SAINT PAUL, Minn — On a snowy night in January 1993, 17-year-old Hang Lee left her home in Saint Paul's McDonough Projects — giving her brother Koua these last words:
"She said, 'If I don't come home, come and look for me, because I don't trust Nikki,'" Koua Lee said.
Koua said his sister was referring to Nikki Lee, no relation, Hang's friend who called that night saying she'd bring Hang to a job interview.
"That night she never came home. I woke up to look if there were footprints, because of the fresh snow. There were no footsteps, so I went to sleep. That was it, until the next day," Koua said.
The next day, Koua confronted Nikki at school as his sister cryptically suggested he should. He and his sister Hang attended Saint Paul Highland Park High School, but Koua found Nikki at Como Park High School where she was having breakfast in the cafeteria.
"Soon as I show, I say, 'Hey, where's my sister?' Just in a calm, nice way, you know," Koua said. "And of course, she gets all mean about it. 'I don't know where your sister is. I don't know what you're talking about.'"
And so began a nearly 30-year mystery of what happened to Hang Lee — a heavy metal-loving high school senior who worked at Wong's Café on Rice Street. She was a child of Hmong refugee parents — a first-generation English speaker, influenced by American culture, who planned on going to the University of Minnesota.
"She's into cool style. We listen to heavy metal, 80s music. She likes heavy metal music. Skid Row especially," said Koua, Hang's closest sibling, who still often refers to her in the present tense even though she is presumed dead.
When Hang's family reported her missing, police assumed she ran way. Hang had done that before. And investigators say her friend Nikki initially told them she dropped Hang off with some of her "white friends" and assumed she'd run off with them.
"So, basically nothing was done with the case for six months," said retired Sgt. Bill Snyder, one of the original investigators with Saint Paul Police.
Snyder said the case changed six months later when Hang's family started posting flyers and Hang's friend Nikki changed her story.
Nikki finally told police that on January 12, 1993, she and Hang met up with the man who offered a job interview — Mark Steven Wallace.
Wallace had a small painting business on Iroquois Ave. and Stillwater Ave. in Saint Paul and lived right above it. Nikki told police Wallace dropped her off that night, first, then drove away with Hang.
"At first it was a 'missing,' now it's a 'missing with a person who's seen her last,'" Snyder said.
And when police began looking into Wallace's background, they were disturbed by what they found: two rape convictions and several other allegations never charged.
A pattern, police thought, of luring women with the offer of a job interview – then attacking them.
"The bottom line is obviously he's a serial rapist. This is a constant pattern with him," Snyder said.
In June 1993, police drew up search warrants for Wallace's home, office and his truck, but Snyder knew police were at a big disadvantage.
"They say the first 48 hours are critical. Now this is six months later," Snyder said. "We had the crime lab go through it. They 'luminoled' it. They searched it and found nothing in the car."
Without evidence, and with Wallace denying involvement, police were stuck.”
"We had no way to charge him with anything," Snyder said. "We had no evidence. And he lawyered up."
So the case went cold.
Sixteen years later, in 2009, retired Sgt. Kevin Navara from the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office re-opened the case when he received a tip from a suspicious neighbor about a detached garage quickly built at Wallace's mother's home.
Wallace grew up at the residence, stayed with his mother there off and on in adulthood, and inherited it after her death — building the detached garage in 2004.
"The neighbor had never seen a structure go up that fast in his life," Navara said.
In 2009 after Wallace lost the home to foreclosure and was forced to vacate, Navara brought cadaver dogs to the Maplewood garage, and he says they smelled something.
"It was pretty interesting to see these dogs go back and forth on that wall and boom – hit," Navara said.
Two out of three dogs indicated twice that they smelled something in the ground by the garage wall. But Navara said before digging, they drilled holes in the concrete to give the dogs a better smell of what might be below. The dogs no longer showed interest.
"Certainly not enough to rip up someone's garage," Navara said. "That garage still bothers me a lot. I can't get around that."
Retired sergeants Navara and Snyder both crossed paths with Wallace one last time. Wallace was nearing release on a three-year sentence for kidnapping when a prosecutor filed a petition to have Wallace civilly committed at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in Moose Lake.
Only 16 people civilly committed at MSOP to receive sex offender treatment have ever been fully discharged.
Navara and Snyder testified about everything they know about the Hang Lee case, Wallace's rape convictions, plus other alleged uncharged sexual offenses.
Wallace has always denied any involvement with Hang Lee’s disappearance.
But the judge ruled Wallace is a "sexually dangerous person" and a "sexually psychopathic personality," and he won't get out of the Moose Lake facility unless he's rehabilitated — potentially, in essence, a life sentence.
KARE 11 reached Wallace's former employee and Hang Lee's friend Nikki Lee to inform her Wallace is no longer a free man.
"Great, he belongs there," Nikki replied, but then she refused to answer any questions regarding Hang's case.
Hang's brother Koua Lee is still waiting for answers. The most important thing to him does not involve criminal charges.
"Finding out what happened to my sister and recovering her body if it's anywhere, it is more important to me, my mom and my family," Koua said.
Hang's family held a spirit release for Hang in 2017 after Wallace was arrested on his most recent kidnapping charge.
With Wallace's freedom now taken away, Koua hopes someone who may have been afraid to share information will come forward — so his family can finally have a proper burial and closure.
Saint Paul PD continues to investigate the disappearance of Hang Lee. In October 2021, they returned to the garage in Maplewood where Wallace grew up and his mother lived until her death. There, they did some digging and took 3D imaging. But they did not find Hang's body or evidence sufficient to make any arrests.
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