HAYWARD, Wis. – A year after six deer hunters were shot to death in a confrontation with a Hmong (search) immigrant, jurors are being selected in a college town 300 miles to the south of this north woods community.
Eyewitnesses and friends of the dead men portray the slayings as cold-blooded, while the defendant says he was shot at first and acted in self-defense after the hunters tormented him with profanity and racial insults.
Jury selection begins Thursday in Madison for the trial of Chai Soua Vang (search), a 36-year-old St. Paul, Minn., truck driver, National Guard veteran and father of six. He was arrested hours after the Nov. 21 shootings, which occurred during a confrontation on private property in the isolated Sawyer County woods.
Jury selection was moved to Dane County — home of the state Capitol and the University of Wisconsin-Madison — because of concern about pretrial publicity and possible racial animosity. The jurors will be bused to Hayward for testimony.
Some residents of the region wonder if they will get justice. Madison is vastly different from this rural, slow-paced area that is the home of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame.
"The guy admitted he shot people in the back," said Larry Jarvela, mayor of Rice Lake (search), where the victims were from. "Some people are upset that they are going to bring all the liberals up from Madison for the jury."
State Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager is prosecuting the case with two assistant attorneys general.
"It is an important case simply because hunting, particularly in northern Wisconsin, is something which is a significant part of the culture here, and the magnitude of the alleged crime," she said.
Vang, who came to the United States in 1980 at age 11, is charged with six counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder. He faces mandatory life in prison if convicted.
One of his attorneys, Steve Kohn, declined to say whether Vang would testify during the trial, which is expected to last up to two weeks.
The Hmong, a Southeast Asian ethnic minority, settled in the United States after fleeing Laos (search) when the communists seized control in 1975 following the end of the Vietnam War. More than 100,000 live in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and some have suggested the tragic confrontation last November grew out of a cultural clash between hunters with different traditions.
According to court records, Vang, an experienced hunter, told investigators he got lost chasing a wounded deer, went into a tree stand on the private land and was asked by hunter Terry Willers (search) to leave. Others arrived and there was a verbal confrontation.
Vang told authorities the white hunters used racial slurs before Willers fired the first shot as Vang walked away, with the bullet hitting the ground 30 to 40 feet behind him, court records said. By Vang's account, he fired 10 to 13 shots from his semiautomatic rifle. Willers was one of two hunters who was wounded but survived.
In a letter to a Chicago Tribune reporter from jail, Vang said he acted to "defend myself and my race." The shootings happened "because people are not able to treat others with respect like they want to be treated and hatred toward other people," Vang wrote.
Willers and Lauren Hesebeck, the other survivor, told investigators no one in their group pointed a gun at Vang before he opened fire. Four of the victims were shot in the back, the complaint said.
The only threat from the hunters, the survivors said, was their promise to report Vang to state game wardens for trespassing. And the only shot fired at Vang, they said, was fired by Hesebeck after he was already wounded and some of his friends lay dead or dying.
People in Rice Lake want closure to the tragedy, Jarvela said.
"I got to believe that if those guys wanted to fire on him with the intent of hurting him, they wouldn't have missed," Jarvela said. "Even if they did shoot, it would have been on the ground or in the air just to scare him possibly. They said they didn't fire. So that's good enough for me."
Solomom Her, a 30-year-old agent for Hmong American Insurance in Eau Claire, said he knows of Hmong hunters who have been harassed in the woods. The trial will come down to whether Vang was shot at first, he said.
"If you get angry and shoot them, it is not right," Her said. "If they shoot you, then it is right."