Warning for graphic content:
In June 2016, law enforcement found Jacob Cayer, covered in blood, hiding in the trees directly behind the Teague family home where he had just murdered Heesun “Sunny” Teague and her daughter Sabrina Teague. Cayer ziptied Sunny by her neck to the bathtub faucet, then, with a hammer, tire iron, and knife, he stabbed and bludgeoned her body beyond recognition. He then laid in wait for 23 year old Sabrina, and stabbed her repeatedly in the face, neck, and torso. Cayer also severely injured another person at the scene who was able to identify Cayer by name in a 911 call.
Directly after his arrest, Cayer confessed.
However, justice was not served. This is the story of the survivors.
In the Beginning
“He doesn’t get to take any more of you,” my therapist said, way at the beginning of all this. And then with a touch of personal affection, she added, “I’ll be damned if he gets you, too.”
I nodded, but secretly, I doubted her. He possessed a terrible power. He made two beautiful people stop existing. He killed the last living members of my family, and left me the sole bearer of our childhood family memories. He took our past, destroyed our present, and stole our futures. By taking two lives that didn’t belong to him, he took everything that I had and everything that I was.
Because it’s like the thing that killed and gutted me put me on afterwards and became me—suddenly everything I was was MURDER. For four years, I was consumed by MOM MOM MOM SABRINA SABRINA SABRINA HORROR HORROR HORROR. For a long time I was unsure if I wanted to continue living. Many times I was certain I did not. That I could not.
For the first two years, I lived the deaths of my mom Sunny and my sister Sabrina every single day—because the first thing your brain wants to know when the unthinkable happens is how the fuck the unthinkable happened. The sensations were so regular that eventually they became the landscape of my reality. When I looked upon the trees swaying in the wind, I saw him swinging the tire iron at my mother. When I watched my dog chase after the ball, I saw my precious little sister collapsing in the neighbor’s backyard, just moments away from help that would come too late. When I chatted and laughed with my friends, I heard their cries of terror. When I received hugs, I felt the blows that fell on their bodies falling on mine.
On June 7, 2016, when Jacob Cayer decided Sunny and Sabrina would die, he also decided I would die.
He doesn’t get to take anymore of you.
I looked at my therapist, considering what she said. “It’s too late,” I said to her. “It’s too late. He already got me.”
She is a fierce woman. “Not all of you,” she said. “And not any more. I promise you.”
Make It Right
It wasn’t until the day after Cayer’s butchery, on June 8, 2016, that the messenger came to my front door. It took exactly 4 words—“your mom… your sister…”—for me to start screaming, because I knew they were dead from the look in his eyes and the piece of paper he had laid in my line of sight that had the phone numbers for the Brown County Sheriff and Coroner’s offices scrawled across them.
I had never before screamed so loud and so deep; I pulled that scream up from the earth, through my feet, and out through my mouth. It was instinctive: some primitive part of me felt that if I screamed loud enough, the force of my voice could repel his words and stuff the knowledge back into the Abyss of Things That Do Not Happen.
I shoved the messenger hard in the chest, but he grabbed me and wrestled me down to the ground, his arms holding me against the knowledge in a violent embrace I didn’t want. I beat on him with my fists as he gripped me; when hitting him didn’t work, I beat on the earth. When he told me that no, it was not a car accident, but murder, I tried to crawl away, my hands ripping clumps of grass from the ground. Wailing. Inarticulate animal screams of pain.
“BOTH of them?! BOTH of them?! They were all I had left!” I remember screaming. “They were all I had left!”
“Take it back! Make him take it back! Make him fix it!”
“He can’t,” said the Messenger, and he was crying, too. “It’s too late.”
In 2016, I was 31 years-old. But I was no stranger to grief. Before their murders, I had already buried every single other member of my family, each lost to natural causes. I was able to understand and rationalize those deaths because we all know from a young age that, eventually, bodies give out. When as children, Sabrina and I lost our biological father to an unexpected heart attack, I could say, “He did not exercise. He did not eat well. He had a predisposition to heart disease.” It is so very painful to lose someone you love, but dying because your body wore out, or became ill, is supposed to happen.
No one is supposed to die because Jacob Cayer broke into your home, lashed you by the neck to the bathtub faucet, and stabbed and bludgeoned your body beyond recognition. No one is supposed to die because this same monster lay in wait for you, then stabbed you repeatedly in the neck, face, torso.
At night, I dreamed of my mom and sister, alive, whole, and on the cusp of being murdered. “Don’t go downstairs! He is waiting for you!” I would shout—though he did not kill them there, my dream-mind had made the primal connection between basement and danger—but no matter how many times I grabbed their arms and heaved them up the stairs, they would just wander back down, completely insensible to my warnings. Every night I went through this futile effort to restore them to life, and woke in the morning desperate for someone, anyone, the universal balance of things, karma—a God I don’t even believe in—to make it right.
“No,” I said to no one in particular—the Universe perhaps—“I will go no further. I will lie down here and die until you fix it.”
But the Universe didn’t.
So I did the next best thing. I put my hopes in the justice system and spent the next four years fighting for them to hold Jacob Cayer accountable for his reprehensible actions. I thought it was the least my family and I deserved.
What Sunny and Sabrina Deserved
“Don’t Settle In Life” the plaque says. “Believe that you deserve only the best. Now Live what you Believe.”
A good friend of my mother’s made this plaque for her, and when I entered the house for the first time after the homicides, I found it proudly displayed on the kitchen window sill. I have often wondered how much those words meant to my mom, who, at 30 years-old, emigrated to the US from South Korea in search of the better life that she deserved.
But once in the US, my mother faced xenophobia and racism. People sneered at her beginner’s English, the food she ate, and told us to “go back to our country.” She lived in isolation from her family on the other side of the world, and the last she saw of her sisters was in 2001 during the one visit to South Korea she was able to afford. She survived great grief: having had two miscarriages and losing two husbands throughout her life.
For the first 15 years in this country, she lived a life of poverty, sacrifice, and hard work. For a long time the only available jobs to her were minimum wage positions with no benefits, security, and opportunity for advancement. We lived hand-to-mouth in low income housing; food-stamps provided much of our nourishment; she hoarded and stretched every precious dollar; each month, after bills were paid and food was bought, her and my father split between them $20 for spending money.
But when I was about eight years-old, she learned about the benefits and living wage available through a career at the United States Postal Service, and she pounced at the opportunity with a desperate, but determined, gusto. She studied in every spare moment she had. She memorized a long list of postal codes. She built a facsimile of a postal flatsorter machine from a cardboard box, which she would hunch over for hours, furiously jabbing at the drawn-on buttons, while timing herself for speed and double-checking herself for accuracy. In my memory, I see her sitting cross-legged on the threadbare brown carpet, her slim back curved over the box, with eyes narrowed in intense concentration, muttering sporadically from the side of her mouth.
She scored something like 98% on the entrance exam—the second highest score, if I remember correctly—and was elated, proud, and joyous in a way I had rarely witnessed. USPS hired her, and she dedicated the remainder of her life to that job—retiring only two years before her murder. She worked nights, overtime nearly every week, drove 30 miles one way through late-night blizzards—and she did it all to raise us, her family, out of poverty.
Her hard work paid off. Eventually we left the low-income apartments we lived in and moved into a house—old, not fancy, but ours—in rural Wisconsin.
When my friends came to visit, she would ask, “Did they say anything about the house? Did they notice how big the bathroom?”
I would shrug. The answer was, “Not really.” I mean, the house really didn’t warrant much notice. And we were 11 year old kids. But, I would see her hopeful, expectant face and respond, “Yes, Mom. Yes, they did.”
Later, she would sell that house and buy a larger, fancier house in the small village of Hobart, just outside Green Bay—a house that did indeed elicit notice and compliments from my friends—and she was so incredibly proud. She sent pictures of its exterior to her family in South Korea—and when I moved out of state, she periodically sent pictures of it to me, too. Hard copies, tucked away in an envelope. Not that I asked for them, or worried that I would forget what it looked like, but I think she sent them because she wanted me to be proud of where I came from.
And maybe to show off to my new friends across the country.
Despite the hardships, she retained a certain innocence and childlike delight, unfiltered and unabashed, that beamed from her eyes at the sight of a Chinese buffet; a talented and handsome young man instantly identified as the perfect husband for her daughter; peanut brittle; the “so-ugly-they’re-cute” kind of dogs; crowing roosters; pretty dresses and jewelry; social luncheons and dance functions. It wasn’t until the last years of her life that my mom was able to cultivate a flourishing group of friends and a social life she had always been too busy or too ostracized for her foreignness to have.
I think for her last few years she was truly happy. She had everything: two daughters, financial stability, a sociable and active retirement, a comfortable house. Then Jacob Cayer broke into the house she so admired, took her from her friends and loved ones, and murdered her daughter. All her efforts destroyed.
Knowing what it was to be poor and alone with no family, my mom gave birth to Sabrina when I was eight, after two incredibly painful miscarriages. “I do this for you,” my mom told me many times. “I do this so that after Daddy and I are gone, you won’t be alone in the world.”
Sometimes, now, I hear my mother’s voice. “Did Sabrina make it?” The fear in her voice is too much to bear. I think she would have given her life if it meant saving her child’s—but in this instance, it didn’t.
“No, Mom,” I tell her with great grief. “I’m sorry. She didn’t.”
There’s a silence in which I can hear—can feel—her heart breaking. And then, a murmur: “Ahhh. Now you are alone after all, my daughter.”
I poured over pictures, Sabrina’s social media accounts, flipped through her journals, her drawings, her letters—hungry for every last piece of my sister. I came upon her hairbrush and picked out the few strands of hair I found there, crying because I was grateful for this physical piece of her, crying because I was aware of the wretchedness of my scavenging. Due to my distance, it had been two years since I was last able to hug them. I was supposed to visit them that fateful June, actually; instead, I came to bury them, unable to even see them one last time—their bodies too mutilated for an open casket.
The last physical pieces of them Jacob Cayer left to me was their strands of hair in their hairbrushes.
Sabrina’s hair was thick, unruly, and steadfastly curly like our mom’s. I remember trying to brush her hair into tidy French braids, while she squirmed and made faces under my frustrated hands. I saw many of those trademarked faces as I poured through the pictures: smiling round cheeks and dimples as deep as craters. There was the embarrassed, hesitant grin. There was the sincerely unamused grimace. There was the mad glare. The skeptical, raised-eyebrow face that she would give me instead of the laugh I was trying to needle out of her. There was the genuine beam of joy in the moment before she burst into laughter.
She had this kind of dorky laugh, honestly, and was easily amused. Her favorite comedy was the silly antics of her friends; she loved when people were willing to be the biggest, weirdest dorks. In real life and on the screen: her favorite shows featured superpowers or the supernatural, and starred a group of friends riffing on each other in a good-natured way as they fought marauding forces of evil.
“Sabrina would have loved this,” I think when I watch shows like “The Umbrella Academy.” While I watch, I can hear her hooting with laughter, crater-dimples on full display. And also, while watching, I am wishing that I was a superpowered ninja, or that I could turn back time, or foresee the future, or blast fire from my fists—whatever it would have taken for me, in the June of 2016, to protect my little sister the way a big sister is supposed to.
That he didn’t just kill my mother and then immediately flee the house, but that he lay in wait to kill Sabrina, too—my little sister—weighs on me. Oh, it weighs on me.
For all her sensitivity, sweetness, and shyness, Sabrina was a protector. Because she was shy, she had to work hard to make friends. But once made, she looked out for them and checked in on them. She was the person who cut short vacations to spend time with a friend going through a hard time. She had great empathy for suffering—I think losing our biological father at such a young age taught her the importance of not suffering alone.
As I trace her childhood throughout her school pictures, I can see her unabashed smile become limp and withdrawn in the years following our father’s death. She had experienced loss very few people her age had done, knew pain very few her age had known. That pain lingered within her, and was reignited when our step-father passed of cancer. To have lost another parent devastated Sabrina. I think it made her hold people closer, made her more appreciative of friends and connections because she knew what it was to lose them.
The first time I entered the house after the homicides, I found Sabrina’s work-in-progress. She was a visual artist; inspired by her love for her friends, for their dorkiness, by the manga and anime she collected, she was in the midst of creating her own graphic novel. Of course, starring a group of superpowered friends fighting evil.
Next to Sabrina’s artwork was a diary. In defiance of all proprietary of privacy, I combed through that diary from beginning to end. There were mostly drawings, but there was one entry dated just a few months before her murder.
To paraphrase, her entry wondered, “What will my life be like? Will I be a famous writer? Will I be a famous illustrator? Where will I live? Will it be,” she asked, “in a beach house by the sea? Or a cabin in the forest?”
This is what your life will be like, Sabrina. It will be marked by loss of loved ones and an early loss of innocence. It will be short and end in violence. And the best I will be able to give—the most I can do to make it up to you—is to bury you in a cemetery in the midst of a large, beautiful forest. It is not a cabin, but I will tell myself, “She has that, at least, she has that.”
And I will tell myself, “At least I had 23 years”—which was not enough time, but I will hold tight, remembering how bright your flame burned. I will remember your big heart, your hooting laugh, how—despite the pain in your life—you retained a sense of child-like delight and wonder, much like our mother’s. Unfiltered and unabashed.
The same delight that Jacob Cayer sneered at on the stand.
“Trying to see, uh, how to put this nicely… She’s a person of a younger mindset that’s very childish… And I’m a person that surrounds myself with people that are like me; that are like adults.”
Justice is a Defendant’s Process
I needed justice like a body needs air. But for four years I was neither dead, nor alive, and at various intervals, I wished hard to be both.
Sometimes I heard my mom’s voice. “Aiya, I have two daughters: one who is dead and dreams of life; one is alive and dreams of death.”
For four years I existed in a body that was painful to live in. Panic attacks that made my moment-to-moment excruciating; my mother and sister’s cries of terror; nightmares; deep depression.
For four years, I existed in a world that made only a cruel, chaotic sense. In a world where it didn’t matter what you deserved: no matter how hard you worked, how hard you loved, how good you were—none of that protected you against an untimely, terrifying, and painful death.
Because for four years, I existed in purgatory alongside a justice system that prioritized the needs of the murderer over the needs of the victim.
“This is not a victim’s process,” District Attorney David Lasee said to me, the very first time we sat down together.
I narrowed my eyes in confusion. “It’s not?”
“No,” he replied. “This is a defendant’s process, and a lot of victims find it difficult and painful.”
But, I thought, who else are we getting justice for, if not the victims?
I would spend the next four years asking myself this, and after the jury’s final verdict, I am asking myself this still.
It is not the fault of District Attorney David Lasee, or the Assistant District Attorney Dana Johnson. Both men were kind, receptive, and engaged in continual communication with me. I pestered them with a million questions, and they took the time to address each one. From conversations with other homicide survivors, I understand that I have been lucky in this regard: many homicide survivors are not able to get the Prosecutor’s office to even return a phone call.
I was also lucky to have Kim Pansier, the head of the State’s Victim Witness Department, who pours the strength of her immense heart into making the dehumanizing process of seeking justice a little softer and a little kinder. Together, the team worked really, really hard to bring me and my family justice, and I will remain forever grateful to their care and dedication.
But individual people are not the same as systems. The rules, procedures, and ideology of the American criminal justice system were set long before the DA and ADA ever began their careers. They can only work inside what the system allows and what the system demands.
What the justice system demands is that the voices and memories of victims be silenced.
Until Wisconsin voters passed Marsy’s Law this last April, victims were not allowed to speak in hearings—aside from those regarding adjournment. And even Marsy’s Law did not change the fact that as a victim, I could not have strong displays of grief during the trial as it would “unfairly influence” the jury. It did not change the fact that speaking publicly to the community might draw “too much inflammatory attention and result in further delays.” (This included even having a fundraiser to support my travel expenses.) Marsy’s Law did not change the fact that as a victim, I had to display civility and politeness in the courtroom. If I expressed my rage towards the murderer, I ran the risk of being removed and banned.
As a victim, I had no voice. All the while the Inhuman who murdered my mother and sister sat in the courtroom and expressed his anger, his frustrations, his sorrows at being “unfairly victimized.” All the while, the Inhuman made request after request—some simply ludicrous and enraging, like when he demanded he be released from jail so he could hug his family and celebrate Christmas with them—while I spent my Christmases crying because the last time I ever, and will ever, hug my family was when I wrapped my arms around their cold metal caskets.
Some of his requests resulted in cancellations—of which there were seven total—and further delays of the trial. Many of these cancellations happened last minute, just days before the scheduled date, after I had already spent hundreds—accumulating to thousands—of dollars to travel across the country in order to be present for the second most significant event in my entire life.
Each hearing, each cancellation, each year the trial dragged out was continuous reopening of the wound, and eventually the creation of a new one. Delay after delay! Seven postponements! The calls notifying me of cancellations and unexpected roadblocks resulted each time in me clutching my living-room floor for an hour, grasping for hope, for air, for a tether of some kind as immense pain threatened to pull me away from sanity.
Where was my right to a fair and speedy trial? Naively, I thought I would find justice, peace, and resolution when the monster was put away for life. I deserved that, didn’t I? My mom, who worked so hard to ensure a future for her two daughters, and my little sister, forever dead at 23, didn’t they deserve that most of all?
But August 13, 2020, the jury came back with a decision that demonstrated—again—that life has very little to do with what you deserve.
The Day I Buried Justice
After the trial ended, I visited Sunny and Sabrina’s graves, and was struck with a new and different grief I had never had before. When the jury returned the final verdict of Not Guilty by Reason of Mental Disease or Defect—popularly known as the Not Guilty by Insanity plea, or NGI, it was a new loss, like someone else so very important to me had died. Justice.
“I feel so bad,” I said to the burial plots that are now my mother and sister’s homes. “I’m so sorry. I tried so hard, but I couldn’t get you justice. I know it’s not my fault, but I feel so bad,” I cried. “You deserved more and I failed.”
I was told that some of the jury wept when they saw the crime scene photos and heard the medical examiner descriptions. They were confronted with his demonic butchery and were horrified by it. I think they were so overwhelmed by it the only way they could comprehend it was to depersonalize him into “crazy.” They could not believe that a human that looked like them and came from a “good” family could be so evil.
I think they were scared. So they made the decision that protected themselves and the comfortable reality they lived in. They took away his autonomy and his ability to choose right from wrong.
Because they couldn’t stand the glimpse of what it is to be me.
They didn’t know what it is to exist in the agony of complex/traumatic grief. They didn’t know what is to fight for justice with every ounce of your soul for four LONG years, and instead be spit in the face. Instead told that your fight isn’t done and you must continue every six months for as long as you, or he, will live.
Because when the jury decided that Cayer could not be held accountable for his gruesome, horrific, inhuman violence, they unwittingly married my life to a monster’s.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no minimum sentence in an NGI decision. During the deposition, many of you heard Judge Tammy-Jo Hock rule that he could not apply for conditional release. However, this did NOT mean that he cannot petition for release at all; it meant that at the moment of the ruling, he would be sent to the mental health institution, rather than being immediately set free on the streets, or in the care of a residential home, etc.
Because the law cannot mandate that a perpetrator spend their entire life secured behind the locked doors of a mental institution. Cayer will remain in custody for the rest of his life, but what that custody will look like may vary. It may mean behind the locked doors of the psych ward. It may mean in a residential home.
It may also mean living—under no immediate supervision—amongst the community. He will be in a sort of “probationary relationship” with the Department of Health Services where he will be required to regularly check in. But he will be free to walk the streets, to hold a job, to be your neighbor or co-worker. He will be free to date your loved ones, to even father children.
It has happened before. One of many examples: on July 17, 1988, in the town of Winston-Salem in North Carolina, Michael Charles Hayes shot nine people, killing four. He was found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity, and committed to the custody of a psychiatric hospital. While in their care, he was able to father children, and, recently, was released onto the streets.
The NGI verdict granted Cayer what would be, at least, his third chance at life. You see, killing my mom and sister was not his first act of violence. He had previously been arrested twice for violent assault against women—and he had been out on bond for the latest arrest only eight days before he killed my mother and sister.
The NGI verdict gave him hope and deprived me—AND the community—of guaranteed protection from a predator—protection which is already difficult to access. Women who seek a restraining order against a stalker or abuser are often denied, law enforcement only able to help after the violence is done. After it is too late.
It is important to note that Cayer had been stalking my sister in the week leading up to the time he killed her.
Cayer is able to petition for release every six months.
From what I’ve seen over the last four years, I guarantee he will. And for me, “doubt” is not enough. It is not enough for me to “doubt” he will ever be released. I wanted a guarantee. Because there is a good chance that 20 years from now, the people of the Brown County, Wisconsin community will have forgotten. In 2040, when the officers from the Hobart, Oneida, Green Bay, Brown County police departments who responded to the scene are no longer on the force. When Judge Hock, District Attorney Lasee, and Assistant District Attorney Johnson have retired or moved on to different positions.
When the residents of the community no longer remember whose lives Cayer took:
My mom, who was 63 years-old, healthy, and had been enjoying her retirement for a mere two years. Who had been looking forward to seeing her daughters married and meeting her grandchildren (and highly disappointed that, at least in my case, such a thing hadn’t happened yet and was starting to look as though it might not ever—again, at least in my case, because I had thought, “Well, if I don’t get around to keeping the family legacy alive, at least there’s Sabrina.”)
Sabrina, who was 23, with big dreams, and taking her first steps to achieve them. “As you get old,” someone once told me, “there are fewer and fewer uncertainties in life. You know if you will get married. You will know who you marry. You will know if you have children and how many. You will know what your career is. You will know where you end up living, and how.” Sabrina never got to answer those uncertainties—never got to meet the exponential possibilities that stretched out before her: the cabin in the forest or the house by the sea.
I am terrified that by 2040, the community will have forgotten what Jacob Cayer did, who he took, and what is at stake, and decide to let him free—granting him a chance at life my mom and sister will never have.
The NGI decision was a verdict in the murderer’s best interest, and the murderer’s best interest only. Certainly not mine or my family’s—for me, that verdict was a kick in the belly. A kick to the same place previously gutted by Jacob Cayer.
Had the jury decided that he was cognizant of the wrongfulness of his actions, and NOT NGI, he most certainly would have been sentenced to the maximum penalty for two counts of 1st Degree Intentional Homicide and one count 1st Degree Attempted Homicide:
Life in prison with no possibility for parole.
In the End
Last year, a lady—another victim of violence failed by the justice system—shared with me her story, and afterwards, these words:
“Give ’em hell,” she said.
“I will,” I promised her.
But I can’t do it by myself. I am asking you now, the community, to please help.
I am the last living member of my family of origin. I am the bearer of their past and their legacy for the future. I am the body who bears the trauma of Sunny and Sabrina’s deaths every anniversary, every birthday, every holiday. It is my reality and my reality alone. Because it was me, last Mother’s Day, who was gifted with the repeated, visceral sensations of my skull being smashed and blood running down my face.
The Sarama I became in 2016 still looms large against the confines of my skin, pressing against my flesh, and in so many ways, I will continue living what she lived.
“The pain and horror and butchery,” I told my therapist this last May, “only ended when they died. The only silver lining I have about their murders is that they died from their murders.”
“I know,” she said. As a homicide survivor herself, she knows that there is much that cannot be comforted away. “But,” she continued, “it is important to remember the whole story, not just the one part. When you remember how they died, make sure to remember how they lived, too. He can’t take away the beauty of their lives. That belongs to you, now. And he doesn’t get to take you, too. Not all, and not anymore of you.” She smiled at me. A caring, but rueful smile.
“Remember,” she continued. “They are so much more than how they died. That part is over for them.”
But this part—this seeking justice part—is not over for me. Because on August 13, 2020, it was shown that no one will hold Jacob Cayer accountable for his violence the way I will, and the way I do. I will keep fighting. I have to. They are my mom and sister. I don’t know how to do anything else.
I am asking you now, to please help.
Share this post and spread the word.
Help by remembering what the Inhuman did, who he took, and what is at stake should he ever be released. This a call to arms.
Join us in #JusticeForSabsAndSunny
With sincere gratitude,