On November 21, 2004, Chai Vang, a naturalized Hmong American originally from Laos, shot 8 people while on a hunting trip in Northern Wisconsin. Despite claiming self defense, he was convicted of all 6 murders and is still imprisoned at the Anamosa State Penitentiary.
BACKGROUND AND MURDERS
Vang's father had served in a "secret war" that was funded and organized by the CIA that actively recruited the Hmong in Laos. Their goal was to disrupt supply routes going form Laos to Vietnam during the Vietnam War. After the United States made the decision to withdraw troops in 1972, Vang and his family were able to escape the Hmong genocide, which was done in retaliation for the Hmong assisting the United States in the war. Many Hmong were left behind and killed, while others were able to escape to the U.S.
The Vang family was among those lucky families, who relocated to the U.S. in 1980 and settled in California. They lived in Sacramento, and when Vang was old enough, he enlisted in the California National Guard.
Sometime around 2000, Vang and his 7 children moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. He was an avid hunter.
On the weekend of the shootings, Vang had planned a trip to go deer hunting with 2 friends and their 2 sons in northwest Wisconsin, where deer hunting is pretty popular. The exact sequence of events of the day isn't 100% known, but it is believed that they began their hunting trip on public land, but ended up going to a 400-acre plot of private land.
On Sunday, November 21, a hunting party of nearly 15 people were in a cabin on this private land they were on. One of those people was Terry Willers, one of the co-owners of the land. When he left his cabin, he saw Vang up in a deer stand that belonged to him. He used his handheld radio to ask if anyone in the cabin had left someone up in the stand, to which they responded no. And so he approached Vang and asked that he leave his property.
Reportedly, Vang apologized and started moving south towards a trail on the property. The group continued to radio back and forth, some going out to the tree stand, to see what was going on. (From the reports I'm reading, it seemed like he was leaving and was no longer causing any trouble.) One of the people from the cabin, Bob, said he was going to go talk to him to find out who he was, and why he was there. He just wanted to let him know that he was on private property and wasn't welcomed. At this point, it doesn't seem like anyone truly thought he was a threat, just a "tree-rat", as Terry described him.
Because most of the people who witnessed the altercation died, and Vang has stuck to his sequence of events the whole time, what happened next is a little bit fuzzy. Essentially, a few of the guys got on an ATV and started driving toward Vang to confront him. There was a moment of contact when one of the guys flipped over the hunting tag on Vang's back to get his license number so they could report him. That's when things turned violent.
4 of the 8 victims were shot in the back, indicating that they likely weren't a huge threat to him. 3 of those 4 were hit by multiple rounds. It is believed that Vang shot around 20 rounds.
The victims were all a part of the group of 15, a group who made an annual opening-weekend trip to the property owned by Willers and another family, the Crotteau's. Among the victims were Robert and Joey Crotteau, a father and son, and Jessica Willers, Terry's 27-year-old daughter. Alan Laski, Mark Roidt, and Denny Drew were also killed in the incident. Terry Willers was shot, but only wounded, along with Lauren Hesebeck. The victims ranged in ages from 20 to 55 years old.
It is impossible to know exactly what happened given the amount of conflicting reports. According to Vang, one of the hunters, Terry Willers, took the first shot at him. And so, he began shooting back in self defense. However, no shell casing was ever recovered from Terry's gun. The only shot ever found from the other side was from Lauren Hesebeck, who admitted to firing a single shot after Vang had already started shooting. Additional analysis of Terry's gun was not performed.
The major conflicting statements come from Lauren (it doesn't matter, but Lauren is a man) and Vang. They both agree that Vang removed the scope from his rifle before firing the first shot. But Vang stated that race was a big factor in the case, alleging that, during the initial verbal dispute, some of the hunters called him racial slurs that I won't repeat here. On the stand, Lauren admitted that Robert Crotteau had called Vang a "Hmong asshole". Additionally, Lauren admitted on the stand that Robert had issue with trespassers in the past, especially Hmong hunters who would often travel to Wisconsin from Minnesota to hunt.
The prosecution planned to argue that, given the shots in the back (and for some victims, multiple shots) that it was likely not self defense.
Chai Vang's trial began on September 10, 2005. Jurors were sequestered for the duration of the trial.
In his testimony, Vang told the jury that he feared for his life. He said he only began firing after another hunter's shot nearly hit him. He told the jurors how the other hunters had approached him in a large group. But despite arguing self defense, he did admit that he shot 2 of the victims in the back because they were disrespectful. He detailed how he killed each one of the 6 victims, and said on the stand that 3 of the hunters deserved to die.
He said that Robert Crotteau deserved to die, and so did his son, Joseph, who "accused me of giving him the finger and tried to cut in front of me to stop me from leaving." And lastly, he said that Alan Laski deserved to die because he had a gun. However, some argued that the language barrier is why he responded affirmatively to the question, "Did X deserve to die?" They argued that perhaps he meant that the men may have contributed to the circumstances that ultimately led to their deaths, rather than a cold admittance that they deserved them.
On September 16, 2005, Vang was found guilty of all 6 murder charges, and 3 attempted homicide charges. He was sentenced to 6 consecutive life terms plus 70 years, all without parole.
Vang's family took the news very hard. "I cannot hold my tears," said Nou Cher Vang, his 77-year-old grandfather. He had hoped that his grandson would care for him in his final years, but now, says he will "die like an animal" as no one will be there to take care of him. Others remembered him as a "laid-back person", choosing kindness over violence and acting as a role model and mentor.
When their father died, Vang stepped up. "I cried and missed my father very much, but er knew we had Chai as the oldest son in the family, so he would lead us." She extended condolences to those who have died, while making it clear that the Vang family was also suffering. She believes his story, that he was first shot at, and he genuinely did what he believed he had to do to survive.
Of course, though of course the Vang family is suffering because of the loss of their loved one to prison, there were (and are) a lot of people suffering because of the loss of 6 people to his actions.
Robert and Joseph Crotteau, father and son, were "two peas in a pod" said Robert's yonger brother at their funeral. Joseph was the youngest victim in the attack. "We are going to miss Joe's smile, his laugh, every comment he had to make," his friend Alex Drost said during the funeral, reminiscing on times spent hunting and snowmobiling together.
Alan Laski was a lover of the outdoors who was always fishing and hunting. He left behind his wife, 2 daughters, and a son. Jessica Willers was a nurse who was engaged to be married. Denny Drew was a car salesman, the oldest victim of the attack. His friend, Mark Roidt, was the last victim.
All of these people were loved. Children, husbands, friends, and parents, who died that day by Chai Vang's gun. Robert, Joseph, Alan, and Jessica were all shot in the back. So, were they at fault?
It is tough to say. A lot of evidence points toward Vang's guilt. They were shot in the back. He said 3 of them deserved to die. He was the one on private property in the first place, and there was no evidence that anyone else had shot at him. But is it that cut and dry? Not trying to generalize hunters here, but specifically the hunters I know are not always the most tolerant group of people. Is there a chance that they antagonized him based on race, and perhaps it was exacerbated because of it? Sure. Is there a chance that someone did shoot at him, and it was never found? Absolutely. Is it possible that his cold remarks on the stand were because of a language barrier? Yes. All of these things could have happened. And I don't think we will ever know exactly what went down.
If Vang was truly shooting in self defense, I feel for him. I can't imagine spending my life in prison for a crime I felt like I had to commit to be alive, and to have the deaths of 6 people on my conscious. But realistically, I think it is more likely that he was absolutely antagonized by the hunters, but ended up shooting in a rage, not in self defense. And jail is really the only solution for that.
Rest in peace to the 6 victims.