene. She was devastated by the response.
"If you're going to be a good wife and have a big heart, you need to let your husband take a second wife," she recalled one clan leader saying.
Members of the Her clan could not be reached for comment. People who knew Pao Her confirmed that he planned to marry the woman he was seeing.
For Youa Lee, the marital problems culminated on the night of Feb. 12, when she believed her husband was at the other woman's house and she asked one of her sons to drive her there, according to court papers.
Youa Lee and Pao Her returned together, but she became enraged after learning that her husband planned to return to the other woman's home, court papers say. She allegedly stabbed Pao Her three times as he showered in an upstairs bathroom, leaving the water running over his bloody body.
As her children dialed 911, Youa Lee put a toxic cleaning tablet in her mouth because "it was her intention to kill her husband and then kill herself so that they could be together in the 'other world,' " court papers say.
Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner dismissed the controversial circumstances of the case and plans to focus on one question: Is Youa Lee guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Pao Her?
"It would seem that the defense attorney is trying to put the Hmong community and Hmong culture on trial to distract from what his client did," Gaertner said. "We will resist that distraction every step of the way."
In Laos, some men took second or third wives for economic reasons. One would farm alongside her husband, while the other looked after the house, said Vue Chu of the Hmong United International Council, a coalition of 18 Hmong clans.
Vue Chu acknowledged that polygamy still exists among Minnesota residents. He said it is increasingly rare and typically involves older men with a legally recognized marriage who marry again in a traditional ceremony.
The Youa Lee case "is a sad tragedy for the Hmong community," Vue Chu said. "That's why Hmong leaders are concerned. Right now, we encourage people who have problems to come here. If they come here, we can solve problems and not have suicide or homicide."
Blong Cha, who also works at the council, said taking a second wife doesn't always bring problems. His father had four wives in Laos, and his brother in Mankato, Minn., is happily married to two women, he said. One is a seamstress and the other works with her husband at a school. On weekends, Blong Cha said, his brother and the two wives go fishing together.
"It's not as easy to marry a second wife in the United States," he said. "Before you marry again, you think about your first one and you think about your children."
Polygamy isn't openly discussed out of fear of criminal charges and worry over being seen as a backward culture.
People who speak out against the practice risk being shunned by the community. Foua Hang said she is frustrated with the secrecy that buries such issues until a tragedy occurs.
"There are a lot of Hmong men who are very supportive of their wives," Foua Hang said. "I hope this case will be a lesson to all and will strengthen the community. I understand being traditional and holding on to values, but when there's an issue like this, you put on your American hat with your Hmong face and you talk about it."