HAYWARD, Wis. – The FBI and Wisconsin authorities were searching for clues Monday as to why a hunter allegedly shot eight strangers on the opening weekend of the state's hunting season.
Chai Soua Vang (search), a 36-year-old St. Paul, Minn., resident, is accused of killing five hunters and wounding three others in northwest Wisconsin during a shooting spree on Sunday. Vang has no criminal record but was once arrested for threatening his wife with a gun.
The dead, whom authorities said were all well known in tight-knit Sawyer County, included Robert Crotteau, 42, and his son Joey, 20; Al Laski, 43; Mark Roidt, 28; and Jessica Willers, 27, whose father was one of the wounded.
Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (search) said he was saddened that violence had marred the opening of hunting season.
"This is such an incredible tragedy, one in which a great family tradition like a deer hunt has turned into such a great loss for the families that are involved," Doyle said Monday at an afternoon press conference at the Sawyer County courthouse.
"I'm here to extend on behalf of all the people of the state of Wisconsin to the families of those who have lost loved ones and those who are injured ... the deepest sympathy and pain, and our prayers go out to the family members, our prayers go out to the community."
Sawyer County Sheriff James Meier said the incident was one of the most violent in the history of the area, which is popular among hunting enthusiasts.
"It's unbelievable that it can happen in such a small county," he said. "People come up for a weekend of fun. They bring their children with them, enjoy themselves — some even stay for Thanksgiving."
Stranger in the Woods
The shootings arose from a dispute over a hunting platform in a tree, Meier said.
Vang, who had a hunting license but not for Wisconsin, had wandered onto 400 acres of hunting grounds owned by Robert Crotteau after becoming lost. He eventually came upon an empty deer stand, which are used by hunters to better spot deer without being seen, and climbed into it, not knowing he was on private property, Meier said.
At around noon, one of the members of the group of 14 or 15 on the annual opening-weekend trip to Crotteau's property approached him and asked him to leave. Crotteau and the others in the cabin were notified of the situation and hopped on their all-terrain vehicles and headed to the scene.
Vang crawled down from the tree stand and began to walk away. He then turned around and began firing his SKS 7.62 mm semiautomatic rifle (search) at the group, shooting at the victims multiple times.
"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.
A shooting victim radioed others in the party in a nearby cabin for help. Those people raced to the scene in ATVs, but they were shot at by Vang while attempting to rescue their friends and family.
The suspect was "chasing after them and killing them," Sawyer County Chief Deputy Tim Zeigle said. "He hunted them down is what he did."
Rescuers from the cabin piled the living onto their vehicles and headed out of the thick woods. They left the dead behind.
"They grabbed who they could grab and got out of there because they were still under fire," Meier said.
One of the hunters who had initially approached Vang had scribbled his hunting license number, which was pinned to his blaze-orange jacket, in the dust on the surface of an ATV. The number was given to authorities, who ran a check and determined it belonged to Vang.
Meanwhile, Vang, who escaped from the shooting scene, came upon two other hunters and said he was lost. The men, who had earlier been told of the shootings by a warden, offered Vang a ride, and after realizing he was the suspect they drove him to the warden's jeep, where he was arrested.
The magazine in Vang's rifle, a cheap but powerful semiautomatic weapon that's good for a distance shot, was empty, Meier said. Earlier on Monday, Zeigle said there was just one gun among the eight victims. About 20 shots had been fired, but it was unclear if Vang had been shot at or who fired first, Zeigle said.
All five victims were dead when officers arrived at the area in southwestern Sawyer County, he said. Authorities found two bodies near each other and the others were scattered over 100 yards.
Communities in Shock
Authorities said all five of the dead and the three wounded were well-known members of the community in Rice Lake. The five dead were all from Barron County.
Jim Hill, owner of Village Grocery in Haugen, said Robert Crotteau and his son Joey had gone hunting on the land for many years.
Hill 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.
The most critically wounded person, Denny Drew, remained in intensive care following three hours of surgery yesterday, Dr. Lynn Koob said at a news conference at Lakeview Medical Center. Drew was shot in the abdomen and suffered injuries to multiple organs.
Lauren Hesebeck, another male victim, was in stable condition at Lakeview Medical Center with a gunshot wound to the shoulder and arm.
A third man, Terry Willers, was sent to St. Joseph's Hospital in Marshfield. He was in critical condition. His daughter Jessica was among the dead.
A fund was established for the shooting victims, Lakeview hospital administrator Ned Wolf said.
Hunter Bill Wagner, 72, of Oshkosh, was about two miles away near Deer Lake with a party of about 20 other hunters. After they got word of the shootings, he and others went to round up the rest of the party. He said they heard sirens, planes and helicopters and noticed the surrounding roads blocked off.
"When you're hunting, you don't expect somebody to try to shoot you and murder you," he said. "You have no idea who is coming up to you."
It took about three hours to round up the other hunters, who were up to four miles apart, Wagner said. "We're all old, dyed-in-wool hunters," he said. "We wouldn't go home because of this but we will keep it in our minds. We're not forgetting it."
Vang, a naturalized citizen, spoke good English and investigators said he was cooperating with them. The sheriff said he was "extremely calm."
Sang Vang, the suspect's brother, said he didn't believe his sibling could commit such a crime.
"Maybe something provoked him or something. He is a reasonable person," he 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."
Vang, who is married with six children, served in the U.S. Army and has lived in the United States for about 25 years, his brother said. He and their mother, who declined comment, were at the Sawyer County Jail to be with Vang.
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.
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. About 24,000 Hmong live in St. Paul, the highest concentration of any U.S. city.
"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.
Locals have complained that the Hmong, refugees from Laos, do not understand the concept of private property and hunt wherever they see fit. Her said a fistfight once broke out after Hmong hunters crossed onto private land in Minnesota.
The arrest has left some Hmong citizens in his hometown fearful of a backlash.
Michael Yang, a Hmong activist, said various Hmong groups held an emergency meeting Monday to talk about how to respond. Those at the meeting heard stories from some Hmong hunters about friction with white hunters.
The shooting has already provoked racial tension in an area of Wisconsin where deer hunting is steeped in tradition.
"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.
FOX News' Catherine Donaldson-Evans, Jane Roh and The Associated Press contributed to this report.