Husband sentenced to 25 years in wife's fatal stabbing

Myanmar refugee who won political asylum in the United States killed his spouse in front of their two youngest children in Catonsville

June 30, 2006|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

It took Tialhei Zathang 6 1/2 years to escape persecution in his homeland of Myanmar, win asylum in the United States and obtain permission for his wife and children to join him.

But less than four months after his family came out of hiding in India and moved into a Catonsville apartment with him, Zathang was arrested and charged with murder in the stabbing of his wife during what police said was an argument over his drinking.

"If I had a chance, I would not drink again," the former math teacher quietly told a Baltimore County judge yesterday, wiping away tears as he prepared to be sentenced for Hlawntial Zathang's death. "I love my wife, and I love my children; and I'm very sorry for what happened. I came to this country for opportunity for my family."

Circuit Judge Vicki Ballou-Watts sentenced Zathang to 25 years in prison for second-degree murder. The judge said she had no doubt that his remorse was sincere but could not overlook the fact that he had killed his wife in front of their two youngest children.

"He apparently knew he had a problem with alcohol," Ballou-Watts said, noting Zathang's 2003 conviction in Ohio for drinking and driving. "And he made no effort to seek true help."

Zathang must serve 12 1/2 years before he will be eligible for a parole hearing.

The prison sentence, however, is not the last of the 47-year-old refugee's worries.

A defense attorney told the judge that U.S. immigration officials have begun a deportation investigation into Zathang, who was granted political asylum in January 2002.

In addition, a representative of the Myanmar Embassy told the public defender, Donna Coleman, that Zathang is not welcome in his homeland because he does not possess a Myanmar passport.

"He is a man without a country," Coleman said. "He has lost his freedom. He has irrevocably affected the lives of his children. He has lost everything."

Zathang, whose quest for asylum was chronicled by the Los Angeles Times, fled his homeland - a southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma - in February 1998.

He told U.S. immigration officials that as a Christian and pro-democracy activist in a Buddhist country ruled by the military, he was persecuted, including being detained in 1988 for 11 days and beaten until he was unconscious, the Times reported.

Warned by the wife of his village leader that he was about to be arrested again, Zathang, his wife and three children fled Myanmar in the middle of the night. They hacked their way through the jungle with a machete for 16 days until they reached India, according to the newspaper.

But the family, Zathang decided, was not safe there either.

With Indian authorities sending people back to Myanmar, Zathang bought an Indian passport on the black market, left his family in hiding and flew to the United States in November 1998 to seek asylum, the Times reported.

He succeeded in January 2002, but his family was not allowed to join him until September 2004.

Four months later, on Jan. 22, 2005, Zathang called 911 to report "a problem." When Baltimore County police arrived at the family's apartment, they found Zathang's wife on the kitchen floor with a 4-inch stab wound to her chest - a wound so deep that it punctured the sack around her heart, a prosecutor said.

The couple's daughter, then 10, told police that she heard her mother say, "What did you get the knife for? Are you going to kill me?" Their younger son, then 11, told detectives that he saw his father take a knife from the kitchen drawer and motion toward his mother before she collapsed, according to court records.

Zathang pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in December.

Wearing rumpled, baggy khakis and a tan windbreaker with a navy collar, Zathang sat yesterday with his shoulders slumped and ankles shackled, occasionally whispering to the interpreter who was quietly translating the hearing for him.

Prosecutor James O'C. Gentry Jr. characterized the murder case as "one of the most perplexing" he's seen in his nearly 22-year career. He said he searched the reports and psychiatric evaluation prepared for sentencing, "looking for ... some kind of rational explanation as to why this would happen."

In an interview, Gentry said the killing was particularly puzzling, considering the lengths Zathang had gone to get his wife and children out of Myanmar and bring them to America.

"She would have been safer," the prosecutor said, "had he left her there."

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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