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Autumn tradition turns deadly in Wisconsin

Five dead after hunters become the hunted; Minnesota man held

Terrell Boettcher / AP

A police officer interviews witnesses in northwestern Wisconsin, where a dispute between deer hunters over a tree stand erupted in gunfire Sunday. 

Nov. 22: A Minnesota man is suspected of shooting the five deer hunters in rural Wisconsin. NBC’s Pat Dawson reports.

Today show

The Associated Press

Updated: 9:45 p.m. ET Nov. 22, 2004BIRCHWOOD, Wis. - As several deer hunters made their way through the woods of northern Wisconsin, they were startled to come upon a stranger in their tree stand. But what happened next was even more astonishing. advertisement

Asked to leave, the trespasser, wearing blaze-orange and carrying a semiautomatic assault rifle, opened fire on the hunters and didn’t stop until his 20-round clip was empty, leaving five people dead and three wounded, authorities said.

The shooter was eventually captured.

The killings baffled authorities and stunned residents in a state where deer hunting is a rite of autumn — a sport practiced by thousands of people who scour the woods for nine days each November with hopes of bagging a trophy buck.

“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 Monday.

Police identified the shooter as Chai Vang, 36, a hunter from St. Paul, Minn., who is a member of the Twin Cities’ Hmong community.

While authorities do not know why he allegedly opened fire, there have been previous clashes between Southeast Asian and white hunters in the region.

Cultural clash

Locals have complained that the Hmong, refugees from Laos, do not understand the concept of private property and hunt wherever they see fit. 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.

No one answered the door Monday at Vang’s yellow, two-story house in a working-class neighborhood of St. Paul. A cardboard container for a hunting tree stand, an orange stocking cap and bottles of water could be seen through the windows of a front entryway. Several neighbors said they knew little about him, but some in the Hmong community have described him as an avid hunter.

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. St. Paul police say they were called to Vang’s house twice in the past year on domestic violence calls, but both were resolved without incident and no police reports were filed.

Other family members said they were shocked by the allegations in the hunting shooting.

“He is a reasonable person,” his younger brother, Sang Vang, said. “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.”

The five killed and three wounded 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.

The visit was like any other until around noon Sunday. When two or three hunters spotted a man in their hunting platform in a tree on Crotteau’s land, they radioed back to the rest of the party at a cabin nearby, and asked who should be there.

“The answer was nobody should be in the deer stand,” Sheriff James Meier said.

One of the men approached the intruder and asked him to leave, as Crotteau and the others in the cabin hopped on their all-terrain vehicles and headed to the scene.

“The suspect got down from the deer stand, walked 40 yards, fiddled with his rifle. He took the scope off his rifle, he turned and he opened fire on the group,” Meier said.

'He hunted them down'

One of the men who was shot called for help on his radio, but it was too late. The gunman fired again, hitting the people who had just arrived on ATVs.

The gunman was “chasing after them and killing them,” Deputy Tim Zeigle said. “He hunted them down.”

It is unclear whether anyone returned fire. The members of the hunting party had only one gun among them.

The scene Meier described was one of carnage, the bodies strewn around 100 feet apart. Rescuers from the cabin piled the living onto their vehicles and headed out of the thick woods.

“They grabbed who they could grab and got out of there because they were still under fire,” Meier said.

Someone in the group wrote the suspect’s hunting license number, which hunters wear on their clothing, by tracing it on a dirty vehicle, Meier said.

The shooter took off into the woods and eventually came upon two other hunters who had not heard about the shootings. Vang told them he was lost, and they offered him a ride to a warden’s truck, Meier said. He was then arrested; authorities plan to bring charges against him later this week. Investigators said Vang was cooperating.

Vang was carrying an SKS 7.62-mm caliber rifle, a cheap but powerful semiautomatic weapon, authorities said.

'A fairly cheap weapon'

Mike Bartz, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s regional warden supervisor for the area, said the SKS is legal for hunting in the state and has no restrictions. He said it is not uncommon to see hunters with the guns.

“We see more and more of them being used. They’re a fairly cheap weapon. They fire a cartridge very similar to a .30-30, which is a very common weapon used for deer hunting,” Bartz said.

Killed were Crotteau, 42; his son Joey, 20; Al Laski, 43; Mark Roidt, 28; and Jessica Willers, 27.

Meier said Vang was on the wrong tree stand because he had become lost and wandered unknowingly onto private property. The county has thousands of acres of public hunting land.

In Minnesota, the arrest has left some Hmong citizens in his hometown fearful of a backlash. About 24,000 Hmong (pronounced “mung”) live in St. Paul, the highest concentration of any U.S. city.

In Wisconsin, the shooting has provoked a different kind of tension.

“It’s pathetic. They let all these foreigners in here, and they walk all over everybody’s property,” said Jim Arneberg, owner of the Haugen Inn in nearby Haugen.

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