Details on family life murky in murder case On the day after Christmas, 20-year-old Jason Chen said, he discovered his father assaulting his mother during a morning argument in their three-story Ellicott City townhouse. Chen told police that he stepped in to protect his mother, took a knife from his father and stabbed him multiple times.
The murder case against him will largely hinge on whether prosecutors and police believe his story.
"Because he confessed, all of the work that normally would be done prior to an arrest is being done after it," said Sherry Llewellyn, a spokeswoman for Howard County police. "There is still a lot of work to do, information to gather and people to interview."
Police charged Chen, a 2004 Howard High School graduate, with first- and second-degree murder and first- and second-degree assault after he confessed on the day of the killing. Police documents filed in Howard District Court said that Chen waived his right to remain silent and his right to an attorney during questioning.
Over the coming weeks, police and prosecutors will need to answer many questions. After the killing, his mother, Li Li Chen, was treated for unknown injuries at Howard County General Hospital and released. If they were inflicted by her husband, the wounds could support her son's story.
Prosecutors also must learn more about the relationships among Li Li, her husband, Yun Sen Chen, 45, and their eldest son. Interviews with two neighbors, four friends and an interpreter, who has helped Chen's Mandarin-speaking mother, reveal a young man who struggled in school and resented caring for his younger sister while his parents worked long hours.
But records and interviews shed little light on the couple's relationship. Police have received no 911 calls from the Chen townhome in the 4900 block of Webbed Foot Way, according to logs dating to 2003.
But Yen Li, former principal of the Chinese Language School in Columbia, said that if domestic violence was a problem, it is unlikely that anyone knew about it. The topic is "very touchy" in Chinese culture, he said.
"Chinese culture is very male-centric and very male-dominant," said Li, adding that language barriers and financial burdens in a foreign country can worsen the situation.
Young-chan Han, family outreach specialist for Howard County students whose first language is not English, said that Chen's responsibility for his younger sister is typical of immigrant families. Parents work long hours, and the oldest child is left to clean the house, get siblings ready for school and be there when they get home.
"The children almost assume the parent role," said Han, who experienced this firsthand when she moved to the United States at age 13 and cared for her younger sibling. "The children learn the language, while the parents stay the same. The children become the family interpreter, telling the parents everything they need to know to survive in this culture."
Former co-workers Kendra Fryer and Corey Swane said that Chen was fired from his job at Quizno's Subs about six months ago because he frequently called managers at the last minute to say that he could not work because he had to baby-sit his sister, who is in the fourth grade.
"He had a violent temper and would get angry about stupid things," said Fryer, who worked with Chen at the Quizno's on Centre Park Drive in Columbia and attended Howard High with him. "Really small things would set him off, and he made it clear that he did not like his parents."
Swane, who has known Chen since junior high school and also attended Howard High with him, saw his friend differently - as someone who suggested good martial arts films to watch, had a funny, smart-aleck personality and had similar interests in video games, Japanese animation and swords, which they both collected.
He added, however, that responsibility for his sister caused numerous scheduling conflicts.
"He was very nice and polite," Swane said. "He did all of his work here, but I could sometimes tell he was upset. And you'd ask him about it, and he'd say, `Oh, I'm fine.' But you could tell something was bothering him and that it didn't have anything to do with working here."
After losing his job, Chen began taking classes at Lincoln Tech in Columbia. Swane believed Chen wanted to become an electrical engineer. Another friend said he was studying to be a mechanic. Both said Chen spent five years in high school; he should have graduated in 2003.
Chen's father has been involved in the restaurant business, Swane and Fryer said. His mother, who also works at a restaurant, did not respond to several attempts to reach her.
Two neighbors said that the only time they saw Chen's father was when he and his son worked on a small boat in the family's driveway last summer. Many friends said that they didn't know that Chen's father was a part of his life. A school interpreter also said that Yun Sen Chen never attended parent-teacher meetings for his daughter.
Yun Sen's presence at the home was so rare that one neighbor assumed that the couple were estranged.
"I've only ever seen Jason playing in the yard with his sister," said David Sell, a neighbor who lives across the street from the Chens.
As of Friday, Jason Chen had not posted $50,000 bail and remained at the Howard County Detention Center. If $5,000 is paid to a bondsman, Chen will be released on home detention and will not be allowed to work or attend school, said Wayne Kirwan, a spokesman for the Howard County prosecutor's office.