Hmong Hunter Charged With 6 Murders Is Said to be a
By STEPHEN KINZER
Published: December 1, 2004
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ST. PAUL, Nov. 30 - The man charged with murdering six other hunters and
wounding two in Wisconsin last week is a Hmong shaman who has called on
the spirit world in trances that last up to three hours, his family and
The accused, Chai Soua Vang of St. Paul, seeks "the other world" when he
tries to cure sick people or invoke divine protection for those who
request it, said his friend and former hunting companion Ber Xiong.
"He is a special person," Mr. Xiong said. "Chai speaks to the other
side. He asks the spirits there to release people who are suffering on
Mr. Xiong said Mr. Vang, a 36-year-old truck driver, was one of about
100 shamans among St. Paul's immigrant community of some 25,000 Hmong
from Laos. He said he had assisted Mr. Vang in several shamanistic
ceremonies, most recently one two years ago at which an extended family
asked him to assure its health and prosperity.
"He danced on a small table for about two hours," said Mr. Xiong, an
employee of an audio technology business in nearby Bloomington. "He was
calling out the whole time, not to the people in the room, but to the
other world. My job was to sit near the table and make sure he did not
Mr. Xiong declined to identify anyone else who attended that ceremony or
others where Mr. Vang participated. Like Mr. Vang, he is a Hmong
immigrant, and many Hmong who know Mr. Vang have been reluctant to speak
But in a brief interview, Mr. Vang's sister, Mai, confirmed that he was
thought to have mystical powers. "He is a shaman," Ms. Vang said. "But I
don't know how long he has been one."
Cher Xee Vang, a prominent leader among the Hmong in Minnesota, said the
suspect, to whom he is not closely related, had often participated in
"Chai Vang is a shaman," Cher Xee Vang said. "When we needed him to cure
the ill with traditional ways of healing, he would."
The events that led to the charges against Mr. Vang occurred on Nov. 21
when, the authorities say, he was caught trespassing on private land in
Wisconsin's North Woods, a popular destination for deer hunters in late
November. The eight other hunters were all shot in an ensuing
confrontation with him, the police say.
On Monday, prosecutors formally charged Mr. Vang with six counts of
murder and two counts of attempted murder. On Tuesday, handcuffed and
wearing a prison-issued orange jumpsuit, he was taken to the basement of
the county jail in Hayward, Wis., to hear the charges. Judge Norman L.
Yackel of Sawyer County Circuit Court asked Mr. Vang if he understood
"Yes," Mr. Vang responded.
The hearing lasted only eight minutes. Judge Yackel, who cited security
concerns in holding the hearing at the jail rather than at the
courthouse across the street, set the next court date for Dec. 29.
Security has been an issue here in St. Paul as well. With the help of
the police, Mr. Vang's family, evidently concerned about its safety and
weary of the publicity that the case has brought, has moved from its
two-story home on the city's east side to an undisclosed location.
It is unclear whether Mr. Vang's role as a shaman is in any way
connected to the shootings. But Vincent Her, a graduate student at the
University of Wisconsin who studies traditional Hmong culture, said he
did not believe that shamans could go into a trance so deep that they
would lose touch with the physical world, even in a situation of extreme
"That would make him or her unable to mediate between the two worlds,
which is the core of the shaman's role," Mr. Her said.
At a news conference in Milwaukee on Sunday, Steven Kohn, one of the
three lawyers representing Mr. Vang, said the defense team was "looking
into all facets in this case as far as defense is concerned."
"That includes factual defenses, and it includes potential mental health
or mental responsibility defenses," Mr. Kohn said. "This certainly seems
not to be a whodunit, but a why."
At the same news conference, Mr. Vang's eldest daughter, Kia, made a
brief statement. "I don't know what my father did," she said. "I'm
really shocked, and I don't know what to say."
According to military records, Mr. Vang spent six years in the
California Army National Guard. He was honorably discharged in 1995 and
moved to Minnesota three years later.
While in California, Mr. Vang worked as a volunteer in Hmong youth
programs, said Pheng Lor, executive director of a social agency called
Lao Family Community of Stockton.
"He taught karate to kids," Mr. Lor said. "As long as I knew him, he
never did anything wrong."
Police records show that Mr. Vang was cited for trespassing in 2002,
fined $244 for chasing a deer he had shot and wounded onto private
property in Wisconsin. Friends say that like many Hmong, he is an avid
The authorities have quoted Mr. Vang as telling investigators that the
hunters who were shot had first fired at him and cursed him with racial
epithets. One of the survivors, Lauren Hesebeck, has said in a statement
to the police that he did fire a shot at Mr. Vang, but only after Mr.
Vang had killed several of his friends. Mr. Hesebeck has also
acknowledged that one of the victims "used profanity" against Mr. Vang,
but his statement did not indicate whether the profanity was racial.
Racial insults while hunting in Wisconsin, some Hmong say, are nothing
new. And Tou Vang, who is not related to the accused, said a hunter
fired several shots in his direction when they argued over hunting
rights three years ago near the Wisconsin town of Ladysmith.
"I left right away," Mr. Vang said. "I didn't report it, because even if
you do, the authorities might not take any action. But I know that every
year there are racial problems in the woods up there."
Gretchen Ruethling contributed reporting from Chicago for this article,
and Noah Vang from St. Paul.