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Woman endures as trial drags on for family's killer

Three members of a Whittier woman's family were murdered by her daughter-in-law in 2007. Now the grieving matriarch faces the trial's penalty phase — again.

January 17, 2011|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • Jan Williams' son and grandsons were killed by her daughter-in-law Manling Williams in 2007. A jury deadlocked on whether to impose the death sentence. A second penalty phase begins April 18.
Jan Williams' son and grandsons were killed by her daughter-in-law… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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?"

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.

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