Hmong Hunter Charged With 6 Murders Is Said to be a Shaman
Published: December 1, 2004  (must register to view original article)

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 friends say.

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 earth."

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 fall off."

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 publicly.

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 curing ceremonies.

"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 them.

"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 stress.

"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 hunter.

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.