Michigan Man Convicted in Murder of Hmong Hunter

Michigan Man Convicted in Murder of Hmong Hunter

After three days of deliberation, a jury has convicted a Michigan man of murdering another hunter on a piece of public land northeast of Lansing.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel praised her prosecutors, the Bath Township Police Department, and the FBI for their prosecution of a years-long case that many believed had gone cold.

“This murder shocked the Bath Township and Michigan hunting communities, and it is our hope that this conviction may bring some peace and healing to Mr. Yang's friends and family,” she said in a statement announcing the verdict.

The incident took place on November 16th, 2018. Chong Mua Yang, 68, had gone deer hunting at Rose Lake State Park in Bath Township to a spot he frequently visited. His wife alerted authorities when he did not come home that night, and his body was found around 10 pm lying face down with a gunshot wound to the head.

Investigators later discovered that Yang’s backpack, shotgun, and traditional Hmong hunting knife had been stolen.

The Hmong people are originally from Laos, and many fled southeast Asia and emigrated to the U.S. after fighting for American interests during the Vietnam War. They developed a strong hunting culture in Laos, and many continue to hunt in the U.S.

It took four years of investigating, but prosecutors were able to compile enough evidence to charge two men with the killing: Thomas Olson, 35, and Robert Rodway, 34. The charges against Rodway were dropped the day before his trial due to “an unresolved issue regarding admissibility of evidence," according to Danny Wimmer, a spokesperson for Attorney General Dana Nessel's office.

But Olson’s trial proceeded as scheduled, and a jury found him guilty of second-degree murder and felony firearm possession. His sentencing is scheduled for April 8, 2024, and he faces up to life in prison.

What Was the Prosecution’s Case?

The case against Olson rested on GPS cell phone data linking him to the area where Yang was killed, incriminating text messages between him and Rodway, and a bottle of “deer spray” found near Yang’s body with Olson’s DNA on it.

Assistant State Attorney General Richard Cunningham said that Olson likely didn’t mean to kill Yang. But he created a high risk of death or serious bodily harm when he fired his shotgun in an attempt to scare the older man.

“It was all a big joke,” Cunningham said, according to the Lansing State Journal. “He likes to make jokes about minorities…He just wanted sport here, to be able to post on his social media how he scared the devil out of him.”

Olson and Rodway admitted to hunting in Rose Lake State Park on the day of the murder, and GPS cell phone data backs that up.

Prosecutors also introduced text messages between Olson and Rodway they say amount to admissions of guilt. Many of them discuss the investigation of Yang’s death, and one from 2020 depicts the two men hunting at the state park along with the message, “A couple of cold-blooded killers revisiting the crime scene.”

In another text, this one from September 2020, they sent a photo showing the reward poster put up by Yang’s family with the caption, “They haven't caught ya,” updated to “us,” according to testimony. Another said, “I mean we killed that guy, you don't see us crying about it.”

Other messages referred to “the killing field,” hunting people, shooting at noises, and racial epithets, according to the State Journal.

Finally, investigators found a plastic bag with “hunting spray” near the crime scene. Olson admitted that the spray was his, and his DNA was on it.

What Did the Defense Say?

Olson’s defense attorneys said their client was “nowhere near” Yang when he was murdered. They described the text messages as “dark” and inappropriate but said they don’t constitute sufficient evidence to convict.

“There are screenshots of messages that were jokes that were despicable, inexcusable,” attorney Michael Manley said. “(They were) not acceptable, but that's not evidence of a murder.”

Their most substantial argument is that the police got the wrong man. They say that other GPS data indicates another man was also in the area that day. But police wrongfully eliminated him as a suspect because they found he was home the night of the murder.

This man, who has not been named because he was never charged with a crime, had a history of racial bias against the Hmong. Defense attorneys claim this man gave inconsistent statements to police, destroyed evidence on his phone, and owned boots with a tread pattern matching prints in the snow leading up to Yang's body.

“He was not killed by accident; he was murdered,” Manley said in his opening statement, according to the State Journal. “The evidence is going to show he was murdered,” either as a hate crime or as the result of an argument over where the two men were going to hunt, Manley said.

The Verdict

This defense wasn’t strong enough to convince a jury. After 18 hours of deliberation that stretched over three days, they came back with a guilty verdict. Olson was originally charged with first-degree felony murder on the assumption that the murder was committed during the commission of a larceny, but Yang's gun and other possessions were not recovered by police. Olson’s second-degree murder charge is punishable by any term of years up to life in prison.

Despite the prosecution’s contention that Olson was motivated by a desire to pull a prank for social media attention, Joseph Yang, a family member and local attorney, still wonders at the senselessness of the action.

“The question still remains, 'Why?'” he told the State Journal. “...To be shot in the back of the head senselessly, for no apparent reason, we still want to know why.”

Chong Yang’s children created a group called Orange Justice to advocate for a resolution to their father’s case.

“Orange Justice would like to thank everyone who supported us these past few years. Near or far, we have felt the love and support for our cause. No words can express our gratitude for your support. We, the family of Chong Moua, have found some solace in this ruling,” they posted on Facebook. “Orange Justice will continue to support and advocate for hunter safety, as no family should have to lose a loved one when they go hunting.”

Feature image via Orange Justice Facebook Page.

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