BIRCHWOOD, Wis. — A county judge today set bail at $2.5 million for Chai Soua Vang in connection with the shooting deaths of six people during a dispute over deer hunting.
No specific charges have been filed against Vang, 36, in the Sunday incident that also left two wounded. The judge ruled there was probable cause to hold Vang, a court spokeswoman said by telephone.
Authorities accused Vang of going onto private land to hunt. When hunters asked him to leave, Vang began shooting, investigators said.
But Vang told authorities that he began firing after he was shot at first and that some of the victims called him racially derogatory names, according to the Associated Press, reporting on statements included in court documents.
Vang, a Hmong immigrant from Laos, told investigators he didn't realize he was on private property when he climbed the tree stand, according to the probable cause statement released today. Vang said he started walking away but looked back to see the first hunter point his rifle at him and then fire a shot that hit the ground 30 to 40 feet behind him, the statement said.
That was when Vang told investigators he started firing at the group, and some fell to the ground and others tried to run away, according to the statement.
Some veteran hunters said Monday that they had had problems with out-of-towners who didn't know how to read the maps that marked which tracts of forest were private and which were open to the public.
And several in this overwhelmingly white region voiced particular unease with hunters who, like Vang, were from the Hmong community — immigrants who have moved by the thousands to Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The incident shocked the region where Thanksgiving Day hunting is a local tradition. Hundreds of people huddled in the dark town square Monday night to memorialize the six hunters.
"We have come here tonight with many emotions," said Paul Oman, pastor of the Trinity Lutheran Church. "Shock, certainly. Questions of why. Anger. Resentment. And the need for justice."
Some in the crowd cried. Most stared straight ahead. The pastor sang "Amazing Grace."
Authorities arrested Vang, as he emerged from the woods before dusk Sunday, a short distance from the carnage. According to local law enforcement officials, Vang had come up from his home in St. Paul, Minn., with at least two friends. He started out hunting on public land but apparently got lost and wandered into a 400-acre tract of private property. After the shooting, he encountered several other hunters who guided him out to the road, where a game warden with the Department of Natural Resources arrested him.
Authorities are still looking for Vang's friends.
The dead and wounded were from this rural stretch of northwest Wisconsin — a region dotted with small towns and villages like Birchwood. Many had connections to the largest city in the area, Rice Lake, home to 8,400.
The victims — part of a group of a dozen or so who came together each year — included a father and son and several longtime friends. Killed were Robert Crotteau, 42, and his son Joey, 20; Al Laski, 43; Mark Roidt, 28; and Jessica Willers, 27. Dennis Drew, 55, died of his injuries at a hospital Monday night.
"I can't describe how I feel. How should you feel?" asked Karen Roidt. Her son Mark, she said, was "fun-loving," an avid outdoorsman. He had been hunting since he was 12.
"It's a senseless act," his mother said.
According to authorities, the party met up Sunday at a cabin in the woods. Pocketing walkie-talkies to communicate, they split up to search the shadows for deer.
Terry Willers, 47, Jessica's father, came across the intruder first.
The man was perched in a platform in the trees, although the woods were marked no trespassing. Willers asked the man to leave. The man climbed down as two of Willers' hunting partners arrived. He turned to walk away. Then, without warning, he turned back and opened fire, authorities said.
Vang's gunfire hit the three hunters. One was able to reach his walkie-talkie and call for help. Others in the party rushed to the scene.
Willers, along with Drew's brother-in-law, Lauren Hesebeck, 48, was seriously wounded.
Sawyer County Sheriff James Meier said Vang was "extremely calm" at the time of his arrest and had been "showing some cooperation" with authorities. The 20-round clip of his rifle, an inexpensive Chinese-made SKS assault weapon, was empty when he was arrested.
Police in St. Paul and Minneapolis have had contact with Vang several times in recent years. In the last 18 months, they responded to two domestic disturbance calls to his house. And on Christmas Eve in 2001, he was arrested for felony domestic assault after his wife told police he had threatened her with a handgun. He spent two nights in jail but was released when his wife declined to press charges, according to Minneapolis Police Officer Ronald Reier.
"We have nothing in our records that would ever indicate he was capable of the level of violence we saw in northwestern Wisconsin," said Officer Paul Schnell of the St. Paul Police Department.
Crime rarely blights this expanse of rolling hills and scattered farms about 120 miles northeast of Minneapolis. Birchwood, famed for its bluegill fish, had 518 residents in the last census.
"We're up here in the sticks Stuff like this just doesn't happen here," said Wes Winrich, who runs a hunting guide service in this lumber town.
Huffstutter reported from Birchwood and Muskal handled rewrite in Los Angeles. Times staff writer Stephanie Simon contributed from St. Louis.