RICE LAKE, Wis. – Two survivors of a deadly deer-hunting confrontation joined a community prayer service where organizers urged people to avoid falling into fear and prejudice in the wake of the shootings blamed on a Hmong (search) immigrant.
Lauren Hesebeck (search) and Terry Willers (search), whose six friends were killed in the shootings, sat near each other at the service Tuesday organized by area ministers. About 900 people packed the auditorium for the 70-minute service of prayers, Bible readings, music and calls for healing in this town of 8,300 — a community one pastor described as full of "souls exhausted by grief."
"Community support is great," Hesebeck said, a blaze orange ribbon pinned to his jacket in memory of his hunting buddies. "That is about all I want to say."
Asked about the emotion of the last few days, Hesebeck, who was wounded in the shoulder, just lowered his head and walked to his seat at the Rice Lake High School Auditorium.
Willers, his neck still in a brace from the wound he suffered, declined comment.
The six deer hunters gunned down in the confrontation Nov. 21 lived in the Rice Lake (search) area. The last of the funerals was Monday.
Chai Soua Vang (search), 36, of St. Paul, Minn., has been charged with the shootings.
Melissa Paulette drew groans and sighs of dismay when she said a friend saw a bumper sticker that read: "Save a deer, shoot a Hmong."
"We must remember the family of the shooter did not pull the trigger," she said. "Wouldn't God want us to pray for them and try to heal their pain too?"
Hours earlier in Hayward, Vang made his first court appearance under tight security in a basement classroom at the county jail for his own safety. On Monday, prosecutors filed charges accusing him of intentionally killing six hunters and trying to kill Willers and Hesebeck Nov. 21 after Vang was asked to leave the private land where the others were hunting.
Vang, a truck driver and experienced hunter, told investigators he was called racial names during the confrontation, and Willers fired a first shot at him; the survivors said no one shot at Vang before he opened fire.
A preliminary hearing was scheduled Dec. 29 to determine whether there is sufficient evidence for trial.
Killed were Robert Crotteau, 42; his son Joey Crotteau, 20; Al Laski, 43; Mark Roidt, 28; Willers' daughter Jessica Willers 27; and Dennis Drew, 55.
Laski's 15-year-old son, Adam, received a standing ovation at Tuesday night's service for saying that he and other relatives of the victims have felt an outpouring of love, despite their difficulty in comprehending the losses.
"From the bottom of my heart and from all of the family members of the victims, thank you all," he said.