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Woman endures as trial drags on for family’s killer

She had hoped by now to be free of terrible things.

The mutilated hands of her son that came to her in dreams. The image of the samurai sword police found near his body. Her grandsons’ tiny bodies lying so still in their shared bunk bed.

More than three years have passed since Jan Williams’ son and two grandchildren were killed in their Rowland Heights condo, but the trial of the accused murderer — her daughter-in-law — was built on grisly descriptions that haunted her by day, then mutated into ugly nightmares. The 53-year-old continued to show up at the Pomona courthouse. Weathering the trial, she felt, was her duty.

When Manling Tsang Williams, 31, was convicted in November of three counts of first-degree murder, her mother-in-law felt the first sense of relief since the killings. Preliminary court hearings and a trial date that never seemed to arrive had kept her life in limbo.

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Jan cared little whether the jury gave her daughter-in-law life or death. She just wanted it to end, get a fair chance at closure. Maybe some peace.

**

Jan and her husband met when they were both cast in a play at Whittier High School. He joined the Army after graduation and they moved to what was then West Germany. When they divorced, he moved to Arkansas and she returned to Whittier to raise their two young children, Mala and Neal.

Mala, a busy bee who was constantly in motion, liked to be in charge. Neal was content to sit still, watch “Star Wars” and quote Monty Python. The siblings bonded in high school when they joined the band at Whittier High. Mala played the flute and piccolo and would go on to become a music teacher. Neal played the French horn.

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After high school, Neal took classes at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut and got a job at Subway, where he immediately took to his co-worker’s friend, Manling Tsang.

“He thought she was beautiful,” Jan recalled. “He liked that he could talk to her about a lot of things.” Manling soon became pregnant. Devon was born July 26, 2000.

Several months later, Jan and her daughter-in-law were in the car with Devon. Manling mentioned that if a man wanted to marry a woman, he should first ask the father for his daughter’s hand.

“Well, maybe you should ask for permission to marry my son then,” Jan suggested.

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“OK, can I marry your son?”

“Only if you promise not to hurt him.”

In 2001, Manling and Neal married at a courthouse. Later, they had a big wedding at a Taiwanese church. The couple moved to Rowland Heights, and their second son, Ian, was born in fall 2003.

Devon was the goofy one, outgoing but patient. He said he wanted to study monkeys when he grew up and attend Whittier College where his grandmother worked. Ian was mischievous, getting his head stuck between the bars of the banister or destroying whatever his big brother had just created.

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One night, Jan came over and was putting her grandsons to bed when Ian requested a rendition of “Puff the Magic Dragon.” As she sang, Devon told her he was scared.

“Why is that?” she asked.

“Because it says a dragon lives forever but not so little boys,” he said in a small voice.

She told him that the song was about children growing up and leaving their toys behind.

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The memory, once tender, now stings. “I promised him he was safe in his bed, and he wasn’t.”

**

Neighbors heard the shrieking in the early morning hours of Aug. 8, 2007. Manling, her hands and feet spattered with blood, stood outside the Rowland Heights condominium, crying for help.

Sheriff’s deputies found Neal’s body at the top of the stairs of the two-bedroom home. The coroner’s report would reveal that the 27-year-old had been stabbed more than 90 times. Blood pooled around him and saturated the carpet. The murder weapon, a samurai sword, was found close by.

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In the nearby bedroom, 3-year-old Ian was tucked under a teddy bear quilt. His 7-year-old brother, Devon, was in the upper bunk of their bed, under a SpongeBob Squarepants comforter. Detectives determined that both had been smothered with a pillow.

Manling was taken to a sheriff’s outpost in Walnut, where she told deputies she discovered the gruesome scene after insomnia had sent her on an early morning drive. “Does anyone know if my husband is OK?” she asked during her videotaped interview. “I want my babies. Please let them be OK.”

Jan was at work when she heard that something had happened. She got a ride to the sheriff’s station, where they offered words that didn’t make sense.

“I thought maybe they were in an accident. But murder? Who would murder them? And the boys? Who would kill little boys?”

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She hugged Manling’s parents and they all cried while waiting for more news. Manling was being questioned. Standard procedure, Jan thought.

But her daughter-in-law was never released. A horrible realization began to sink in. Two days later, Manling was charged with murder.

During the trial, defense attorneys characterized Manling’s actions as a fit of uncontrollable rage brought on by an abusive childhood and mistreatment by her husband. Prosecutors said the killings were part of Manling’s plans to reunite with a former lover. The jury deliberated less than eight hours before convicting her on all counts.

But jurors deadlocked on sentencing, unable to decide whether she deserved death.

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**

Most days, Jan leaves her home in Whittier and drives the short distance to her mother’s house where Mala, 32, now lives.

While her daughter heads to work and her 90-year-old mother bustles about in the kitchen, Jan sits with a crochet hook and plenty of yarn. Looping together hats and scarves to donate to charity keeps her mind busy.

After the killings, Jan took a medical leave from Whittier College, during which her position in the fundraising department was eliminated. She had worked there for 25 years. Her resumes have gone unanswered. Saddled with depression, diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis, she often cannot afford all 14 of her medications.

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Some friends and family members have become distant, unable to understand why she can’t move on. Instead she pours out her emotions on her blog, Grief’s Journey. My worst nightmares have always been those in which events happen over and over again, but no matter what you try, you can’t change the outcome. My waking life is starting to feel like that, too.

Those who stuck with her understand that Jan is frozen for good reason. “We used to go to Big Bear, the beach, go to concerts and lectures, discuss books, watch specials on TV,” recalled Mala Arthur, Jan’s friend and her daughter’s namesake. “She’s just lost everything. Her life is focused entirely on the pain of loss and the trial.”

After the jury deadlocked, Jan sent a letter to the district attorney’s office asking prosecutors to drop the death penalty and accept life without parole. Please, she wrote, both families have been through enough. A death sentence would only bring years of appeals, even more court dates.

“You feel like you don’t matter to either side, like it’s just a chess game between them,” Jan said. “It’s crazy at this point to go through it all again. What is it for? What does it bring to us?”

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**

Jan walked out of the small courtroom last Tuesday morning, her face somber, blue eyes dull. She had heard of the prosecutors’ plans earlier but hoped they might change their mind. They didn’t. They said they believed the crimes merited the death penalty.

The judge told everyone to return April 18 for a second penalty phase.

Flanked by Mala Arthur and two family members, Jan leaned on a cane and moved slowly toward the exit. A woman rushed by with a brown-haired toddler in tow. Something warm flickered across Jan’s face.

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Her family says they won’t allow her to attend the next session. She has yet to make up her mind. She doesn’t want to relive it, but it’s just as painful to sit at home and wonder about the day’s events.

Besides, she’s been doing this for more than three years. If she stops now, who then would serve as a courtroom reminder of the victims?

corina.knoll@latimes.com


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