HAYWARD, Wis.—Relatives of a man being held in the deadly shooting of six deer hunters say they are just as stunned and bewildered by the incident as authorities investigating the case.
Thick glass prevented Chai Vang from any contact with family members during a brief visit Monday at Sawyer County Jail. They spoke via telephone, mixing English with the native language of Hmong immigrants from Laos.
“I still don’t believe it,” the suspect’s brother, Sang Vang, said. “He is one of the nicest persons. . . Maybe something provoked him or something. He is a reasonable person.”
Charges had not been filed against 36-year-old Chai Vang, of St. Paul, Minn., as of Monday night.
Vang is accused of opening fire on several hunters Sunday with a semiautomatic assault rifle, leaving six people dead and two wounded, authorities said.
“I just don’t think any of this makes sense,” Sawyer County Sheriff Jim Meier said.
Meier told reporters a dispute over Vang’s use of a tree stand on private property preceded the gunfire. Killed were Robert Crotteau, 42; his son Joey, 20; Al Laski, 43; Mark Roidt, 28; and Jessica Willers, 27.
Denny Drew, 55, died Monday at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Marshfield, his family announced. Two others remained hospitalized with gunshot wounds.
Officials said the victims were part of a group of 14 or 15 who made their opening-weekend trip to Robert Crotteau’s 400-acre property an annual tradition.
“This was his first time out with that group. He was delighted to be invited,” said Karen Roidt, whose son was killed.
Suspect threatened to kill his wife
Some Hmong leaders questioned whether racial differences may have figured in the shootings; authorities have not determined a motive.
Minneapolis police said they arrested Vang on Christmas Eve 2001 after he waved a gun and threatened to kill his wife. No charge was brought because she didn’t cooperate with authorities, spokesman Ron Reier said. Police in St. Paul said there had been two domestic violence calls to his home in the past year, but both were resolved without incident.
Sang Vang said his family was devastated, and that his brother has lived in the United States for more than 20 years and is a U.S. Army veteran.
Vang’s mother, who does not speak English, declined comment through an interpreter Monday night.
“This is an incredible tragedy, one in which a great family tradition like a deer hunt has turned into such a great loss,” Gov. Jim Doyle said. There have been previous clashes between Southeast Asian and white hunters in the region.
In Minnesota, a fistfight once broke out after Hmong hunters crossed onto private land, said Ilean Her, director of the St. Paul-based Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans.
Racial tension after shooting
Vang’s arrest left some Hmong citizens in his hometown fearful of a backlash. About 24,000 Hmong live in St. Paul, the highest concentration of any U.S. city. And the shooting has already provoked racial tension in an area of Wisconsin where deer hunting is steeped in tradition.
Locals in the Birchwood area, about 120 miles northeast of the Twin Cities, have complained that the Hmong, refugees from Laos, do not understand the concept of private property and hunt wherever they see fit.
Activist Michael Yang said various Hmong groups on Monday held an emergency meeting to discuss how to respond.
But, Minnesota state Sen. Mee Moua rejected the idea that cultural differences played any role in the shooting.
“We’re all just speculating that may have been a trigger for him,” said Moua, who is Hmong. “We’re all searching for answers.”
Moua added that Hmong-Americans feel racism on a daily basis, but “that doesn’t mean you kill people.”
Ted Gregory, John McCormick and Glenn Jeffers, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 23
HAYWARD, Wis.—Even before the deadly shooting rampage began, a hunter had taken note of the license number on the back of Chai Vang’s blaze-orange jacket, a detail he scribbled on some dust that covered one of their all-terrain vehicles.
Although the hunters planned to use it as part of a trespassing complaint, the number ultimately helped authorities identify Vang, 36, of St. Paul, as the suspect in a shooting spree Sunday afternoon in Wisconsin’s north woods.
On the opening weekend of the deer-hunting season, the shootings left six hunters dead—five died Sunday and a sixth was pronounced dead Monday.
The incident also raised fears of increased cultural clashes between Hmong and other hunters, tensions that have simmered in Wisconsin and Minnesota for years.
In their first formal account of the incident, authorities said Monday that Vang, who received military training in his homeland of Laos, fired about 20 rounds at the hunters from his semiautomatic SKS military-style rifle, even knocking two from their all-terrain vehicles as they approached the scene.
Vang had not been charged Monday. He is set to appear before a judge Tuesday for a probable-cause hearing.
The six people killed were part of a group of more than a dozen hunters staying in lodges on wooded property near the town of Meteor in northwest Wisconsin. The gathering was an annual tradition that marked the opening weekend of Wisconsin’s deer-hunting season.
On Sunday afternoon, two or three men from the group spotted a man in their hunting platform up in a tree.
Vang, who was apparently lost and separated from his own hunting party, had wandered onto a 400-acre tract of private land. While the land is clearly marked as private, it is surrounded by public land.
After the hunters told Vang to leave, he descended from the tree. Authorities said he walked about 40 yards away, removed the scope from his rifle and began firing.
Sawyer County Sheriff James Meier said there is evidence that Vang, a naturalized citizen, was “moving around” as he stalked his victims.
“I can only assume by the location of the bodies and the type of woods they were in, that he would have had to be moving around in order to inflict that kind of damage on that many people,” Meier said.
Authorities say they continued to assemble evidence to determine what occurred during the shooting. But gaps remain about what transpired on the remote land set amid a mature forest, rolling hills and scattered streams.
Meier said shots were exchanged between Vang and the other hunters. But it remains unclear whether Vang had been provoked in any way.
“Whether or not words were said, nothing justifies what the response has been here,” said Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, who attended a news conference here and met with family members of the victims.
5 victims from area
Five victims were from the Rice Lake, Wis., area, where the mood Monday was both mournful and devastated.
“A lot of hunters’ morale around here is really low,” said Jay Koenig, 40, an avid deer hunter from Rice Lake. “They don’t really feel the joyous time that the hunting season is around here.”
Authorities identified the dead as Robert Crotteau, 42, and his son, Joey, 20; Al Laski, 43; Mark Roidt, 28; and Jessica Willers, 27.
A sixth person died Monday, but authorities had not released his name. Two additional hunters, including Jessica Willers’ father, Terry Willers, remained hospitalized Monday.
“It’s just surreal,” said Linda Levan, the sister of Al Laski. “It’s a tragedy that all these individuals are faced with. It’s pure tragedy.”
Authorities said the first three victims were apparently taken by surprise and the five others were hit as they came to help. They described Vang, who reportedly asked a pair of hunters for a ride out of the woods after the alleged shooting, as “extremely calm” when he was arrested without resistance about 5:30 p.m. Sunday, roughly five hours after the shootings.
“I just don’t think any of this makes sense,” Meier said. “The demeanor makes no sense. The action makes no sense.”
Radio stations in the Twin Cities crackled with callers on Monday who suggested the shootings might stem from cultural differences between Hmong and white hunters.
There are roughly 74,000 Hmong residents in Wisconsin and Minnesota, according to the 2000 census. The two states have been key destinations for the Hmong since the mid-1970s, when local churches and social organizations sponsored them after they fled their homeland of Laos.
The Hmong assisted the U.S. during the Vietnam War era and were persecuted for their actions. Many fled to neighboring Thailand, then waited for a chance to get to the U.S.
Hmong communities have continued to grow in St. Paul and Minneapolis, as well as the Wisconsin communities of Eau Claire, Wausau and Green Bay.
Complaints not unusual
Hunting complaints between the two cultures are nothing new. Hmong hunters routinely report being harassed by white hunters, while both Minnesota and Wisconsin have Hmong conservation officers who work to improve the population’s understanding of hunting and fishing regulations.
Hunting and fishing was an integral but unregulated part of life for many Hmong in Laos.
Complaints have been made that the former refugees, who often can’t read English or their native language, sometimes fail to comply with hunting regulations and wildlife management practices.
Hmong outdoorsman have been accused of hunting without a license and filling car trunks full of dozens more fish than allowed within legal limits.
Hmong hunters, meanwhile, say they are often the targets of harassment by whites, who sometimes suggest the Hmong shouldn’t compete for hunting land.
“There are a lot of stories of harassment,” said Lee Pao Xiong of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul.
Xiong said Hmong leaders gathered in St. Paul on Monday to discuss the potential for backlash against their community. The group is planning a news conference Tuesday morning.
“We don’t know what really happened,” Xiong said. “We need to suspend all judgment until there is clear evidence of what happened.”
Xiong said he was harassed a few years ago while hunting for squirrels in Minnesota. He said a group of teenagers drove up to his camp in two cars and started making harassing comments, including suggesting that Hmong were there to hunt family cats and dogs.
“We’ve gone hunting and been harassed by groups in the woods while hunting legally,” he said. “You can easily feel threatened.”
Mike Bartz, a regional warden for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said Vang had received a deer hunting license in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004. There were no hunting violations on Vang’s record.
Bartz downplayed suggestions that cultural differences may have played a role in the shooting.
“I’m sure there are some tensions there, just like there are between any two groups,” he said. “But this is an individual act.”
Relatives told the Associated Press that Vang was a father of six and had once served with the U.S. Army.
“Maybe something provoked him or something,” said his brother, Sang. “He is a reasonable person. I still don’t believe it. He is one of the nicest persons. I don’t believe he could do that. We are so devastated right now.”
Relatives of the victims struggled to cope with their loss.
“We’re still in shock,” said Mark Roidt’s sister, Heather. “It’s hard to comprehend.”
Mark Roidt worked for Burnell’s Decor in Rice Lake installing wood flooring. He hunted with his father every Thanksgiving while growing up in Waterford, Wis., his sister said.
Vang had been arrested once before, on Christmas Eve 2001 in Minneapolis, after brandishing a gun and telling his wife he was going to kill her, said Ron Reier, a spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Department.
He was arrested on a felony complaint of domestic assault, Reier said. After being held for at least 36 hours in that incident, Reier said Vang was released after his wife declined to cooperate with authorities.