Phu Lam had a history of run-ins with the law, a massive gambling debt and a temper. Then, in 2012, he reportedly learned that the son he had raised for six years as his own was not biologically his. Outraged, according to court documents, he assaulted his wife and threatened to kill her and her family.
Two years later, Edmonton Police have named Mr. Phu, 53, as the man responsible for the worst mass murder in the city's modern history. The victims comprise five adults and two children; two other children close to the family – including a baby girl who is biologically his – were spared.
A more complete picture of this week's grisly events developed Friday when Edmonton police confirmed the identities of the eight victims and gave a timeline of Mr. Phu's actions.
The first sign that something was amiss came at 8 a.m. on Dec. 28, when Thuy Tien Truong, Mr. Phu's 35-year-old partner, and her 55-year-old mother, Thi Dau Le, failed to show up for an overtime shift at their place of employment, Superintendent Mark Neufeld said.
At 8:30 a.m., Ms. Thuy's brother-in-law knocked on the door of the north Edmonton home where she lived with her extended family and got no response. He recalled seeing a black SUV parked outside.
Police now believe that between the hours of 3:45 and 8 a.m., Mr. Phu went to the north-end residence and shot dead Ms. Thuy, their eight-year-old son, Elvis Lam, and five others. They are: Ms. Thuy's mother Thi Dau Le; her father, Van Dang Truong, 55; her sister, Thanh Ha Thi Truong, 33; Ms. Thanh's three-year-old daughter, Valentina Nguyen; and Viet Nguyen, 41, an acquaintance of Ms. Thuy's.
At 10 a.m., a full day after the murders were committed, a distraught Mr. Phu dropped off two young children – his one-year-old daughter with Ms. Thuy and Ms. Thuy's eight-month-old nephew – at an adult relative's home in north Edmonton, Supt. Neufeld said. It is believed the children may have been at the home at the time of the murders. That relative, concerned by Mr. Phu's demeanour, called police to report that Mr. Phu was emotional, and possibly suicidal.
It is unclear if all the victims were in the house when the murders began, Supt. Neufeld said. Unspecified items in the house led the police to believe the murders were "planned and deliberate."
During the late afternoon of Dec. 29, Mr. Phu visited a relative's home, leaving shortly after 6 p.m. "That address is a 12-minute drive from Cyndi Duong's residence," Supt. Neufeld said, referring to the final victim, a 37-year-old mother of three. "Cyndi Duong was murdered at approximately 6:50 p.m."
Police say there was a relationship between the Duong and Phu families and that Mr. Phu was looking for someone else when he went to the home. Ms. Duong "was simply an innocent victim of all this," Supt. Neufeld said. One theory, according to police, was that Mr. Phu was searching for Ms. Duong's father; however, they could not elaborate on a relationship between the two men.
Meanwhile, court records paint a picture of Mr. Phu's troubled past. The man had a lengthy criminal record going back to his first charge of assault in 1986. In the years that followed, he would face five more assault charges. In 2002 he was jailed for 90 days for possession of a prohibited weapon and for the production of a controlled substance. He was also fined $7,500. Charges of careless use of a firearm were dismissed at that time.
In 1997, charges were dismissed for possession of a weapon with purpose to harm the public. He was also found guilty of twice communicating with a prostitute.
On Nov. 4, 2012, Mr. Phu was arrested for a number of offences related to domestic violence. He threatened to kill Ms. Thuy's family at that time. The people he threatened in 2012 were killed on Dec. 28.
According to Alberta's Crown Prosecution Service, a sworn statement given by Ms. Thuy to a Vietnamese interpreter on Dec. 17 recanted each allegation made against Mr. Phu at the time of his arrest. All charges were dropped against him four days later.
It was also revealed through testimony reported by Edmonton media that Mr. Phu was not the biological father of his then-six-year-old son with Ms. Thuy.
He also had financial hardships. Mr. Phu – whose marital status was listed as separated as of late 2014, according to court documents – owed $116,296 to creditors in February, 2013, when he filed for bankruptcy. Most of that was from credit card debt, which he blamed on a gambling addiction.
In May, 2014, Mr. Phu completed a gambling addiction program. However, ongoing bankruptcy proceedings and failing finances were weighing heavily on Mr. Phu, according to his former common-law wife's daughter.
By late September of 2014, Mr. Phu claimed he was earning $38,095 annually as a machine operator at Alta Steel – a year earlier he had been unemployed. However, a series of expence reports filed to the court showed that he was struggling from month to month, spending a third more than he earned.
On Dec. 16, two years after Mr. Phu declared bankruptcy, Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench ruled that he had engaged in a form of bankruptcy fraud known as abuse of credit and ordered him to pay back $17,655.43. The court ruled that Mr. Phu had used his credit knowing full well that he would be unable to pay back his creditors. He was given the option to pay the sum in monthly transfers of $750, beginning on Jan. 15.
Phap Hoa, chief abbot for the Truc Lam Buddhist Monastery in Edmonton, said he will preside over services for Ms. Thuy's family on Tuesday.
"I cannot hold my tears," he said Friday. "In our community, this never happened before, especially during almost the New Year when everybody is excited to welcome the new year. … Now we have received this very tragic news. We are very hurt."
With a report from Ian Bailey in Vancouver