It was 6 p.m. on a Friday in late July, and Rabbi Neal Schuster had begun the sundown service. Esmie came in and sat with the congregation, its members arranged in a semicircle of plush chairs around the Sabbath candles. Schuster, a gentle, soft-spoken 36-year-old, had never seen Esmie before. But right away, he could tell she was troubled. "It was clear something was going on with her," Schuster says. "She wasn't crying, but you could just tell. If you can read people, you can tell."
As the congregation settled into their seats, Esmie stood. A strikingly pretty Asian teenager, she wore her everyday uniform of jeans and a tank top. She walked to the center of the circle of chairs, leaned over and blew out the candles. Then she took her seat. Puzzled, the rabbi lit them again. Esmie stood up, walked to the center and blew them out again.
Eager to restore order to his service, Schuster waited until a moment when the congregation was singing, then quietly asked the girl, "Do you need to talk to somebody?"
Yes, she told the rabbi, she did need to talk. Three members of the congregation escorted Esmie outside. She explained that she had come to the temple because she was running away from home. She told them that she had heard voices and the voices had told her to blow out the candles. Somebody dialed 911.
Officer Catherine Kamler, of the Overland Park Police Department's Juvenile Unit, arrived at the temple to take Esmie home. Taking kids back to the place they're running away from is pretty standard, Kamler says. She couldn't have known that she was returning Esmie to the house where she would be arrested August 19 on charges of first-degree murder in the death of her mother.
Shu Yi Zhang died from multiple stab wounds, and the limited details that have been made public suggest that the crime scene spread through several rooms in the house. What investigators found was grim enough that Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison filed a motion to try Esmie in adult court. Instead of spending a few years in juvenile jails, Esmie could spend years in prison.
Oddly, her arrest has brought Esmie new friends. Sympathetic strangers soccer moms and their usually disinterested teenagers have rallied behind her. For months, they've signed petitions to keep Esmie out of adult prison, flooded the prosecutor's office with calls, and dedicated Web sites to her. Even as her father has wavered on whether to stand by his only child, Esmie has garnered so many supporters that bailiffs have had to turn them away at her packed court hearings.
But some of Esmie's most staunch supporters remain in the dark about the girl they're trying so hard to save. And just as people missed Esmie's obvious cries for help, her supporters are missing some of the main messages Esmie's story relays about their cul-de-sac-stagnant kids.
District Court Judge Brenda Cameron's tiny courtroom at the Johnson County Courthouse fills with reporters, onlookers and Esmie's friends an hour before her hearings. Johnson County Sheriff's Office deputies have to disappoint pushy moms begging to be let in after the room fills. Court employees tell high schoolers, skipping class to attend, that anyone sitting on someone else's lap has to leave.
As bailiffs led Esmie in for her second court hearing September 13, some supporters wept. She wore gray jailhouse sweats. Her hands were cuffed and fastened to a thick belt around her waist. Her legs were shackled, and her black hair, normally stick-straight, instead hung in limp waves below her shoulders. "I'm scared," she mouthed to friends seated in two rows of wooden benches.
The hearing was nothing more than an early step in a case that could take a year or more, but her supporters came in force. Esmie answered the judge's questions in whispers. When her father spoke on her behalf, her face crumpled. When she spotted the friends who hadn't made it into the courtroom waving from outside, she smiled. And when it was time for her to go back to juvenile detention, she pleaded: "No, I want to stay here."
Outside the courtroom, Esmie's friends from Blue Valley North High School hugged and huddled together. They declined, as they had since the stabbing, to speak to reporters and instead headed to the IHOP on 119th Street in Olathe. Her friends' mothers chatted in groups. Esmie's father slipped away in silence.
The one Esmie supporter who has been eager to speak to the press since the beginning is a middle-aged father of three from Prairie Village named Jacob Horwitz. "It's humiliating and hard for a 16-year-old to be shackled like that when so far she's not convicted of anything," he says. "Who knows what damage that might do to her? She doesn't have a true understanding of the consequences yet or what's happened. She's confused."
Horwitz is often referred to as a leader of Esmie supporters, though he accepts the title reluctantly. It began for him after Esmie's arrest, when he found her online diary on livejournal.com under the name "rockonlittleone." He read for three hours straight, voraciously consuming three years' worth of Esmie's writings. By the time he was done, Horwitz felt like he knew the girl better than he knew his own kids. Esmie's personality seemed to come off the screen and hug him. Inspired, Horwitz started Friends of Esmie, a group devoted to convincing prosecutors to try her case in juvenile court. He set up the Web site Esmie.com, a clearinghouse of Esmie news, Esmie pictures and Esmie testimonials from friends and neighbors. Putting up the site cost about $300, Horwitz says, and it has had more than 12,000 visitors.
Horwitz says he had never been involved in any kind of activism. He makes good money running a business that services computers at McDonald's restaurants. In a side venture, he sells novelty candles that burn multicolored beads of wax. Esmie's case attracted him, he tells the Pitch, because he believes that she is like his own kids, whom he describes as responsible, hardworking students. His son won't stay at a party if he sees beer, Horwitz says. Reading Esmie's diary, he was shocked by the maturity and worldliness of her posts. "I was intrigued, you know?" he says. "It was a kid in my neighborhood, so it was a little close to home. From the way my kids talked about her, I knew she's not some whacked-out kid who did something stupid."
Horwitz says other parents have said that if Esmie were free, they would let her baby-sit their children. "Don't you think that's amazing? Don't you think that's saying something, that you can't find anyone to say something bad about her, and she killed her mother? It could be any one of those parents' kids someday. One bad decision on a Friday night when they're out with friends."
It isn't that he believes as at least one mother in the group does that Esmie should go free. Rather, he was struck by the idea that the juvenile justice system was created for kids, and here's a kid, one of our kids, as he likes to say, who doesn't deserve to be tossed in jail with adult criminals. Horwitz drew some conclusions from reading her posts. "I genuinely think she wanted to be a good kid and make her parents happy," he says. "Fuck, she's in jail worried about her SATs!"
Like everybody interested in Esmie's case, Horwitz has a theory. "She was under tremendous pressure, and she had a fight with her mother and just snapped. That's my assumption. Just theoretically, I figure she was in the kitchen, and she and her mom had a fight, and she grabs a knife and stabs her, and whether it was once or 50 times, it's like, for once in her life, for five minutes, she goes from being this nice, quiet, picture-perfect little Asian girl to this psycho, whacko bitch. You can read it several different ways, and there should be consequences if we find out this is what happened."
Horwitz says he will attend Esmie's next hearing, scheduled for January 18. His wife is due to give birth to their fourth child around that time. His Bluetooth and Blackberry should keep him up to speed on the labor, though. "Don't push! I'll be done by 1!" he jokes.
Much of Esmie's online writing mirrors journals from any other sarcastic, music-loving, rabidly social teenager reaching into cyberspace. But everything has since taken on new meaning. These are, after all, the words of a girl accused of stabbing her mother to death.
Esmie decorated her Web page on Xanga.com to express a moody teenage sulk. Now it's a chilling sight. The background includes a bubble, pasted over the heads of two unsmiling models, with these words: "Sometimes I wonder if I have a mental illness. I don't want to tell anyone because I am scared that my fears would be confirmed. So I don't tell people what is going on in my head. And I just pretend to be as normal as I possibly can."
Then there's her fatalistic Livejour nal.com rant on the meaning of life. "The human race DOESN'T CARE if you as an individual just up and choke; the earth doesn't care," Esmie wrote in a post dated February 9, 2004. "The human race is doomed. Everything and everyone is temporary ... Go ahead and try to win a religion argument, DOESN'T MATTER whether you're right or wrong because you are still going to die. You won't find shit out even when you die.
"Either this is all or somewhat true," she concluded, "or I am fucking screwed and may as [well] start packing for Hell right now."
Xanga and Livejournal act as networks, connecting people through posts and comments that lead readers to other people's sites. After Zhang's death, Esmie's friends suddenly had a whole audience of strangers devouring every post she left. Eventually, a friend figured out how to close Esmie's Web diaries to onlookers, but not before some of her writing ended up on other Web sites and in newspapers.
A post from January 30, 2004, hints at Esmie's problems just beginning. "I need someone to please tell me how to shut up this brain and the thoughts that won't leave me alone. I need someone to please tell me how to sleep soundly through the night without waking up seven or eight times in the span of six hours. I need someone to please tell me how to sleep."
After Esmie's mother threatened to sell her piano during an argument, Esmie vented online. "IT DISGUSTS ME THAT YOU WOULD TRY TO HURT ME LIKE THAT. SELL MY PIANO? Sell my fucking piano?" she wrote. "IF YOU SELL MY PIANO YOU BETTER BE PREPARED TO USE THAT NUMBER TO SOCIAL SERVICES, BITCH. I wish I believed in hell."
In her diary entry dated February 1, 2004, she tries to explain why she rarely shows emotion. "If you've never seen me cry, it's not because I hold it in. It's not because I suppress my inner depression. It's not in me. I don't get sad. I stay calm, no tears. I get angry. Maybe it will come kick me in the ass later, but I don't deal or cope with these type of feelings like expected."
Some posts include song lyrics, making them seem more sinister than Esmie might have intended. Esmie writes, quoting a lyric from the band Silverstein: "I close my eyes and I can see you dead."
Esmie's old clique from her elementary and middle school days included Katie Jones, Sarah Casey and Amelia Mallett. These were Esmie's good-girl friends, her inside-joke friends, her sleepover friends. They knew Esmie from the days, as she would write in her journals, before she became a stranger to herself.
They knew all of Esmie's little quirks the way one of her eyes is slightly darker than the other, or the before-bed ritual of popping all the joints from her neck to her toes (which grossed Katie out completely). Cracking on her own Asian ethnicity and the culture's stereotype of overachievement, Esmie would walk into a room and proclaim, "The chink is here!" She was a big hugger, they say, but quick to snap at someone she disagrees with.
On the honor roll for two years in high school, Esmie never tried to hide her intelligence. She seemed never to forget anything she learned, and her mind was all about organization and itemization. Over the years, Esmie became more obsessive about things, Amelia says. If Sarah's bag was messy, Esmie would dump it out and organize it. She started exercising for hours at a time; stretch marks formed around new muscles. Her extensive friend list on her Xanga page was immaculately kept; each time she met new friends, they would be added to the list. Everything in its place.
Her need to control her surroundings came from her controlling parents. Last winter, Esmie posted a Livejournal entry in which she wrote that her parents had threatened to move because she had gotten three B's on a report card otherwise filled with A's. "I don't fucking know what I'm going to do," she wrote. "I'm scared what I might resort to. They don't realize they can't stop me, they're only going to force me to sneak around and lie and become indifferent to conscience." She punctuated the post with "HELP" in bold, inch-high letters.
Once, the four friends spent weeks planning a sleepover, but the night of the event, Esmie called the girls from her house, crying. It was rare to hear her cry. As Sarah listened, Esmie crawled down the stairwell to a landing where she could peer into the room where her parents yelled at each other in Chinese. Esmie watched as her mother held a knife to her own throat and threatened to hurt herself, Sarah says. Later that night, Esmie got a ride from her father and managed to join her friends at Sarah's house. She was a little shaken at first but later acted as if nothing had happened.
When she was in middle school, Esmie's family moved from north Johnson County to the Blue Valley School District. At Blue Valley North High School, Esmie left behind her sleepover friends. Her new gang painted mascara rings around their eyes, streaked their hair, sneaked out at night and smoked cigarettes at Oak Park Mall. Inside jokes on their Xanga sites often referred to drugs. They posted self-portraits online with their digital cameras, testing out sexy expressions. Esmie had made bad-girl friends.
Activities for high school kids in Leawood are limited. There's little more than the mall and the movie theater. Oh, and drugs.
That last fact will shock no one who's spent time in an American public high school. Blue Valley North is no exception. Kids brag on their Web journals that scoring weed, acid, mushrooms, Ecstasy is as easy as getting a drink from the school water fountain.
After Esmie's arrest, accounts in The Kansas City Star never mentioned drugs. In fact, the stories seemed to confirm what her supporters believed about her, that Esmie's controlling parents had put so much pressure on her that she snapped. But firsthand accounts from her friends tell of drug binges that often preceded depressive crashes.
At Blue Valley North, Esmie's new best friend was Ashley Sosebee, whose online journal is filled with references to 'shrooms and affectionate names for Ecstasy pills green apples and red dragons. It was with Ashley and other Blue Valley friends that Esmie took the plunge into the drug world, experimenting with mushrooms and Ecstasy.
Ashley's boyfriend at the time was Mark Harvey, who's now a 20-year-old chemical engineering student at Cornell University. Esmie became very contemplative on Ecstasy, Harvey recalls, but afterward, she'd crash hard. "That's what you call the comedown from E," he says. "Hers was bad, and she got really depressed."
Esmie had good reason to be depressed that summer: frequent drama from a new boyfriend, a good-looking 16-year-old fellow Blue Valley kid named Wade Wrightsman. Wade, who worked at the Taco Bell on 145th Street, probably had some bad-boy appeal. Johnson County District Court records show that he'd spent a year on probation for two juvenile cases, a disorderly conduct charge in November 2004 and a home burglary charge from May 2005.
Wade and Esmie bonded partly because they could relate to each other's family dramas. Wade started a Xanga page that summer under the title "SummerHaze420." His first post on July 19 complains that his father called him a "fag" for donning a fedora. "My only response is, dad, at least i dont wear whity tighties and jeans that are 10 sizes too small.... you fucking buttnut, and umm that dick of a dad told me to get a pink triangle on my shoulder.... that nazi ... later fuckers!"
At a party in July, Wade made out with a mutual friend, and Esmie heard about it later. She begged her friends through her online journal on July 10 to give her the details. She signed off with: "Can I please just get some fucking closure here?"
After the breakup, Esmie drove around as a passenger in a car with a group of friends, pill in hand. Ashley says Esmie insisted on using Ecstasy to dull the pain. "There was a bunch of us who told her not to do it," Ashley says. "It's not a good thing to do. She wasn't happy at all. We told her not to." Esmie did it anyway, and when she crashed, she blamed Ashley for the bad thoughts the comedown conjured up. "That's why it didn't make any sense," Ashley says, "because the day after, she yelled at me, and then she was like, 'I know, I'm sorry.'"
When Esmie and Ashley tried psychedelic mushrooms for the first time, with Harvey baby-sitting them both, Esmie talked about missing Wade. Ashley and Esmie didn't hang out much after that. "She was really sad all the time, and I couldn't cheer her up anymore," Ashley says. "All she wanted to do was, like, be with Wade and stuff, and she started hanging out with other people more."
As Esmie self-medicated, her old friends say, she was losing it.
"Like, one time," Katie says, "she was talking about how she was worried that people could read her mind and stuff. She just got kind of weird, like she was realizing a lot and she didn't know what to think about it."
Sarah says, "It was like she was on a bad acid trip, basically."
Shortly before Zhang's killing, Esmie called Amelia, sounding weird and distant. Amelia suggested that Esmie seek professional help. Amelia says Esmie replied, "But what if you want to be a professional?"
"She was really reaching for something," Amelia says. "I wish I could have been the person who knew what to say." Esmie talked of running away and asked Amelia's mother, Dr. Nancy Tilson-Mallett, if she could stay with them. But Amelia's family went on summer vacation, and by the time they got back, the idea had fallen through the cracks.
Katie says Esmie started having flashbacks and asking her friends if their memories of her as a little girl matched her own. She asked Katie and Sarah if they remembered a fight Esmie had had with her father. She also asked if, as a little girl, they remembered her having bruises. Katie and Sarah said they couldn't.
"She seemed sort of defeated," Sarah says. "I think she just lived with her family and their expectations and, like, that life for so long that it was wearing down on her. And I think things were getting worse. I think her parents just kept expecting more, and she was starting to realize how incredibly bad things were."
What filled Esmie's last posts were crumbled relationships, college entrance exams and escalating fights between her parents. The anxiety swelled to a sustained internal scream that burst somewhere inside that Leawood house. On August 19, Esmie was charged with the killing of her mother.
Harvey and Ashley split up after he went back to college. Harvey says that during a fight over the phone, he accused Ashley of pushing Esmie over the edge by introducing her to mind-altering drugs. He knew it was the worst thing he could say, and Ashley was furious. She deleted every trace of Harvey, erasing him from her Web pages and her life. "Esmie wrote to Ashley and said it wasn't Ashley's fault, but obviously Ashley still has that concern," Harvey tells the Pitch. "She probably thinks that's why Esmie stopped hanging out with us so much and went a little crazy and killed her mom."
"We all, like, are more cautious and more careful about what we do," Ashley says of her friends and their partying ways. "[Mark] said that just to make me mad and to make me feel bad and stuff. He wants to get me in trouble."
Esmie's house sits on a quiet Leawood street. It's a neighborhood of two-car garages and American flags, steep-peaked triangular roofs and rock facades. It's not ostentatious. Her own house has a big, block-shaped window overlooking the street, between the first and second floors. It's gray with a white door, and it faces a driveway that curls around a red-brick planter holding three fir trees. The house backs up onto a brush-thick creek.
Esmie's old friends remember her family as very protective of their only child. Before Esmie could visit friends' homes, her dad had to make sure that family pets were docile. Her friends do an impression of the way her mother used to scream her name. The name Esmie is French, and her mother was never really able to pronounce it. Instead she would yell, "Essa-me! Essa-me!"
Her friends say her parents blamed her for their problems. When Esmie's mother was laid off from Sprint, she complained to Esmie that it was her fault she wasn't able to retire. Katie says that Esmie would find typed, hand-signed notes on her computer monitor from her mother. "She would say that she was ashamed to have Esmie as a daughter, that she was a disappointment, that she was lazy," Katie recalls. "If my mom gave me a note like that, I'd burst into tears."
Instead, Sarah says Esmie would have little reaction. "Esmie wouldn't cry about it or anything. She'd take the piece of paper, correct all the grammatical errors and spellings, and hand it back to her."
A post on Esmie's journal from Christmas Eve 2003 describes the uncomfortable relationship she had with her father. A couple who lived nearby had stopped off to give her a Christmas present. "My only real Christmas present on Christmas. WOW, that was ... worth pondering," she wrote. The couple noticed medals she had won at math competitions. "When I told her they were from math, [the neighbor] was like, WOW GENIUS! Dad stepped in to say definitely not."
Those who have spoken with her father say that he partly blames demons for the violence in his home. The day it happened was also the day of the Ghost Festival, a traditional Chinese day when spirits and ghosts are said to come from the underworld to visit the living. He's also superstitious about his age and has told close friends that at 58, the men in his family all meet with bad luck.
It took him two months to issue a statement asking for Esmie to be tried as a juvenile. He was absent from Esmie's first hearing but has come to subsequent court appearances. On the bench, he sits ramrod-straight, eyes closed, warding off stares and questions. He leans on a cane and seems fragile, as though he could be knocked over with a strong wind. One of the first things he did in the wake of his wife's death, according to family friends, was sell Esmie's piano.
Esmie has her father's support, but she also has found a brand-new mom. Tilson-Mallett, Amelia's mother, went to court to get medical power of attorney over Esmie so that she could accompany the girl during physical and psychological tests. She says that Esmie's toxicology from the day of her arrest came back drug-free.
If something happened to Esmie's father, Tilson-Mallett and her husband have said they would act as her guardians. Tilson-Mallett, who practices internal medicine, says there's a logical way to look at what happened. "As a scientist, I know the biology of the brain in adolescence," she says. "The impulsivity, the lack of control it's so crazy in a teenager, and it doesn't fully develop until you're in your twenties. As a mother of a 16-year-old, I know how emotional they can be."
Tilson-Mallett corresponds with Esmie and visits her at the Juvenile Detention Center in Olathe, something that none of Esmie's school-age friends can do. At first, Esmie's thoughts in jail were scattered and disjointed, and she was limp and unresponsive at her very first court appearance due to shock, Tilson-Mallett says. Since then, she's become more coherent.
Esmie's supporters don't include the other girls in jail. "She says she feels people look at her like she's a murderer," Tilson-Mallett says. "That's what she calls herself, a murderer. She says she doesn't know how it [the stabbing] happened but feels people will think of her as evil. I wrote back and said, 'You're not evil. We believe in you. We just have to get you some help.'"
Esmie writes to her friends, too. Her friends say she has come to grips with the possibility that she will be in jail for a long time. She told Katie in a letter that she misses her mother. "She said people don't really realize that she lost her mom as well, and she's sad because she doesn't have her mom anymore," Katie says.
Horwitz, the Esmie.com creator, has written Esmie letters of encouragement. Esmie hasn't written him back. "It could be weird, maybe, to be writing to some 40-year-old guy she's never met," Horwitz says. "It could be creepy. I understand that, too. She doesn't know me. I didn't expect her to write back."
Esmie wrote a letter to the Pitch, too. She says she misses her music the most; the radio isn't cutting it. (Olathe juvenile detainees get radio privileges occasionally.) She knows that even though this is the biggest thing to happen in her own life, in the grand scheme of things she's just another news blip.
"To the people in the morning sipping their coffee or eating dinner with their dysfunctional families, I'm just another kid who's screwed up," she writes. "They'll shake their heads. They'll make a decision that I should rot in here or I should be let off, then move on while I'm still in here. While you're all shopping with your friends or watching a rented movie on DVD, I'm being tortured by my thoughts and all of the obvious memories and just being in here."
The handwriting is neat, with bubble periods. Esmie forms the capital letter "I" uniquely. In every instance, it's shaped like a question mark.