Mr Horwitz went online to learn more, and found the
weblog Esmie had been keeping for three years.
"I spent the next three or four hours reading her
site. From the moment I finished reading, I felt there was much more
than you saw on the news."
Esmie had for years been wrestling with her
feelings for her parents, Chinese immigrants who, she said, held her
to impossibly high standards.
They had threatened to sell her piano if she did
not win a state-wide competition, she wrote.
She said they had grounded her for scoring only 96%
in an exam.
And, when she disappointed them, she said they had
forced her to stand naked in a corner.
Like many teenagers with diaries, she had written
of her hatred for them, especially her mother.
"My God," Jacob Horwitz remembers thinking when he
read her weblog, "it's a shame that another parent didn't see this
yesterday. It's a cry for help."
He was stunned when Johnson County District
Attorney Paul Morrison pushed successfully for Esmie to be tried as an
adult rather than a juvenile.
"Our society recognises that children are
developmentally different. They are kids and that's why we have a
juvenile justice system in place," he says.
Esmie pleaded guilty in an adult court to voluntary
manslaughter on 6 March 2006, a month and a day before her 17th
Prosecution and defence have agreed to recommend a
sentence of 100 months - just under eight-and-a-half years - at her
sentencing trial on Wednesday. The judge is not required to accept the
Esmie is likely to be sent to the Topeka
Correctional Facility for Women to serve her sentence, the Kansas City
Star reported, after research found she was not eligible to be placed
in a juvenile detention centre because she was over 15 at the time she
committed her crime.
Mr Horwitz says that would make her the youngest
prisoner there, and he has fears for her safety.
District Attorney Paul Morrison says he does not.
"Given her capacity to be violent... one could certainly argue that
she is the one to be feared," he told the BBC.
And he says it is appropriate that she serve in a
prison designed for adults.
"Hacking somebody to death with a butcher knife is
about as serious as it gets. Even though everybody agrees she had been
cruelly treated by her mother, it does not remotely excuse the level
He pressed for the teen to be tried as an adult in
order to guarantee she spent "significant" time in prison, he says.
"In juvenile [court], there was no guarantee she
wouldn't be released in six months. With the adult system, it's
different. She has to do 85% of what she is sentenced to."
He says "a lot of time and thought" went into
agreeing an appropriate sentence.
But human rights campaigners say it is
inappropriate that the case was ever moved to the adult court system
in the first place.
"Juveniles who commit crimes, while they may commit
a crime just as violent as an adult's, should receive treatment
appropriate to their age and their culpability," says Alison Parker, a
senior researcher in the US programme at Human Rights Watch in New
While she is not familiar with the specifics of the
Esmie Tseng case, she says an increasing number of minors are being
tried as adults in the US.
The New York Times has reported that about 9,700
Americans are serving sentences as adults for crimes they committed as
"They are still children. Our laws define them as
children. They can't sign legally binding contracts, they can't vote,
they can't smoke, they can't drink," Ms Parker says.
"It is not that they shouldn't be punished, but the
punishment should be commensurate with who the offender is," she
She says Human Rights Watch has documented cases
where minors in the adult correctional system suffer abuse -
particularly in the case of girls, because there are comparatively few
in the system.
Rick Buehler, head of staff training at the Topeka
prison where Esmie is likely to serve her time, says there are no
separate facilities for minors there.
She would not be the youngest person ever sent
there, he says, but the staff "would be concerned about somebody so
Mr Horwitz is certainly concerned.
"There are truly hardened people there," he says of
"If you were to sit down with this girl for five
minutes, you would know she is not in any way, shape or form a threat
to society. This was a domestic issue with tragic results."
But the district attorney remains steadfast in the
face of such arguments.
"People have to remember that she committed an
incredibly heinous crime. I refuse to buy into this thing that she is
a babe in the woods who is going to get victimised."
Sometime soon, 17-year-old Esmie Tseng of Overland
Park will enter her new home: The Topeka Correctional Facility for
The former Blue Valley North honor roll student who
will be sentenced Wednesday in her mother’s murder will join 635 other
women housed there. At 17, she will be the youngest.
Esmie and her father Tao Tseng made the final call
on the decision to accept a plea agreement with the Johnson County
District Attorney’s Office, Esmie Tseng’s attorney, Robb Edmonds, has
pointed out. Under its terms, Tseng waived her juvenile status March 6
and pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the adult division of
Johnson County District Court.
Tseng stabbed her mother to death Aug. 19, shortly
after she started her junior year in high school. Shu Yi Zhang, 55,
died in their home.
Both sides are recommending that Judge Brenda
Cameron sentence Tseng to eight years and four months in prison.
Without the agreement, Tseng faced the possibility of a life sentence
for first-degree murder, Edmonds said.
From the moment she walked into the service at
Temple B'nai Jehudah, people could tell something was wrong with Esmie
Tseng. In Esmie's 16 years, she'd been to the temple only once before,
on a church field trip, though she could probably see its roof from
her Leawood home a few blocks away.
It was 6 p.m. on a Friday in late July, and Rabbi
Neal Schuster had begun the sundown service. Esmie came in and sat
with the congregation, its members arranged in a semicircle of plush
chairs around the Sabbath candles. Schuster, a gentle, soft-spoken
36-year-old, had never seen Esmie before. But right away, he could
tell she was troubled. "It was clear something was going on with her,"
Schuster says. "She wasn't crying, but you could just tell. If you can
read people, you can tell."
As the congregation settled into their seats, Esmie
stood. A strikingly pretty Asian teenager, she wore her everyday
uniform of jeans and a tank top. She walked to the center of the
circle of chairs, leaned over and blew out the candles. Then she took
her seat. Puzzled, the rabbi lit them again. Esmie stood up, walked to
the center and blew them out again.
Eager to restore order to his service, Schuster
waited until a moment when the congregation was singing, then quietly
asked the girl, "Do you need to talk to somebody?"
Yes, she told the rabbi, she did need to talk.
Three members of the congregation escorted Esmie outside. She
explained that she had come to the temple because she was running away
from home. She told them that she had heard voices and the voices had
told her to blow out the candles. Somebody dialed 911.
Officer Catherine Kamler, of the Overland Park
Police Department's Juvenile Unit, arrived at the temple to take Esmie
home. Taking kids back to the place they're running away from is
pretty standard, Kamler says. She couldn't have known that she was
returning Esmie to the house where she would be arrested August 19 on
charges of first-degree murder in the death of her mother.
Shu Yi Zhang died from multiple stab wounds, and
the limited details that have been made public suggest that the crime
scene spread through several rooms in the house. What investigators
found was grim enough that Johnson County District Attorney Paul
Morrison filed a motion to try Esmie in adult court. Instead of
spending a few years in juvenile jails, Esmie could spend years in
Oddly, her arrest has brought Esmie new friends.
Sympathetic strangers — soccer moms and their usually disinterested
teenagers — have rallied behind her. For months, they've signed
petitions to keep Esmie out of adult prison, flooded the prosecutor's
office with calls, and dedicated Web sites to her. Even as her father
has wavered on whether to stand by his only child, Esmie has garnered
so many supporters that bailiffs have had to turn them away at her
packed court hearings.
But some of Esmie's most staunch supporters remain
in the dark about the girl they're trying so hard to save. And just as
people missed Esmie's obvious cries for help, her supporters are
missing some of the main messages Esmie's story relays about their
District Court Judge Brenda Cameron's tiny
courtroom at the Johnson County Courthouse fills with reporters,
onlookers and Esmie's friends an hour before her hearings. Johnson
County Sheriff's Office deputies have to disappoint pushy moms begging
to be let in after the room fills. Court employees tell high
schoolers, skipping class to attend, that anyone sitting on someone
else's lap has to leave.
As bailiffs led Esmie in for her second court
hearing September 13, some supporters wept. She wore gray jailhouse
sweats. Her hands were cuffed and fastened to a thick belt around her
waist. Her legs were shackled, and her black hair, normally
stick-straight, instead hung in limp waves below her shoulders. "I'm
scared," she mouthed to friends seated in two rows of wooden benches.
The hearing was nothing more than an early step in
a case that could take a year or more, but her supporters came in
force. Esmie answered the judge's questions in whispers. When her
father spoke on her behalf, her face crumpled. When she spotted the
friends who hadn't made it into the courtroom waving from outside, she
smiled. And when it was time for her to go back to juvenile detention,
she pleaded: "No, I want to stay here."
Outside the courtroom, Esmie's friends from Blue
Valley North High School hugged and huddled together. They declined,
as they had since the stabbing, to speak to reporters and instead
headed to the IHOP on 119th Street in Olathe. Her friends' mothers
chatted in groups. Esmie's father slipped away in silence.
The one Esmie supporter who has been eager to speak
to the press since the beginning is a middle-aged father of three from
Prairie Village named Jacob Horwitz. "It's humiliating and hard for a
16-year-old to be shackled like that when so far she's not convicted
of anything," he says. "Who knows what damage that might do to her?
She doesn't have a true understanding of the consequences yet or
what's happened. She's confused."
Horwitz is often referred to as a leader of Esmie
supporters, though he accepts the title reluctantly. It began for him
after Esmie's arrest, when he found her online diary on
livejournal.com under the name "rockonlittleone." He read for three
hours straight, voraciously consuming three years' worth of Esmie's
writings. By the time he was done, Horwitz felt like he knew the girl
better than he knew his own kids. Esmie's personality seemed to come
off the screen and hug him. Inspired, Horwitz started Friends of
Esmie, a group devoted to convincing prosecutors to try her case in
juvenile court. He set up the Web site Esmie.com, a clearinghouse of
Esmie news, Esmie pictures and Esmie testimonials from friends and
neighbors. Putting up the site cost about $300, Horwitz says, and it
has had more than 12,000 visitors.
Horwitz says he had never been involved in any kind
of activism. He makes good money running a business that services
computers at McDonald's restaurants. In a side venture, he sells
novelty candles that burn multicolored beads of wax. Esmie's case
attracted him, he tells the Pitch, because he believes that she
is like his own kids, whom he describes as responsible, hardworking
students. His son won't stay at a party if he sees beer, Horwitz says.
Reading Esmie's diary, he was shocked by the maturity and worldliness
of her posts. "I was intrigued, you know?" he says. "It was a kid in
my neighborhood, so it was a little close to home. From the way my
kids talked about her, I knew she's not some whacked-out kid who did
Horwitz says other parents have said that if Esmie
were free, they would let her baby-sit their children. "Don't you
think that's amazing? Don't you think that's saying something, that
you can't find anyone to say something bad about her, and she killed
her mother? It could be any one of those parents' kids someday. One
bad decision on a Friday night when they're out with friends."
It isn't that he believes — as at least one mother
in the group does — that Esmie should go free. Rather, he was struck
by the idea that the juvenile justice system was created for kids, and
here's a kid, one of our kids, as he likes to say, who doesn't
deserve to be tossed in jail with adult criminals. Horwitz drew some
conclusions from reading her posts. "I genuinely think she wanted to
be a good kid and make her parents happy," he says. "Fuck, she's in
jail worried about her SATs!"
Like everybody interested in Esmie's case, Horwitz
has a theory. "She was under tremendous pressure, and she had a fight
with her mother and just snapped. That's my assumption. Just
theoretically, I figure she was in the kitchen, and she and her mom
had a fight, and she grabs a knife and stabs her, and whether it was
once or 50 times, it's like, for once in her life, for five minutes,
she goes from being this nice, quiet, picture-perfect little Asian
girl to this psycho, whacko bitch. You can read it several different
ways, and there should be consequences if we find out this is what
Horwitz says he will attend Esmie's next hearing,
scheduled for January 18. His wife is due to give birth to their
fourth child around that time. His Bluetooth and Blackberry should
keep him up to speed on the labor, though. "Don't push! I'll be done
by 1!" he jokes.
Much of Esmie's online writing mirrors journals
from any other sarcastic, music-loving, rabidly social teenager
reaching into cyberspace. But everything has since taken on new
meaning. These are, after all, the words of a girl accused of stabbing
her mother to death.
Esmie decorated her Web page on Xanga.com to
express a moody teenage sulk. Now it's a chilling sight. The
background includes a bubble, pasted over the heads of two unsmiling
models, with these words: "Sometimes I wonder if I have a mental
illness. I don't want to tell anyone because I am scared that my fears
would be confirmed. So I don't tell people what is going on in my
head. And I just pretend to be as normal as I possibly can."
Then there's her fatalistic Livejour nal.com rant
on the meaning of life. "The human race DOESN'T CARE if you as an
individual just up and choke; the earth doesn't care," Esmie wrote in
a post dated February 9, 2004. "The human race is doomed. Everything
and everyone is temporary ... Go ahead and try to win a religion
argument, DOESN'T MATTER whether you're right or wrong because you are
still going to die. You won't find shit out even when you die.
"Either this is all or somewhat true," she
concluded, "or I am fucking screwed and may as [well] start packing
for Hell right now."
Xanga and Livejournal act as networks, connecting
people through posts and comments that lead readers to other people's
sites. After Zhang's death, Esmie's friends suddenly had a whole
audience of strangers devouring every post she left. Eventually, a
friend figured out how to close Esmie's Web diaries to onlookers, but
not before some of her writing ended up on other Web sites and in
A post from January 30, 2004, hints at Esmie's
problems just beginning. "I need someone to please tell me how to shut
up this brain and the thoughts that won't leave me alone. I need
someone to please tell me how to sleep soundly through the night
without waking up seven or eight times in the span of six hours. I
need someone to please tell me how to sleep."
After Esmie's mother threatened to sell her piano
during an argument, Esmie vented online. "IT DISGUSTS ME THAT YOU
WOULD TRY TO HURT ME LIKE THAT. SELL MY PIANO? Sell my fucking piano?"
she wrote. "IF YOU SELL MY PIANO YOU BETTER BE PREPARED TO USE THAT
NUMBER TO SOCIAL SERVICES, BITCH. I wish I believed in hell."
In her diary entry dated February 1, 2004, she
tries to explain why she rarely shows emotion. "If you've never seen
me cry, it's not because I hold it in. It's not because I suppress my
inner depression. It's not in me. I don't get sad. I stay calm, no
tears. I get angry. Maybe it will come kick me in the ass later, but I
don't deal or cope with these type of feelings like expected."
Some posts include song lyrics, making them seem
more sinister than Esmie might have intended. Esmie writes, quoting a
lyric from the band Silverstein: "I close my eyes and I can see you
Esmie's old clique from her elementary and
middle school days included Katie Jones, Sarah Casey and Amelia
Mallett. These were Esmie's good-girl friends, her inside-joke
friends, her sleepover friends. They knew Esmie from the days, as she
would write in her journals, before she became a stranger to herself.
They knew all of Esmie's little quirks — the way
one of her eyes is slightly darker than the other, or the before-bed
ritual of popping all the joints from her neck to her toes (which
grossed Katie out completely). Cracking on her own Asian ethnicity and
the culture's stereotype of overachievement, Esmie would walk into a
room and proclaim, "The chink is here!" She was a big hugger, they
say, but quick to snap at someone she disagrees with.
On the honor roll for two years in high school,
Esmie never tried to hide her intelligence. She seemed never to forget
anything she learned, and her mind was all about organization and
itemization. Over the years, Esmie became more obsessive about things,
Amelia says. If Sarah's bag was messy, Esmie would dump it out and
organize it. She started exercising for hours at a time; stretch marks
formed around new muscles. Her extensive friend list on her Xanga page
was immaculately kept; each time she met new friends, they would be
added to the list. Everything in its place.
Her need to control her surroundings came from her
controlling parents. Last winter, Esmie posted a Livejournal entry in
which she wrote that her parents had threatened to move because she
had gotten three B's on a report card otherwise filled with A's. "I
don't fucking know what I'm going to do," she wrote. "I'm scared what
I might resort to. They don't realize they can't stop me, they're only
going to force me to sneak around and lie and become indifferent to
conscience." She punctuated the post with "HELP" in bold, inch-high
Once, the four friends spent weeks planning a
sleepover, but the night of the event, Esmie called the girls from her
house, crying. It was rare to hear her cry. As Sarah listened, Esmie
crawled down the stairwell to a landing where she could peer into the
room where her parents yelled at each other in Chinese. Esmie watched
as her mother held a knife to her own throat and threatened to hurt
herself, Sarah says. Later that night, Esmie got a ride from her
father and managed to join her friends at Sarah's house. She was a
little shaken at first but later acted as if nothing had happened.
When she was in middle school, Esmie's family moved
from north Johnson County to the Blue Valley School District. At Blue
Valley North High School, Esmie left behind her sleepover friends. Her
new gang painted mascara rings around their eyes, streaked their hair,
sneaked out at night and smoked cigarettes at Oak Park Mall. Inside
jokes on their Xanga sites often referred to drugs. They posted
self-portraits online with their digital cameras, testing out sexy
expressions. Esmie had made bad-girl friends.
Activities for high school kids in Leawood
are limited. There's little more than the mall and the movie theater.
Oh, and drugs.
That last fact will shock no one who's spent time
in an American public high school. Blue Valley North is no exception.
Kids brag on their Web journals that scoring — weed, acid, mushrooms,
Ecstasy — is as easy as getting a drink from the school water
After Esmie's arrest, accounts in The Kansas
City Star never mentioned drugs. In fact, the stories
seemed to confirm what her supporters believed about her, that Esmie's
controlling parents had put so much pressure on her that she snapped.
But firsthand accounts from her friends tell of drug binges that often
preceded depressive crashes.
At Blue Valley North, Esmie's new best friend was
Ashley Sosebee, whose online journal is filled with references to
'shrooms and affectionate names for Ecstasy pills — green apples and
red dragons. It was with Ashley and other Blue Valley friends that
Esmie took the plunge into the drug world, experimenting with
mushrooms and Ecstasy.
Ashley's boyfriend at the time was Mark Harvey,
who's now a 20-year-old chemical engineering student at Cornell
University. Esmie became very contemplative on Ecstasy, Harvey
recalls, but afterward, she'd crash hard. "That's what you call the
comedown from E," he says. "Hers was bad, and she got really
Esmie had good reason to be depressed that summer:
frequent drama from a new boyfriend, a good-looking 16-year-old fellow
Blue Valley kid named Wade Wrightsman. Wade, who worked at the Taco
Bell on 145th Street, probably had some bad-boy appeal. Johnson County
District Court records show that he'd spent a year on probation for
two juvenile cases, a disorderly conduct charge in November 2004 and a
home burglary charge from May 2005.
Wade and Esmie bonded partly because they could
relate to each other's family dramas. Wade started a Xanga page that
summer under the title "SummerHaze420." His first post on July 19
complains that his father called him a "fag" for donning a fedora. "My
only response is, dad, at least i dont wear whity tighties and jeans
that are 10 sizes too small.... you fucking buttnut, and umm that dick
of a dad told me to get a pink triangle on my shoulder.... that nazi
... later fuckers!"
At a party in July, Wade made out with a mutual
friend, and Esmie heard about it later. She begged her friends through
her online journal on July 10 to give her the details. She signed off
with: "Can I please just get some fucking closure here?"
After the breakup, Esmie drove around as a
passenger in a car with a group of friends, pill in hand. Ashley says
Esmie insisted on using Ecstasy to dull the pain. "There was a bunch
of us who told her not to do it," Ashley says. "It's not a good thing
to do. She wasn't happy at all. We told her not to." Esmie did it
anyway, and when she crashed, she blamed Ashley for the bad thoughts
the comedown conjured up. "That's why it didn't make any sense,"
Ashley says, "because the day after, she yelled at me, and then she
was like, 'I know, I'm sorry.'"
When Esmie and Ashley tried psychedelic mushrooms
for the first time, with Harvey baby-sitting them both, Esmie talked
about missing Wade. Ashley and Esmie didn't hang out much after that.
"She was really sad all the time, and I couldn't cheer her up
anymore," Ashley says. "All she wanted to do was, like, be with Wade
and stuff, and she started hanging out with other people more."
As Esmie self-medicated, her old friends say, she
was losing it.
"Like, one time," Katie says, "she was talking
about how she was worried that people could read her mind and stuff.
She just got kind of weird, like she was realizing a lot and she
didn't know what to think about it."
Sarah says, "It was like she was on a bad acid
Shortly before Zhang's killing, Esmie called
Amelia, sounding weird and distant. Amelia suggested that Esmie seek
professional help. Amelia says Esmie replied, "But what if you want to
be a professional?"
"She was really reaching for something," Amelia
says. "I wish I could have been the person who knew what to say."
Esmie talked of running away and asked Amelia's mother, Dr. Nancy
Tilson-Mallett, if she could stay with them. But Amelia's family went
on summer vacation, and by the time they got back, the idea had fallen
through the cracks.
Katie says Esmie started having flashbacks and
asking her friends if their memories of her as a little girl matched
her own. She asked Katie and Sarah if they remembered a fight Esmie
had had with her father. She also asked if, as a little girl, they
remembered her having bruises. Katie and Sarah said they couldn't.
"She seemed sort of defeated," Sarah says. "I think
she just lived with her family and their expectations and, like, that
life for so long that it was wearing down on her. And I think things
were getting worse. I think her parents just kept expecting more, and
she was starting to realize how incredibly bad things were."
What filled Esmie's last posts were crumbled
relationships, college entrance exams and escalating fights between
her parents. The anxiety swelled to a sustained internal scream that
burst somewhere inside that Leawood house. On August 19, Esmie was
charged with the killing of her mother.
Harvey and Ashley split up after he went back to
college. Harvey says that during a fight over the phone, he accused
Ashley of pushing Esmie over the edge by introducing her to
mind-altering drugs. He knew it was the worst thing he could say, and
Ashley was furious. She deleted every trace of Harvey, erasing him
from her Web pages and her life. "Esmie wrote to Ashley and said it
wasn't Ashley's fault, but obviously Ashley still has that concern,"
Harvey tells the Pitch. "She probably thinks that's why Esmie
stopped hanging out with us so much and went a little crazy and killed
"We all, like, are more cautious and more careful
about what we do," Ashley says of her friends and their partying ways.
"[Mark] said that just to make me mad and to make me feel bad and
stuff. He wants to get me in trouble."
Esmie's house sits on a quiet Leawood street.
It's a neighborhood of two-car garages and American flags,
steep-peaked triangular roofs and rock facades. It's not ostentatious.
Her own house has a big, block-shaped window overlooking the street,
between the first and second floors. It's gray with a white door, and
it faces a driveway that curls around a red-brick planter holding
three fir trees. The house backs up onto a brush-thick creek.
Esmie's old friends remember her family as very
protective of their only child. Before Esmie could visit friends'
homes, her dad had to make sure that family pets were docile. Her
friends do an impression of the way her mother used to scream her
name. The name Esmie is French, and her mother was never really able
to pronounce it. Instead she would yell, "Essa-me! Essa-me!"
Her friends say her parents blamed her for their
problems. When Esmie's mother was laid off from Sprint, she complained
to Esmie that it was her fault she wasn't able to retire. Katie says
that Esmie would find typed, hand-signed notes on her computer monitor
from her mother. "She would say that she was ashamed to have Esmie as
a daughter, that she was a disappointment, that she was lazy," Katie
recalls. "If my mom gave me a note like that, I'd burst into tears."
Instead, Sarah says Esmie would have little
reaction. "Esmie wouldn't cry about it or anything. She'd take the
piece of paper, correct all the grammatical errors and spellings, and
hand it back to her."
A post on Esmie's journal from Christmas Eve 2003
describes the uncomfortable relationship she had with her father. A
couple who lived nearby had stopped off to give her a Christmas
present. "My only real Christmas present on Christmas. WOW, that was
... worth pondering," she wrote. The couple noticed medals she had won
at math competitions. "When I told her they were from math, [the
neighbor] was like, WOW GENIUS! Dad stepped in to say definitely not."
Those who have spoken with her father say that he
partly blames demons for the violence in his home. The day it happened
was also the day of the Ghost Festival, a traditional Chinese day when
spirits and ghosts are said to come from the underworld to visit the
living. He's also superstitious about his age and has told close
friends that at 58, the men in his family all meet with bad luck.
It took him two months to issue a statement asking
for Esmie to be tried as a juvenile. He was absent from Esmie's first
hearing but has come to subsequent court appearances. On the bench, he
sits ramrod-straight, eyes closed, warding off stares and questions.
He leans on a cane and seems fragile, as though he could be knocked
over with a strong wind. One of the first things he did in the wake of
his wife's death, according to family friends, was sell Esmie's piano.
Esmie has her father's support, but she also has
found a brand-new mom. Tilson-Mallett, Amelia's mother, went to court
to get medical power of attorney over Esmie so that she could
accompany the girl during physical and psychological tests. She says
that Esmie's toxicology from the day of her arrest came back
If something happened to Esmie's father,
Tilson-Mallett and her husband have said they would act as her
guardians. Tilson-Mallett, who practices internal medicine, says
there's a logical way to look at what happened. "As a scientist, I
know the biology of the brain in adolescence," she says. "The
impulsivity, the lack of control — it's so crazy in a teenager, and it
doesn't fully develop until you're in your twenties. As a mother of a
16-year-old, I know how emotional they can be."
Tilson-Mallett corresponds with Esmie and visits
her at the Juvenile Detention Center in Olathe, something that none of
Esmie's school-age friends can do. At first, Esmie's thoughts in jail
were scattered and disjointed, and she was limp and unresponsive at
her very first court appearance due to shock, Tilson-Mallett says.
Since then, she's become more coherent.
Esmie's supporters don't include the other girls in
jail. "She says she feels people look at her like she's a murderer,"
Tilson-Mallett says. "That's what she calls herself, a murderer. She
says she doesn't know how it [the stabbing] happened but feels people
will think of her as evil. I wrote back and said, 'You're not evil. We
believe in you. We just have to get you some help.'"
Esmie writes to her friends, too. Her friends say
she has come to grips with the possibility that she will be in jail
for a long time. She told Katie in a letter that she misses her
mother. "She said people don't really realize that she lost her mom as
well, and she's sad because she doesn't have her mom anymore," Katie
Horwitz, the Esmie.com creator, has written Esmie
letters of encouragement. Esmie hasn't written him back. "It could be
weird, maybe, to be writing to some 40-year-old guy she's never met,"
Horwitz says. "It could be creepy. I understand that, too. She doesn't
know me. I didn't expect her to write back."
Esmie wrote a letter to the Pitch, too. She
says she misses her music the most; the radio isn't cutting it.
(Olathe juvenile detainees get radio privileges occasionally.) She
knows that even though this is the biggest thing to happen in her own
life, in the grand scheme of things she's just another news blip.
"To the people in the morning sipping their coffee
or eating dinner with their dysfunctional families, I'm just another
kid who's screwed up," she writes. "They'll shake their heads. They'll
make a decision that I should rot in here or I should be let off, then
move on while I'm still in here. While you're all shopping with your
friends or watching a rented movie on DVD, I'm being tortured by my
thoughts and all of the obvious memories and just being in here."
The handwriting is neat, with bubble periods. Esmie
forms the capital letter "I" uniquely. In every instance, it's shaped
like a question mark.
Local Group and Lawyer Trying to Keep Esmie's
Case in Juvenile System
By Anthony Tao - KansasCityChinese.com
September 22, 2005
Jacob Horwitz, a father of three, was among the
many who packed the Johnson County courthouse on Sept. 13 to attend
the first public court appearance of Esmie Tseng, accused of stabbing
her mother to death last month in their suburban Overland Park home.
"You did not see an adult escorted in and out,"
Horwitz said. "You saw a small, shivering, scared child."
Horwitz is part of a local group called Concerned
Citizens for Esmie, comprised of parents, teachers, friends and other
community members. The group began as a small mailing list called
"Friends of Esmie," then grew to about 75 to 100 members.
The group has stated on its Web site that its
mission is to keep the 16-year-old's case in the juvenile court
system. The district attorney's office has filed a motion to waive
Tseng's juvenile status in order to try her as an adult on
first-degree murder. A conviction carries a sentence of 25 years to
"It's very common in a case of intentional homicide
with a juvenile who's over the age of 15 for us to file a waiver along
with the charges," said prosecutor Paul Morrison. "The reason for that
is because it keeps our options open as to what's going to happen with
The juvenile court system offers very little
reprimand for those found guilty. A person convicted in juvenile court
can only be confined until age 23, according to Morrison, so a waiver
to adult status is "almost always" filed for grievous crimes.
"Nobody in the group thinks she should be free or
out of jail, but our goal - we make it plain on the Web site - is not
to judge guilt or innocence but to keep her in the juvenile court
system," Horwitz said. "To put a kid in the adult system - once you
understand the difference between the juvenile and adult systems - you
realize that it would be barbaric and criminal of our society, in our
Morrison said he is still investigating whether
there may be possible mental health issues, family abuse, drug abuse
or other factors that may convince him to withdraw the waiver.
"I have never said that we're hell-bent on waiving
this kid," Morrison said. "What I've said is the law presumes waiver,
so we file a waiver as a preemptive sort of way to handle things."
Tseng's attorney, Robb Edmonds, said the waiver is
currently his first - and perhaps only - priority. He said he is
trying to learn everything he can about Tseng's complicated world and
"What I'm trying to do with this waiver motion is
present to the judge compelling factors to convince the court that
this case ought to stay in juvenile court, and the better I can
explain her world, I think the better chance I have in succeeding in
that motion," Edmonds said.
Horwitz, who has two teenagers in the Shawnee
Mission district who knew Tseng from summer camp, said he hopes his
group can help. He encourages people within the Chinese community to
visit www.esmie.com to share their thoughts and reactions. Visitors
can also sign a petition to keep the Tseng case in juvenile court.
Cultural issues were certainly in play in this
family tragedy, Horwitz said.
"That's the hardest thing for Johnson County
residents to understand, the cultural issues," Horwitz said. "They
haven't grown up in a Chinese family, a Chinese home. They don't know
what that's like."
Tseng's next court appearance will be on Oct. 12,
where a date for the waiver hearing will likely be set.
Community Seeking Answers to Tragedy
By Anthony Tao - KansasCityChinese.com
September 7, 2005
Yalu Pao is a mother of three teenagers, so she
knows about the difficulties of parenting. She can also appreciate the
unique problems created by cultural differences, especially those that
may get between Chinese parents and their Americanized children.
"I believe the culture of living here in the United
States is different than the culture when we were in China," Pao said.
"Here, it's more open, kids have more freedom. I don't know if that's
good or bad, but usually the Chinese parents expect more discipline,
especially in the kids' teenage years."
Pao did not speculate whether the cultural divide
may have contributed to the tension between Shuyi Zhang and her
daughter, 16-year-old Esmie Tseng. But her voice was just one of many
that rose in the weeks following the inexplicable Aug. 19 incident,
when Tseng allegedly stabbed and killed her mother in their home in a
quiet Blue Valley neighborhood.
"I feel like everybody is talking about this
incident because it's struck a bit too close to home for all of us,"
said Jinsong Zhang, president of the Kansas City Chinese Network
Association, the largest Chinese organization in the Metropolitan
area. "(Esmie) was an honor roll student and involved in activities -
she played the piano for 10 years - and so for this to happen makes us
all very concerned."
The Tseng incident came during a grim week for the
Kansas City Chinese community. In mid-August - the seventh month in
the lunar calendar, which is Ghost Month according to Chinese
traditions - three unrelated deaths jolted the community.
On Friday, Aug. 12, Zhihai Cui, 42, was murdered by
four teens in Kansas City, Kan. One week later, Tony Wu, an active
member of the Free China Association, drowned in a fishing accident.
That same evening, Zhang died of multiple stab wounds inflicted by her
"I don't know how many of the parents thought of [the Tseng] incident
as a wake-up call, but some of them probably thought, 'If this could
happen, then anything can,'" said Abigail Chang, former president of
the Greater Kansas City Free China Association.
Chang said that it might be helpful for one of the
Chinese organizations in Kansas City to create a counseling service or
hotline to deal with problems that may arise between parents and their
children. She stressed that communication is essential for a healthy
Johnny Kung, president of the Chinese Club of
Greater Kansas City, said his organization would consider organizing a
discussion group for people to talk about the incident in a formal
"It's such an interesting case because it gives an
image that is the antithesis of the minority image that we have," Kung
said. "I think her being Asian, it happening out in the Blue Valley
school district, where it's a 'safe' place..."
Kung's voice trailed off. Like everyone else, he
could only offer this final thought: "But I don't know."
"Just like everyone else, I'm interested in finding
a motive," he said.
Tseng's first court appearance will be at 9 a.m. on
Tuesday, Sept. 13, at the Johnson County Courthouse in Olathe, Kan.
She will be represented by attorney Robb Edmonds. The hearing is open
for the public.
Friends Puzzled by Family Tragedy
By Anthony Tao - KansasCityChinese.com
August 30, 2005
A small, private memorial service was held last
Friday for Shuyi Zhang, who died of multiple stab wounds on Aug. 19 in
her home in Overland Park.
Zhang's only daughter, 16-year-old Esmie Tseng,
remains in custody, where she awaits her next court appearance on
Sept. 13. She has been charged with first-degree murder in the death
of her mother.
One of Zhang's close friends who attended the
memorial called it a solemn gathering. Among the people present were
Zhang's husband, Tao Tseng, and two of Zhang's three brothers - one
who flew in from Australia and the other from Canada.
In a short interview, Zhang's friend repeatedly
said she "didn't understand" the situation - what exactly happened on
the evening of Aug. 19 and, more importantly, why. Like so many
others, she only has news reports, rumors and gossip with which to
piece together the baffling case of the teenage matricide.
Another of Zhang's friends, a retired schoolteacher
who wished to be identified only by her last name - Way - described
Zhang as a "very well educated" lady who could talk about anything.
"She was always very responsible and a very conscientious worker," Way
Way said she was the first to inform one of Zhang's
brothers of the incident.
"At first he couldn't believe it," Way said. "He
said, 'Are you sure? Are you sure? This is my sister?'
"Later he called me back and he still couldn't
believe it. He said, 'This is the type of thing that only happens in
Way said she has spoken once with Tao Tseng since
the incident. Last Saturday, in a brief phone conversation, Way asked
Tseng whether he wanted to talk about Esmie. According to Way, Tseng
replied, "No, I don't want to talk to anybody."
"He sounded very calm," Way said. "It must be very
painful for him to talk about this� and besides, in China, when
something bad happens within the family, they usually don't want other
people to know it."
Way said she and Zhang have had continual e-mail
correspondence for the past three years. She often sent Zhang articles
from the New York Times by columnists such as Paul Krugman, Maureen
Dowd, Bob Herbert and Frank Rich.
"She seemed so happy," Way said. Just two months
ago, the family had taken a vacation to the west coast.
According to Way, about two months ago Zhang
revealed in an e-mail that her daughter had been dating a boy. Zhang
worried that Esmie may have been taking it too seriously, but Way
advised her to not interfere and instead approach her daughter as a
According to Way, "Later (Zhang) said, 'I know what
you said is right, but really it's very hard,' because her daughter
grew up in this society, with American culture.
"And besides, (Esmie) is very smart," Way said.
"She had her own point of view."
The cultural gap between mother and daughter was
apparent in Esmie's writing. On one of her online blogs, she wrote
following the family's west coast vacation: "We were always on the
f------ road in the stupid van with that damn tourist group my mom
chose. All Orientals, speaking AT me because they know I only
understand the minimal jist [sic]."
In January, Tseng poignantly noted on the same Web
site: "My character doesn't fit my nationality and its culture. I
can't fit many of these expectations, nor do I want to. I'm not who
I'm 'supposed' to be, and I'm happy about that, but they're going to
f--- it up." It was unclear who she meant by "they're."
Way, like almost everyone else, is still trying to
figure out what exactly went wrong between a mother and her only
"Nobody knows why," Way said. "We just don't
Overland Park Matricide Leaves Community in
By Anthony Tao - KansasCityChinese.com
August 26, 2005
On the evening of Friday, Aug. 19, an Overland Park
girl stabbed and killed her mother, Shuyi Zhang, 55, in their home on
the 5600 block of West 125th Street.
Esmie Tseng, 16, a Blue Valley North High School
junior, was taken into custody after police found her at the scene.
She has been charged with first-degree murder and prosecutors have
requested she be tried as an adult. Since the incident, Tseng's
father, Tao Tseng, has not appeared in public or made any statements.
As of Thursday, efforts to contact him have been unsuccessful.
Matricides are rare in the United States, even more
so when the assailant is a girl. According to Paul Mones in the 1991
book When a Child Kills, only four out of every 100 cases of parricide
involve a daughter killing her mother.
News of this particular incident left the community
bewildered. Several of Tseng's classmates described her as a smart and
friendly girl who was a skilled pianist - "She could have played
professionally", a schoolmate said. Tseng was an honor roll student
and part of the gifted program.
"(The initial response) was probably more surprise,
and then it was grief," said BVN principal Dr. Carter Burns Jr.
"There're a lot of feelings for the family. It's a very tragic
BVN opened Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to offer
counseling services. On Monday all teachers at the school read a
statement to their students explaining the situation.
But the astonishment was not limited to Blue Valley
"I was just completely shocked," said Jake
Schumaker, 19, a college sophomore who said he has spoken online with
Tseng about three times a week for the past nine months. He described
her as a "really cool, down to earth, smart, reasonable" girl who
could talk about the worldly and trivial, from the philosophy of life
to the movie Fight Club.
Schumaker learned about the incident on Sunday from
one of Tseng's online blogs. On her two personal Web sites, Tseng
wrote verse, shared her ideas and divulged private secrets. She also
documented family problems and revealed she had a volatile
relationship with her mom. By Sunday, parts of Tseng's writing had
been quoted by certain news outlets.
One of Tseng's blogs received more than 100
messages, mostly words of encouragement from friends. But there were
also comments that were derisive, insensitive and vulgar.
On Monday, one of Tsengˇ¦s close friends took
Tseng's Web sites offline.
"Esmie's name has been made into a joke, and I hate
to hear the ridicule," the friend said on condition of anonymity.
The friend also disclaimed rumors of Tseng's
erratic behavior, drug abuse and early leave from school Friday, as
some have reported.
Burns confirmed that Tseng was not sent home
Friday. Still, there remain more unanswered questions than answers.
Many of Tseng's friends contacted for this story
did not respond.
"The bottom line is she seemed like a really
normal, smart, cool person," Schumaker said. "I never would have
expected something like this to happen to her."