BIRCHWOOD, Wis. – As several deer hunters made their way through the woods of northern Wisconsin, they came upon a stranger in their tree stand.
When asked to leave, the trespasser, wearing blaze-orange and carrying a semiautomatic assault rifle, opened fire and didn't stop until his 20-round clip was empty, killing six people and wounding two, authorities said.
The alleged shooter was eventually captured.
Police identified him as Chai Soua Vang (search), 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.
No one answered the door Monday at Vang's yellow, two-story house in a working-class neighborhood of St. Paul (search). 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.
Family members said they were shocked by the allegations in the hunting shooting.
"Maybe something provoked him or something. He is a reasonable person," said Sang Vang, 33, the suspect's brother. "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."
He said Vang is a father of six who served in the U.S. Army. Deu Khang (search), 37, who identified herself as Vang's "cultural" wife, said she was in shock.
"We don't really know what went wrong. We don't know," she 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.
The visit was like any other until around noon Sunday.
When the two or three hunters spotted a man in their hunting platform in a tree, they radioed back to the rest of the party at a nearby cabin, and asked who should be there.
"The answer was nobody should be in the deer stand," Sawyer County Sheriff James Meier said Monday.
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.
There was no indication why.
One of the men who was shot called for help on his radio, but it was too late. The suspect opened fire again, hitting the people who had just arrived on ATVs.
The suspect was "chasing after them and killing them," Sawyer County Chief Deputy Tim Zeigle said. "He hunted them down is what he did."
About 20 shots were fired, but it's unclear whether anyone returned fire. 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.
One victim saw the suspect's hunting license number pinned to his blaze-orange jacket and traced the number into a dusty ATV, Meier said.
Five people died at the scene, and the rescuers left them behind.
They were Crotteau, 42; his son Joey, 20; Al Laski, 43; Mark Roidt, 28; and Jessica Willers, 27; all from Barron County.
A sixth victim, Denny Drew, 55, of Rice Lake, died at from his wounds at St. Joseph's Hospital in Marshfield, his family announced Monday night. Two others remained hospitalized with gunshot wounds.
Vang, the alleged shooter, took off into the woods and eventually came upon two other hunters who hadn't heard about the shootings. Vang told them he was lost, and they offered him a ride up to a warden's truck, Meier said.
A warden recognized Vang's license number and apprehended him, Meier said.
The magazine on his SKS 7.62 caliber rifle, a cheap but powerful semiautomatic weapon that's good for a distance shot, was already empty.
Ilean Her, director of the St. Paul-based Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, said she heard Monday from some people in the city's Hmong community who said they knew Vang, though not well.
"They said he loves to hunt," Her said. "He is a hunting zealot."
Meier said Vang was only 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 the past Minnesota officials have reported some clashes between Southeast Asian and white hunters, who complain the former refugees don't understand the concept of private property. Authorities said they had not determined whether that played a role in Sunday's shooting.
Vang, a naturalized citizen, spoke good English and investigators said he was cooperating with them. The sheriff said he was "extremely calm."
In the Northwoods, where Wisconsin's deer hunt is steeped in tradition and pride, there were already signs of racial tension.
"I don't know what's wrong with everything. It's pathetic. They let all these foreigners in here, and they walk all over everybody's property," said Jim Arneberg, the owner of the Haugen Inn in nearby Haugen.
Minnesota state Sen. Mee Moua, one of two Hmong legislators there, rejected the idea that cultural differences played any role in the shooting.
"He's probably crazy," she said.
The mother of one of the victims, Roidt, said her son had gone deer hunting since he was 12, but this was his first time out with this group.
"He was delighted to be invited," Karen Roidt said of her son. "He's been an avid outdoorsman — snowmobiles, four-wheels, races cars, mudding and hunting. He was very on-the-go, very active."
Jim Hill, the owner of Village Grocery in Haugen, estimated that three-quarters of the men in the area go hunting. Four-wheelers drive down the town's one street, and hunters step in and out of the grocery store in their hunting gear.
Hill said disputes over tree stands are common in the woods. He's often walked out to one of his stands to find somebody else there. Hill calls the sheriff when they won't leave.
Sheriff Meier said the shootings made no sense. "The demeanor makes no sense. The action makes no sense."