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.