Minn. man struggles to 'put the pieces together' 1 year after wife killed in hit-and-run

OAK PARK HEIGHTS, Minn. -- E Xiong made another pilgrimage last week to Oak Park Heights, scene of the hit-and-run accident that killed his wife a year ago.
"I don't think I'll come out here again," said E Xiong as he wipes his tears after sitting down at the site (on a frontage road off of Hwy 36) Wednesday, July 29, 2015, where he and his wife Mai Yang were struck by a hit-and-run driver in Oak Park Heights on August 2, 2014. Photo by Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press

OAK PARK HEIGHTS, Minn. -- E Xiong made another pilgrimage last week to Oak Park Heights, scene of the hit-and-run accident that killed his wife a year ago.

He said it will be his last.

In the past 12 months, the St. Paul man has returned three times in hopes of seeing or hearing something, anything, that would help him remember the last moments of Mai D. Yang’s life.

He went in November when his legs, which were seriously injured in the crash, had finally healed enough for him to walk.

Two weeks ago, he brought a bouquet of wildflowers -- tied with a pink bow -- to leave as a memorial.

He went again Wednesday and surveyed the scene from the curb of the Minnesota 36 frontage road outside Joseph’s Family Restaurant.

“I’m hoping to regain my memory somehow, but every time I come here, it doesn’t help at all,” Xiong said. “All I remember is waking up in the hospital. That’s it. I’m trying to put the pieces together (as to) how it happened, but there is no way I can comprehend it. It just doesn’t make sense. I didn’t see any headlights; I didn’t hear any sounds. Maybe my mind just won’t let me go back to that.

“If I keep coming back here, I won’t be able to move on,” Xiong said, wiping tears from his eyes. “(Mai) always tells me to move on with my life; she wants me to be happy. … If it had been me, I would want her to go on, and I know she would want me to move on, too. But it’s really hard.”

The couple were on the homeward stretch of a weeklong bicycling adventure to St. Paul from Sheboygan, Wis., when they were struck just before midnight Aug. 2, 2014, while bicycling against traffic on 60th Street North, the frontage road north of Minnesota 36.

A passing driver found them and called 911. Yang had suffered critical head injuries and was lying in the road. Xiong was sitting on a curb; his legs were shattered.

His wife died days later at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. She was 35.

A year later, the case remains unsolved.

“We’re still looking for a vehicle,” said Lt. Tiffani Nielson of the Minnesota State Patrol. “If there is anybody who knows information, we ask them to come forward.”

Based on interviews with witnesses, investigators believe the hit-and-run vehicle was silver. They don’t know the make or model, Nielson said.

The only security camera pointed in the direction of the accident was on the other side of the highway at Central Automotive, said Oak Park Heights Police Chief Brian DeRosier. But, he said, its recording “was absolutely useless” because the area’s streetlights were out at the time during highway construction.

Police believe Yang and Xiong, who were biking west on the frontage road, were struck by an eastbound vehicle. Neither was wearing a bike helmet; both wore dark clothing, and their bikes had no reflectors or lights, DeRosier said.

“We think it’s very possible that individual who hit them may not have ever known they hit them,” he said.

Based on a tip, officers armed with a search warrant -- the first and only one filed in the case -- searched a car in Stillwater in early April, DeRosier said. But it was a dead end.

“There was no physical evidence on that vehicle that matched any of the physical evidence left at the scene,” DeRosier said.

The chief said officers have followed up on numerous leads and all have gone nowhere.

“Somebody had to have seen something -- and maybe they just didn’t realize what they saw,” he said. “We hope someone will come forward -- or the individual involved will come forward -- and say, ‘Yeah, it was an accident. I didn’t know I did it. I was scared to come forward.’ ”

Xiong, 38, said he and Yang were trying to find the Gateway State Trail, the bike path that connects Stillwater and St. Paul.

“I was going to stop and try to find somewhere to camp,” he said. “After I was around the area, though, I knew it was not a good place to spend the night, so I just decided we should get home. It’s not too far away from there.”

Minutes before the accident, he said, he and his wife heard shouts from a passing car -- he thinks it was a four-cylinder, dark-colored sedan -- on Oren Avenue North. He said he cut through the parking lot behind Joseph’s restaurant -- with his wife following him -- to avoid them.

“They were yelling and screaming at us,” Xiong said. “I don’t know why. I didn’t pay attention to it. I told my wife to just ignore them and to not have any eye contact with them. I didn’t want any trouble.”

He said he suspects the car had something to do with the hit-and-run.

“Somebody must have done it on purpose. That’s what I feel,” he said. “I think they turned around and came back and hit us. I think they were teenagers, but I didn’t pay attention to them -- I didn’t want to look at them.”

Xiong spent more than a week in Regions Hospital with serious leg, head and arm injuries. He wouldn’t walk again for three months.

He will return to the hospital this week for surgery on his right ankle. “The muscle here isn’t growing right,” he said, pointing to his calf. “They have to go in and take out the plate and screws. There’s no guarantee that I’ll be able to walk without crutches, but we’ll see what happens.”

Xiong and Yang met in middle school, attended Como Park Senior High School and married in 2003.

They set off on their cycling adventure in July 2014 because they wanted a story to tell their children -- Chrystal Xiong, who is 17, and Dimitri Xiong, now 15. The 335-mile journey fit the bill.

“We wanted to have a big adventure -- an adventure that we’d never had before,” Xiong said. “I just thought that it would be a great time. The whole purpose of the trip was being together, sharing things together and seeing things that you would never see when you’re driving.”

On the seventh day of their trip, he said, the couple stopped at the middle of the Stillwater Lift Bridge and kissed -- just as the sun was setting.

Before the accident, Xiong held a factory job, but he has been unable to work since. His family set up an online fund to help pay medical expenses, and he and his younger sister, Choua Xiong, now live with his older brother, Paul Xiong, on St. Paul’s East Side.

“I don’t know what he is going to do,” his brother said. “I’m working two jobs; I have been supporting him. I don’t know if it’s going to be permanent or if it’s going to be short-term, but I’d like to support him for a while and help him to get his life started again. That’s all I can do for now.”

Paul Xiong said the family, who moved to St. Paul from Laos by way of Thailand in 1979, still hopes that whoever is responsible for the crash will come forward.

“I believe in America, in this country, that there is righteousness,” he said. “We are all responsible for our own actions, for what we’ve done. I’m asking this community here in Oak Park Heights: ‘Do the right thing.’ ”

E Xiong said that whoever is responsible should be jailed and forced to pay restitution.

“It’s not going to bring my wife back, but they at least have to be responsible for what they did,” he said. “How can they sleep at night?”

Xiong said their children, who live with their maternal grandparents in Sheboygan, are having an especially difficult time and blame him for their mother’s death.

“They think I could have protected her somehow in some way … that I should have seen the car,” he said. “But I can’t protect what I can’t see. There was nothing I could see. It was just -- pow -- out of the blue. All I remember is waking up in the hospital. That’s it.

“I know one day when they grow up, they’ll realize that it wasn’t my fault.”

Xiong, who attends Assembly of God Church in St. Paul, said his faith has helped him through the past year.

“I have known God for a long time, and I have been following God for a while now,” he said. “When I have something bothering me, I just give myself to God and, hopefully, God will take me and guide my way. This is the road God has put me down.

“A lot of people say that, when it’s done, maybe God put it this way for some reason. It’s a really harsh reason for me.”

He said he wants to remember Yang as she was.

“She was a loving girl, a loving wife, one of my best friends,” he said. “We grew up together all through childhood. We knew each other so well.”

Xiong said it is time for her spirit to move on. After she died, Xiong long felt her presence. Lately, however, that feeling has been fading.

“I think we’ve kind of passed on that moment now. I want her to move on, too.”

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