Two of eight Wisconsin deer hunters survived a shooting rampage Nov. 21, 2004, for one reason: The enraged killer ran out of ammo after firing his SKS 7.62×39 semiautomatic rifle 22 times.
That man—Chai Soua Vang, 36, of St. Paul, Minnesota, a certified sharpshooter and six-year National Guard veteran—opened fire by first shooting the group’s only armed hunter. He then shot three where they sat or crouched, chased down a father and adult son who fled, and ambushed a young nurse and her driver from behind as they rode unarmed on an ATV to render aid.
Of the dead, Vang shot four in the back and two in the side, executing three with follow-up shots as if dispatching a wounded animal. When he pulled his rifle’s trigger the 23rd time while confronting a hunter he previously wounded, Vang discovered it was empty.
Retired newspaper reporter Ed Culhane still can’t shake the senseless, ruthless, spontaneous violence detailed by state prosecutors during Vang’s trial in September 2005.
“The sadness of it all never leaves,” said Culhane, who covered the six-day event. “Without question, it was the most horrific trial I covered in my 25-year career. The cold brutality of it all; especially how Vang hid as the ATV approached with the young woman. He waited ‘til they passed so he had an easy target, shot them in the back, and then finished them off.”
Not About Hunting
The tragedy was so bizarre that most reports at the time overlooked an obvious fact: Until that day, mass shootings never involved hunters and hunting situations; and none since have involved hunters. More specifically, of 160 mass shootings (defined as at least three victims) since 1999, only the Chai Vang case involved hunters. Further, none of the 83 cases listed from 1920 through 1999 involved hunters. Most involve family members, co-workers or former co-workers, or innocent strangers in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Mike Bartz, a retired Wisconsin conservation warden, was the senior law enforcement officer at the crime scene that day. “That shooting had nothing to do with deer hunting,” Bartz said.
Further, most mass shootings involve premeditation. Nothing that happened that Sunday in northern Wisconsin’s Blue Hills region was planned. Vang had slept little the previous two days after friends picked him up after work at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday in St. Paul. He spent much of Sunday morning tracking and shooting at a doe in a public forest about 20 miles northeast of Rice Lake, Wisconsin.
Vang, now 52, is a member of the Hmong community from Laos, a people who fought courageously for U.S. interests in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. His father was a lieutenant and his mother a nurse in the Hmong Army. Communist forces persecuted the Hmong after the war, forcing them to flee to Thailand as refugees. From there, Vang’s parents brought their family to the U.S. Many Hmong settled in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Wisconsin cities like Wausau, Sheboygan, Milwaukee, La Crosse, and Green Bay.
Vang was an angry renegade. He bragged to coworkers about poaching deer on land he owned in Minnesota, and had citations for trespassing and going over bag limit on fish. His first marriage ended after he accused his wife of infidelity and pointed a loaded handgun at her. His second marriage ended after he nearly choked his wife to death for gambling away $3,000.
Vang also disliked trespassing laws, believing all land should be open to hunting. After spotting an unoccupied treestand about 2 miles from his group’s campsite on Nov. 21, 2004, Vang pulled on a camouflage facemask and climbed up. He didn’t know who owned the stand or the 80-acre property, but he could see their cabin roof from his perch. The owners — friends and business partners Terry Willers and Bob Crotteau—were in camp with 13 friends and family members, with more heading to the camp for their traditional Sunday afternoon deer drive.
Terry Willers spotted Vang in the usually-unused treestand around 11:15 a.m. and called the cabin with his radio to see who was up there. He learned that everyone was back in camp, so Willers walked to the treestand, told Vang to come down, and directed him to head east 100 yards and get off the property. Their conversation was polite and Vang apologized. But instead of heading east through the woods as directed, Vang followed a camp trail southward. Willers followed for about five minutes to ensure he left.
Meanwhile, Willers called the cabin around 11:30 a.m. to say he had evicted the “tree rat.” The elder Crotteau replied that he wanted to make sure the trespasser got the message to never return. Crotteau, his son Joey, and two friends then rode out on the Crotteau’s UTV. Another followed on an ATV.
Willers had no way of knowing tragedy awaited. Before noon …
- Willers would be temporarily paralyzed by a bullet through his lower neck and upper back, making him unable to use his rifle, the only firearm on site among the landowners.
- Friend Lauren Hesebeck would be struggling with a bullet wound in his left upper arm and shoulder, but surviving.
- Friend Denny Drew, 55, would lie mortally wounded, shot through the lower chest, pancreas, stomach, and small intestine. He would die a day later.
- Friend Mark Roidt, 28, would lie dead, shot through the head while seated on his ATV.
- Robert Crotteau, 42, would lie dead where Vang chased him down and shot him through the heart.
- Joey Crotteau, 20, would lie dead where Vang chased him down and shot him four times in the back; the last bullet striking his neck and head.
- Willers’ daughter, Jessica, 27, and friend Al Laski, 43, would lie dead down a trail alongside Laski’s ATV.
Vang, after reversing his blaze-orange jacket to its camo side, hid near a curve in the trail when he heard the ATV approaching. Thinking Jessica and Laski were likely armed and looking for him, Vang waited until they passed. When he fired, the bullet struck Jessica in the left buttock, blew through her hip, and struck Laski, shattering his lower spine and abdomen. Vang ran over, shot Laski through the back and heart to finish him, and then stepped behind Jessica as she crawled screaming and pleading, and fired a shot through her neck into her brain.
Two Hotheads Collide
What triggered such cold, deadly rage? Trial testimony by Terry Willers and Lauren Hesebeck—as well as from Vang, who testified against his attorneys’ advice—described an angry, one-sided verbal confrontation when Bob Crotteau arrived.
“My takeaway was that two hotheads met in the woods, and one of them had a horrible reputation for being a loudmouth,” Bartz said. “(Bob Crotteau) started yelling profanities at Vang, and apparently used some racial epithets.”
Culhane had a similar take. “It came down to two strong personalities; one a bully and the other homicidal,” he said. “I came away from the trial really not liking (Crotteau). He was full of himself with all his friends around, even though the other guy had a loaded rifle. He was so into his bullying and being the big guy that he didn’t suspect what [Vang, who is 5-foot, 4 inches tall] was capable of doing. His actions didn’t justify six murders, but he behaved really badly.”
The hunting party loosely surrounded Vang while Crotteau yelled, but no one hit, kicked, or pushed the trespasser. Joey Crotteau, however, twice blocked Vang’s path when he tried leaving. Bob Crotteau demanded Vang’s name so he could file a trespass complaint, but Vang refused. Crotteau told his son to step away and let Vang pass, and then noticed Vang’s backtag holder flipped upside down on his coat’s upper back.
Until 2016, Wisconsin required deer hunters to display a 3.5- by 9-inch tag with a seven-digit ID number on their upper back. Crotteau stepped toward Vang and flipped down the backtag. Drew and Hesebeck then read the numbers aloud as Willers drew them into the dust on the UTV’s hood. Meanwhile, Joey Crotteau accused Vang of giving him the bird, which Vang denied. The elder Crotteau again warned Vang he would report him for trespassing, and walked to his UTV to end the confrontation.
Only Willers and Hesebeck kept watching Vang, who was seething with humiliation while walking away. After a 30-yard gap opened between Vang and the six men, Vang crouched, unslung his shouldered rifle, and flipped a quick-disconnect lever to remove its scope. His National Guard training taught that open sights are faster and more effective at close range.
As described in David Whitehurst’s 2015 book, “Tree Stand Murders,” Vang raised his rifle in one smooth, continuous sweeping motion as he circled right, kneeled, and aimed at Willers, the group’s only armed person. Vang later said, “If I don’t shoot him, he would shoot me.”
Then the massacre ensued. Vang’s first shot missed Willers as he ran and dove for cover, but Willers landed atop his rifle and couldn’t turn over before Vang’s second shot hit his lower left neck, paralyzing him. Vang instantly turned toward the men on their machines and shot Roidt, who hit the ground dead, as his ATV, still in gear, idled forward. Vang shot Drew next as the Crotteaus fled, and fired three shots at close range while chasing Hesebeck around the UTV. His third shot flattened Hesebeck, who fell stunned and still.
Assuming Hesebeck was dead, Vang raced after Bob Crotteau, whose blaze-orange coat made him easy to see. As he fled, Crotteau called the cabin on his walky-talky to tell Laski to bring guns. Vang’s first shot missed but the second hit Crotteau in the chest, instantly killing him. Willers, meanwhile, had regained feeling in his fingers, and called the cabin for help.
By that time Vang was chasing Joey Crotteau, who fled down a trail. Vang sprinted to cut the corner to the trail to close the gap, and shot him in the lower back at about 65 yards. Vang reloaded, approached closer as Crotteau struggled forward, and shot him again. Vang then closed in and shot him twice more from behind, putting the final shot into his head.
After next ambushing and killing Laski and Jessica Willers on Laski’s ATV, Vang returned to retrieve his scope and leave, thinking he had killed every witness. As he neared the site, he and Hesebeck came face to face. Vang said, “You not dead yet?” and raised his rifle to shoot. He fired as Hesebeck grabbed Willers’ rifle with his right hand and dove for cover. Shots zipped past over Hesebeck’s head.
Though he could point but not aim the rifle because of his wounded left arm, Hesebeck tried to shoot back. But when he pulled the trigger, the safety was still engaged. He dragged the unfamiliar rifle alongside his body to feel for the safety, and pushed it in. He pointed it again and fired once. He then heard a slight metallic sound from Vang’s rifle, and realized Vang was out of bullets.
Whitehurst described the standoff: “Their eyes met. Neither moved. Vang had the ability to shoot, but not the bullets. Hesebeck had the bullets, but not the ability.”
A diesel truck was now approaching from camp. Even if he had more bullets, Vang knew he had to flee. He didn’t have time to silence every witness who had seen him transform from trespasser to mass murderer. Forsaking his riflescope, Vang zig-zagged into the forest.
Meanwhile, although cell phone service was weak and intermittent, those in camp had summoned state police, conservation wardens, and sheriffs’ departments. After setting up a perimeter to prevent Vang’s escape, the wardens used an airplane to search for hunters throughout the afternoon, and sent in tactical units to escort them from the woods.
About 5:30 p.m., with darkness deepening, conservation warden Jeremy Peery noticed an ATV heading west on the Serley Camp Trail toward his post at the intersection with DeJung Road, roughly 2 miles south of the crime scene. A hunter named Walter Cieslak was driving the ATV, giving a lost, polite hunter a ride.
“When I shined my flashlight on the passenger, I saw he was wearing camouflage and he fit our suspect’s description,” Peery said. “I drew my gun, and gave him commands to put his hands up and listen to my instructions. He cooperated. He didn’t resist. His backtag was still pinned inside his jacket. We knew we had the right guy.”
Bartz and Culhane said it was distressing to hear and read racial slurs against the Hmong community after the murders, but said it’s simplistic to say racial tensions triggered the crime.
“Vang said before and after the trial that he had been disrespected and (that at least three of them) deserved to die,” Bartz said. “I don’t care if you’re a white Irishman or from any other culture. You don’t kill people because they disrespect you.”
Culhane agreed. “When Vang testified, he was not a good witness in his own defense,” he said. “His anger was on display. When it was over, you knew the jury got it right. He wasn’t the victim. He was a murderer.”
The jury deliberated for three hours and 15 minutes before convicting Vang on all six counts of first-degree murder, and three counts of attempted first-degree murder. He is imprisoned for life at the Anamosa State Penitentiary in northeastern Iowa.
Feature image via AP.