Utah woman's violent death reunites her estranged children
The day they lowered Touch Choun's casket into the earth, her son and oldest daughter stood side by side.
They are two of four children three girls and a boy but they were the only ones to scatter dirt across their mother's final resting place. The middle sister stayed home. No one knows where the youngest is.
The funeral was the first time the siblings had seen each other in more than a decade.
But as brother and sister bowed heads in unison to the slow prayer of Buddhist monks, the distance that separated them for most of their lives seemed to melt away.
They grieved for their mother. Together.
"It was the one thing she ever really wanted: to see her daughters again, to have her kids reunited," said Votha Choun, the eldest. "Now she's never going to have that chance."
Touch Choun died violently in 2009 at the hands of her husband, Dennis Lambdin, at their Cottonwood Heights home. She was 41.
Lambdin, 64, was convicted of her murder in January. He is expected to be sentenced Monday to spend what may be the rest of his life in prison.
Votha Choun, his mother's only son, said no sentence a judge hands down will be good enough.
Lambdin didn't just kill his mother, the 24-year-old said. He defiled her memory by telling police and jurors that she was an abusive, adultering, gambling alcoholic.
That's not who his mother was, the son said. And that's not how he wants her to be remembered.
"She wasn't perfect, but nobody deserves to die like that," Votha Choun said. "She was a sweet woman, very loving. And through everything, at the heart of everything, it was always her kids. She didn't love anything the way she loved us."
First child • In the late 1980s, Touch Choun gave birth to a baby girl with dark eyes and caramel skin.
It was her first child.
But days after bringing the infant home to the house she shared with her husband in Fresno, Calif., the little girl died. She was told it was sudden infant death syndrome a condition doctors could not explain to the grieving Cambodian mother.
The woman never recovered.
Even after the birth of her son, Votha, she blamed herself for the loss of her firstborn.
"She thought it made her a bad mom," Votha Choun said. "You couldn't tell her anything to convince her it wasn't her fault."
She sank further into the dark depths of depression as her life unraveled: Her husband left her, her mother died.
Choun was left alone with Votha and his three younger sisters.
Their mother cried a lot. Some days, she wouldn't get out of bed.
Alcohol helped her forget.
"Once, I got up the courage to ask her, 'Mom, why do you drink?' " Votha Choun said. "She took a long time to answer. Finally, she said, 'To make the pain go away.' I realized that was it. She needed to stop the pain."
It wasn't long before Touch Choun lost custody of her children. Votha and his sisters were placed in California's foster system. The three girls were eventually adopted by other families.
Touch Choun moved back to Utah, where she lived after first arriving in the United States as a Cambodian refugee. She found work, started to piece her life back together.
"She was always trying to straighten out her life," Votha Choun said. "But women with low self-esteem, they fall into these bad situations. And they don't have the confidence to pull themselves out."
Working late one night at a Salt Lake City restaurant, she met a nice older man. He had a good job. He could take care of her.
In a matter of months, they were married.
His name was Dennis Lambdin.
'Real home' • Votha Choun moved to Utah when he was 14.
Out of foster care for the first time in seven years, he was excited at the prospect of living with his mother and his new stepfather.
"I didn't grow up with a father, in a real home," he said. "I thought I would be so happy."
But Lambdin was an angry man, Votha said; he would snap without warning, morph into a monster.
Votha Choun watched Lambdin yell and scream at his mother, heard him call her names.
He didn't understand how his mother could stay.
"There was a dark, dark feeling in that house," Votha Choun said. "Living there was the worst time of my life."
As his desperation grew, he invented reasons to stay late after school anything to avoid going home. He signed up to join the U.S. Marine Corps when he turned 18 and began taking mixed martial arts classes.
One night, months before his scheduled departure to basic training, things went from bad to worse.
The sound of Lambdin and his mother fighting leaked through his bedroom door. He sat on his mattress, trying to ignore the racket, the muffled shouts, his mother's cries.
But when he heard Lambdin accuse Touch Choun of being a bad mother, Votha Choun had enough.
He ran upstairs, put himself in between the two quarreling adults.
In an instant, he was face to face with his stepfather. Lambdin told him to stay out of it, Votha Choun said. But the teen didn't back down.
He yelled back, told Lambdin to leave his mother alone.
That's when Lambdin punched him, Votha Choun said.
Lambdin jumped on him, knocking the door open as both men tumbled onto the balcony.
"He totally lost control," the son said. "He wouldn't stop hitting me."
Lambdin's hands scratched Votha Choun's face. He tried to gouge out the teenager's eyes.
Touch Choun screamed from inside the house, begging her husband to spare her son.
Eventually, Votha Choun pushed Lambdin off, secured him in a leg lock and punched him in the face a move he learned in his mixed martial arts classes.
Cottonwood Heights Police responded to the scene, but made no arrests.
That night, Votha Choun packed up his things and left. He never went back.
"It hurt me to know that I had to leave my mom with him," Votha Choun said. "But if she wasn't going to leave him, well, I had to."
'Bad man' • On Aug. 15, 2009, Touch Choun called her son with news: She had filed for a divorce from Lambdin.
She was going to wait to tell him, she said, until she had her things in order.
"No," her son said. "Don't wait. He's a bad man. Mom, you need to get away from him."
She agreed. She told her son she would leave that weekend.
Two days later, officers found Touch Choun's butchered body on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood.
"I felt so much anger," Votha Choun said. "I knew how it had happened. I knew he did it. It made so much sense."
Police said Lambdin threw his wife to the ground, climbed on top of her and grabbed a kitchen knife from the countertop.
He stabbed her 19 times.
When he saw she was still moving, he knocked her out with a ceramic ball.
It was the first time his mother had ever stood up to her husband, Votha Choun said. It was also her last.
"I think about it every day," he said. "I'm haunted by what happened."
In the January trial, defense attorneys argued that Lambdin was a reasonable man and a loving husband, that he had been pushed too far. They said he killed his wife in a fit of blind rage when Touch Choun asked for a divorce after subjecting him to nine years of abuse and infidelity.
Their description of his mother infuriated Votha Choun.
"Here's a man who committed murder, one of the worst things you can do to another person, and he's trying to justify it," the son said. "He killed her and he's trying to blame it on my mom."
Dealing with pain • Votha Choun doesn't talk much about his past.
A student at the University of Utah, he studies psychology. He wants to help others deal with issues like depression and anger management.
He doesn't tell people that his mother was murdered.
But the young man knows better than to deal with his pain alone.
He knows what that can do to a person.
"I could be a victim," Votha Choun said. "I could try to hide from it or fight the pain alone, like my mom, but I made the choice to change."
He leans on his family an uncle in Sandy, and the two sisters he rediscovered with the help of Facebook.
The older of the two came to Touch Choun's funeral after learning how she died, Votha Choun said. The young woman was a stranger to everyone there.
Still, she stood by her big brother, mourning the mother she never had the chance to know.
"I know my mother would have loved to meet them, and I think they would have liked to meet her," Votha Choun said. "But it will never happen. Because one man couldn't control his emotions and he decided to take someone's life, to kill someone's mother."