HAYWARD, Wis. – A Hmong (search) immigrant suspected of killing six fellow deer hunters in the Wisconsin woods told investigators that he opened fire after they took a shot at him first and hurled racial slurs at him, according to court papers filed Tuesday.
A judge set bail at $2.5 million for Chai Vang (search), 36, of St. Paul, Minn., who was jailed on suspicion of murder and attempted murder.
The shootings occurred Sunday after Vang climbed into a tree stand on private property and got into a confrontation with the landowner and members of his hunting party.
On Monday, authorities gave an account in which they made no mention of any of the victims taking the first shot. Instead, they said that after the other hunters told the trespasser to get out of the tree, Vang walked off, then wheeled and opened fire.
One of the witnesses, a hunter who was wounded in the shootings, gave a statement contradictory to Vang's. Lauren Hesebeck said a member of the hunting party shot at Vang only after he started firing at them, according to court documents.
A representative of Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, who is prosecuting the case, said she would not comment on the documents.
Vang, an immigrant from Laos (search), was arrested about four hours after the shootings as he emerged from the woods with his empty semiautomatic rifle. Five people died in the woods; a sixth died Monday in a hospital. Two others were wounded.
Vang's account was included in court documents that were used to convince a judge that there was probable cause to hold him on suspicion of murder.
According to Vang's story, he got lost while hunting on public land and ended up in the vacant tree stand -- a raised platform used by hunters to see deer and shoot down at them. Vang told investigators he did not realize he was on private property.
Landowner Terry Willers approached, asking why Vang was there and pointed out he was on private property. Vang said he told Willers he had not seen any "no trespassing" signs, climbed down from the stand and started to walk away. Authorities say Willers owns the land along with Robert Crotteau, one of the victims.
Vang said he heard Willers call on a walkie-talkie, and five or six men on all-terrain vehicles approached a few moments later. Vang said the group surrounded him, and some used racial slurs.
He said that he was told to get off the property, and as he started walking away, he turned back and saw Willers point a gun at him from about 100 feet away. He told investigators he immediately dropped to a crouch, and Willers shot at him, the bullet hitting the ground 30 to 40 feet behind Vang.
Vang said he removed the scope from his rifle and began firing, continuing to shoot as the group scattered. He said one of the victims, Joey Crotteau, tried to run away, but Vang chased him, got within 20 feet and shot him in the back. Crotteau, 20, was killed. Willers was wounded and was listed in fair condition Tuesday.
Vang said as he began to run, an ATV with two people drove past and he fired three or four times, causing both people to fall off the machine. He said that he looked up the trail, saw that one of the men was standing, yelled, "You're not dead yet?" and fired one more shot in the man's direction. He said he did not know if he hit the man or not.
Vang said he then ran away.
Authorities have said there was only one gun among the eight hunters.
There have been previous clashes between Southeast Asian and white hunters in the region. Hunters have complained the Hmong do not understand the concept of private property and hunt wherever they want. The tension once led to a fistfight in Minnesota, and a Hmong bow hunter in Wisconsin this fall reported having at least two white hunters point guns at him.
About 24,000 Hmong live in St. Paul, the highest concentration of any U.S. city. Hmong leaders condemned the shootings and offered condolences to victims' families.
"What happened in Wisconsin is in no way representative of the Hmong people and what they stand for," said Cha Vang, no relation to the suspect.
A Hmong leader in Wisconsin has advised Hmong hunters to skip the rest of the gun deer season because of the tensions. The season runs through Sunday.
"We don't know who will be thinking what. I just think it would be best to let people cool off," Joe Bee Xiong, director of the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, told the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram.
New details about Vang began to emerge Tuesday.
Military records obtained by The Associated Press show that he spent six years in the California National Guard, and earned a sharpshooter qualification badge. But his primary role during his time in the Guard, from 1989 to 1995, involved clerical duties.
After his discharge, he spent two more years in the Individual Ready Reserve.
Dov Schwartz, an Army spokesman in Washington, said the sharpshooter qualification was "not an extraordinarily special thing."
Vang has no criminal record with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. 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.