Father who set fatal fire feared he would lose children

His brother says calls following domestic violence incident stressed him

By Ray Legendre and Laura McVicker

Published:

Updated: May 4, 2011, 10:30 PM

 

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Tuan Dao fretted that he would lose his children and his freedom in the days before he set the deadliest fire in Vancouver’s modern-day history, his family said.

Dao’s brother, Mike Vo, said the man’s anxieties stemmed in part from repeated calls and text messages from his father-in-law following Dao’s March 30 arrest for a domestic violence incident involving his wife.

Vo could not independently verify these texts or phone calls occurred. Dao’s father-in-law, Mike Willbur, refused comment for this story, and police called Vo’s references to text messages sent from Willbur as “hearsay.”

Vo said his brother never mentioned wanting to kill himself or others prior to setting the Easter morning fire that killed himself and five of his children. Police identified the deceased children as Nolan Dao, 12; Noah Dao, 9; Jacob Dao, 9; Samantha Dao, 8; and Nathan Dao, 6.

“It feels surreal,” Vo, of San Francisco, said this week, sitting on a couch in his aunt’s east Vancouver home. “I don’t like what happened, but I know my brother loved his kids.”

Police believe Dao set the fire because he was distraught about failing finances and a recent separation from his wife.

But Dao’s family, including his mother and brother, attribute stress he felt in the final month of his life to concerns over a loss of child custody and pending criminal charges.

Dao’s wife, Lori Dao, and her eldest daughter, Alena, 13, had moved out of the family home weeks earlier following a domestic dispute.

Following that event, Dao told his brother he received frequent text messages from his father-in-law.

Willbur refused comment when told of references to text messages Vo says he received.

“They don’t exist to me,” Willbur said of Dao’s family. Willbur added, “I dare you to print something untrue.”

Vancouver police Sgt. Scott Creager said he did not have evidence to support Vo’s story. Regarding the text messages, Creager said investigators had received “nothing beyond hearsay. And when we attempted to confirm that information, the people with that information have failed to come forward.”

The investigation into the fire is still ongoing, Creager said.

Doting father

Vo, 30, described his brother as a jolly man who would do anything for his children.

“His kids meant the world to him,” he said.

In 1983, Dao moved from Saigon, Vietnam, to San Francisco with his brother and mother. He earned an accounting degree at San Francisco State University. He moved to Vancouver because his wife’s family lived there, Vo said.

Dao, who was 37, and his wife, Lori Dao, filed for bankruptcy in September 2010, citing almost $160,000 in credit card, collections and gambling debt. But those troubles were in the couple’s rearview mirror after a judge discharged the filing in December, his brother said. A home foreclosure in July 2010 had also been dealt with, he added.

Dao was an assistant supervisor at a FedEx/Kinko’s store in Portland. He had worked for the company 14 years.

In the afternoons, he often picked his children up from school and drove them to soccer practice and karate lessons.

“They were just the best kids,” Vo said, noting they had a calm demeanor like their father. “I don’t even have words to describe how good they were.”

Demeanor changes

Vo noted a shift in his brother’s demeanor following his arrest March 30.

Police say Dao threw a clothes iron at his wife’s head during an argument the evening of March 29. The Dao’s eldest daughter, Alena, called 911 after he allegedly grabbed her mother’s arms forcefully.

Vo says his brother merely dropped the clothes iron, and his brother’s wife, Lori Dao, was supposed to revise her statement to reflect this. But police reject this story. After all, it was Dao’s own child who sought police intervention, police said.

Dao’s wife, Lori Dao, moved out of their house soon after. She also received a protective order, which limited her husband from coming within 500 feet of her. This, in turn, limited when and how frequently he could see his children.

“He had no control,” Vo said, but added that his brother still picked his children up from school.

Shortly after his arrest, Dao expressed concern to Vo about text messages he received from Willbur.

“His main concern was daily reminders of losing his children,” Vo said. “He was stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

The thought of going to prison for an extended period also weighed heavily on his mind. An attorney told him he could serve up to three years in prison for fourth-degree assault and reckless endangerment charges, Dao’s family said.

Each of these misdemeanor charges carry up to one year in prison, said Vancouver Assistant City Attorney Patrick Robinson. They would be served consecutively, meaning the sentences would have been served one after the other.

But maximum penalties for misdemeanors are seldom imposed, except for the most egregious circumstances or for repeat offenders. Defendants usually face a handful of days in jail, at most.

Sadness, anger

Dao’s mother, who is also named Lori Dao, said the treatment her son received from the legal system amounted to “discrimination.” This did not excuse her son’s behavior, she added.

The family expressed sympathy for Tuan Dao’s wife and described her as a good mother. But they had no such niceties for Dao’s father-in-law.

“I’m still upset because Lori’s father called my son and said, ‘Why don’t you say you’re guilty?’” she said. “I want to know why.”

It’s not an answer she’s likely to get anytime soon, if ever. For now, questions are all that remain.

Vo said he is not angry at his brother. “Just sad,” he replied.

Vo predicted holidays would be “really devastating.”

“Quite honestly, I hope I’m in a dream,” he said.