Wis. slaying raises question of hate crime

Hmong community fears killing is revenge for 6 hunters' deaths

January 14, 2007|By New York Times News Service

GREEN BAY, Wis. --As with most unsolved killings, there are more questions than answers about why Cha Vang, a Hmong immigrant from Laos, was shot to death while hunting squirrels in the deep woods north of here last weekend.

But by far the biggest question for Vang's survivors and the greater Hmong community across Wisconsin and Minnesota is whether he was killed in retaliation for the shooting deaths of six white hunters two years ago by another Hmong, who, though unrelated, shared the same last name.

Many people fear that the answer is yes.

"I truly believe there must be some kind of racism or prejudice playing a role in someone getting shot on public land like that," said Lo Neng Kiatoukaysy, executive director of the Hmong-American Friendship Association in Milwaukee. "It needs to stop here and now."

Vang was memorialized at a candlelight vigil here Thursday night, five days after his body was found. His brother Yee Vang held a sign that read, in broken English, "The killer of my brother must responsible for what he did."

Law enforcement officials have not released major details of the case, and no one has been charged.

The officials did describe another hunter, James Allen Nichols, 28, of nearby Peshtigo, as a "person of interest" in the death, and they said he was being held on charges of a parole violation and firearms possession.

A convicted burglar, Nichols was arrested Jan. 6, when he went to a medical center with a gunshot wound.

The Hmong, struggling to maintain their patience, were further agitated last week when a woman saying she was Nichols' fiancee told a newspaper in Milwaukee and the Associated Press that he had called her from the woods and said he had attacked a man who did not speak English.

The woman, Dacia James, told reporters that Nichols had said that he "didn't know if he killed the guy," and that he had acted out of fear and self-defense. James did not return calls for comment.

As of Friday, law enforcement officials said it was not clear whether Nichols had legal representation. According to a criminal complaint from an earlier burglary, Nichols used red paint to scrawl a racial slur and the letters "KKK" in the cabin of a Wisconsin man. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He earned his high school equivalency diploma before his release in 2002.

A coordinator at the United Hmong Community Center here, Blong Vang, said James' account, and what is perceived as a less-than-speedy response from state and local officials, had begun to solidify concerns among the Hmong that the killing of Vang, 30, a recent immigrant with five children, was a hate crime and that they might not see timely justice for the killer.

Vang is a common Hmong surname.

Mayor Jim Schmitt of Green Bay held a candle in the frigid weather as he told 200 mourners: "I know there's some anger when bad things like this happen. We need to practice some patience and know that justice will be served in this matter."

The Hmong said they were doubtful about what to expect, given the history of misunderstanding and tension between them, relative newcomers from the mountainous regions of Laos, and the residents of the long-established communities into which they have immigrated across the North-Central states, most of whom are of European descent.

The Hmong were granted refugee status at the end of the Vietnam War in return for their service to Americans on and off the battlefield. A majority settled in Minnesota, around Minneapolis and St. Paul. About 40,000 went to Wisconsin, including 6,000 in the Green Bay region.

The Hmong and longtime residents share a love of hunting, and most of their clashes have occurred in the woods. In fall 2004, a group of hunters confronted Chai Soua Vang, a Hmong from St. Paul who, the police said, was hunting from a tree stand on their property in north-central Wisconsin. The police said that after Vang, a naturalized citizen, had been told to leave, he opened fire on the hunters, killing six. He is serving six consecutive life sentences.

After the shootings, many Hmong stopped hunting, fearful that their larger community would be held responsible for one man's crimes and that in the woods they could be easy targets.

While there were no reports of that happening, some Hmong said they faced a more insidious everyday type of discrimination. Restaurants and service station attendants often refused to serve them. Other that that, Hmong leaders said, things had been mostly quiet, until last weekend.

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