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|Born||Chai Soua Vang
September 24, 1968
|Criminal penalty||Six consecutive life terms plus seventy years|
|Date||November 21, 2004|
|Location(s)||Meteor, Wisconsin, U.S.|
|Weapons||7.62×39mm caliber SKS rifle|
Chai Soua Vang (born September 24, 1968) is a Hmong American from Laos who was convicted of murder. Vang, a six-year veteran of the California National Guard, shot eight people while on a hunting trip in northern Wisconsin on November 21, 2004; six were killed and two were wounded.
Although Vang acknowledged that he committed a shooting, there is significant dispute regarding the chain of events that caused the situation to become violent, with evidence indicating that Vang was being followed and called racial slurs by the shooting victims. Vang, who lived in Saint Paul, Minnesota at the time of the shootings, is imprisoned at the Anamosa State Penitentiary.
Vang's father served in a secret war that was funded and organized by the CIA that recruited the Hmongs in Laos to disrupt supply routes going in Laos to Vietnam during the Vietnam War. General Vang Pao was the leader of this army and was seen as a father figure to the Hmongs. After the United States made the decision to withdraw troops in 1972, Vang and his family escaped the Hmong genocide that was ordered by Pathet Laos to "exterminate the Hmong down to the last root" in retaliation for the Hmongs assisting the United States. Many Hmongs were able to make it to the U.S. however thousands of the Hmongs were left behind and were killed. Vang and his siblings relocated to the United States in 1980 and settled in California. Vang lived in Sacramento and eventually enlisted in the California National Guard.
Vang moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota sometime around 2000. A few years later, he and his family moved to the neighboring city of St. Paul.
On the weekend of the shootings, Vang went out deer hunting with two friends and their two sons in northwest Wisconsin, a region where deer hunting is particularly popular, east of Birchwood, Wisconsin around the town of Meteor. Meteor extends over a large sparsely populated area. The land in the area is a mix of public and private. It is believed that Vang and his friends began their day on public land, but he later went onto a private 400 acre (1.6 km²) tract of land.
On Sunday, November 21, a hunting party of about 15 people were in a cabin on this private land. Terry Willers, one of the two co-owners of the land, left the cabin and saw Vang sitting in a deer stand. He used a handheld radio to ask the people still in the cabin whether or not anyone should be in the stand. Upon receiving a response in the negative, he approached Vang and told him to leave the property. Vang then apologized and started moving south towards a trail through a forested area of the property. According to Terry Willer's testimony, "As Bob got back on the radio and asked me where he was at and I said, uh, he's heading south down on the food plot right now. I radioed in to the cabin that I had a tree-rat and I had chased him off." At that point five of the hunters from the cabin who had heard the radio message arrived at the tree stand. Lauren Hesebeck a surviving victim stated, "Bob had said I'm going to go talk to him to find out who he is, why he's there, and make sure he doesn't, you know, knows that he's on private property and that he's not welcomed there. Denny had said to me this ought to be interesting, let's go and see what's going on. We got in the back of it standing up (ATV), hanging on the rear bar."After following the directions given by Willers, they proceeded to approach Vang further down the trail. Crotteau then suggested making a note of his hunting license number to make a report to the DNR and, according to Hesebeck's testimony, Crotteau "flipped over the hunting tag on Vang's back to get his license number".
The events after the confrontation are disputed. A violent altercation broke out and four of the eight victims were shot in the back, and three of these four were hit by multiple rounds. Vang is believed to have fired about 20 rounds from a black SKS rifle chambered in 7.62×39mm, which was recovered by police. One of the wounded hunters died the next day, bringing the toll to six dead and two wounded.
Vang fled the scene on foot and discarded his remaining ammunition, later stating that he did not want to shoot anyone else. Vang eventually came across another hunter riding an ATV (who had no affiliation with the victims), and this hunter offered to give Vang a ride, eventually taking him to Vang's cabin. Vang was arrested when he returned to his cabin five hours after the shooting. An officer waiting for Vang placed him into custody and transported him to the Sawyer County Jail. His bail was set at $2.5 million.
The victims were part of a group of about 15 people who made an annual opening-weekend trip to the Crotteau-Willers property. Among those killed were father and son Robert and Joey Crotteau and Willers' daughter Jessica Willers.
Those who were killed:
- Robert Crotteau, 42
- Joey Crotteau, 20
- Alan Laski, 43
- Mark Roidt, 28
- Jessica Willers, 27
- Denny Drew, 55
Those who were wounded:
- Lauren Hesebeck, 48
- Terry Willers, 47
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There have been conflicting reports about what may have led to the shootings. According to subsequent oral statements by Vang, one of the local hunters, Terry Willers, took the first shot at him from about 100 feet (30 m) away, and therefore the shootings were in self-defense. No shell casing was ever recovered from Willers' gun even though during the trial Hesebeck admitted to firing a single shot later during the incident when Vang, noticing that Hesebeck was still alive, fired at him again. Hesebeck testified no shot was fired before Vang started shooting. Additional forensic analysis of Willers' gun was not performed by the local law enforcement. The statements of both Vang and Hesebeck state that Vang removed the scope from his rifle before firing his first shot. Vang stated that race was a factor, alleging that during the verbal dispute, some of the local hunters yelled out racial slurs at him such as "chink" and "gook". On the stand, Hesebeck admitted that Robert Crotteau had called Vang a "Hmong a--hole". Hesebeck also admitted that he told law enforcement that Robert Crotteau had problems with trespassers in the past, specifically citing Hmong hunters, who often travel to Wisconsin from Minnesota to hunt. The term "Mud Duck" is often used in Western Wisconsin to refer to Minnesota residents, similar to "Cheesehead" being used to describe Wisconsin residents. Willers used this term to describe Chai Vang when he radioed back to the cabin. Though the term does not necessarily have a racial connotation, the defense argued that it did, due to the fact that Willers and the others did not know at the time that Vang was from Minnesota.
The criminal complaint states that Vang shot four of the victims in the back, and Vang himself admits he shot one victim in the back. He also shot many of the victims multiple times. The prosecution made use of these facts in arguing against the claim of self-defense.
The trial of Chai Soua Vang began Saturday, September 10, 2005 in Sawyer County Courthouse. All fourteen jurors (ten white women and four white men) were selected from Dane County, Wisconsin, and bused about 280 miles (450 km) northwest to Sawyer County, where they were sequestered.
Vang told the jury he feared for his life and began firing only after another hunter's shot nearly hit him. He detailed for the jurors how the other hunters approached him, and how he responded by shooting at each one. He says he shot two of the victims in the back because they were "disrespectful". He recounted with clarity how he killed each victim. While saying on the stand, "(he wished) it wasn't happening," Vang contended that three of the hunters deserved to die:
"Did Mr. Crotteau deserve to die?" Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager asked.
"Yes," Chai Soua Vang replied.
Vang further testified that Joseph Crotteau deserved to die "because he accused me of giving him the finger and tried to cut in front of me to stop me from leaving." And Laski deserved to die because he had a gun, he said. Vang re-enacted his deeds while on the stand, using his hands and arms to imitate the motions of firing a rifle. Vang's lawyers commented that some of his abnormal remarks were due to the language barrier. Therefore, when Vang responded affirmatively to the question that Mr. Crotteau and Mr. Laski "deserved to die," his meaning implied that the men contributed to the circumstances that led to their deaths.
On September 16, 2005, Chai Soua Vang was found guilty of all six charges of first degree intentional homicide and three charges of attempted homicide by a jury of eight women and four men. On November 8, 2005, he was sentenced to six consecutive life terms plus seventy years (forty for two counts of attempted homicide plus five additional years for each count of homicide in the first degree); a sentence of life without parole. At the time, Wisconsin was one of 12 states in the United States that did not have the death penalty.
The shooting and subsequent trial attracted nationwide attention. It has been reported that some Hmong Americans, like some other groups of Americans, do not fully understand American law regarding hunting. In their homeland, the Hmong had a different hunting culture, and most lands were government-owned and therefore open to subsistence hunting, as in other third world countries. Regional officials in Wisconsin and Minnesota have focused on educating Hmong hunters on private property rights to diminish the risk of future conflicts.
Custom Now, a store in the River Hills Mall, began selling bumper stickers saying, "Save a deer, shoot a Mung." After receiving complaints about the racist nature of the stickers, the store soon stopped selling them. Sometime later that year after the shooting, Chai Vang's home was burned down; the fire was deemed to be suspicious due to graffiti being found with profane language on the concrete blocks by the home, but it was never investigated further.
It was speculated that the killing of another Hmong individual, a 30-year-old man named Cha Vang, by James Nichols was influenced by the trial of Chai Vang. Cha Vang was shot with a shotgun, stabbed six times in the face and neck, and had his corpse hidden in the woods. Before killing Vang, Nichols made statements that Hmong people are "mean", "bad", and "go for anything that moves". His employer testified that two months before the killing, Nichols mentioned that he would have killed a Hmong hunter that he had seen in the woods if he had been carrying a shotgun. On October 6, 2007, an all-white jury found Nichols guilty of a lesser charge of second degree intentional homicide and sentenced him to 60 years in prison. "The message sent to the Hmong community is that someone can shoot a Hmong hunter and not get the maximum sentence," said Tou Ger Xiong, spokesman for the Coalition for Community Relations in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Chai Vang's military experience
- Six years in the California National Guard, 1989–1995
- Sharpshooter qualification badge (mid-level, above "Marksman")
- Good Conduct medal
- Ashley H. Grant (November 24, 2004). "Shooting suspect had Army sharpshooting badge,"[permanent dead link] Duluth News Tribune/Associated Press. Accessed November 27, 2004.
- "Victims in the Shootings That Killed Six Deer Hunters," Duluth News Tribune/Associated Press. Posted on Sep. 04,2005.
- Kevin Harter "Vang Tells His Story," Pioneer Press, (September 16, 2005).
- "Hmong Hunters Are Up For a New Season," Asian Week, (November 11, 2005).
- "Chai Vang moved to Iowa prison". Daily Planet. 25 April 2006. Retrieved 17 December 2015.
According to officials at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, Chai Vang was moved to an Iowa prison because of security concerns.
- Kinzer, Stephen (1 December 2004). "Hmong Hunter Charged With 6 Murders Is Said to Be a Shaman". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 December 2015.
- Imrie, Robert (14 September 2005). "Survivor of hunting clash testifies; Jury in Vang trial is told land owner 'was sick' of Hmong trespassers". Associated Press. Retrieved 16 November 2015.
- "Vang tells his story to Jury". St. Paul Pioneer Press. 16 September 2005.
- "Hunter receives life in prison for killing six men". NBC News. Associated Press. 11 August 2005. Retrieved 17 December 2015.
Judge Norman Yackel ordered Chai Soua Vang, 37, to serve six life prison terms, one after the other, guaranteeing he would never be freed from prison. Wisconsin does not have a death penalty ... Vang ... was convicted on six counts of first-degree intentional homicide and three counts of attempted homicide in the Nov. 21 slayings ... The judge also sentenced Vang to three concurrent terms of 40 years in prison on the attempted homicide charges.
- Kelleher, Bob (8 November 2005). "Reaching out to Hmong hunters". Minnesota Public Radio. Retrieved 17 December 2015.
Xiong says the Hmong came from a hunting culture, but with few legal restrictions. "We do not have the private land," Xiong says. "(It) is all government land. And there is no season out there. People can go hunting anytime. And any species ... they want to eat, can certainly shoot it and take it home" ... Xiong teaches a hunter safety course in Hmong. He explains property lines and no hunting signs, how to legally tag and register deer, and how to act around other hunters or property owners. Mike Bartz ... say[s] it's been necessary to find new ways to teach hunter safety.