Wisconsin 'Whydunnit'

book examines infamous 2004 deer hunter murders

Tom Giffey

Those living in Wisconsin – or anywhere else that deer hunting is a cherished autumn ritual, not a mere hobby – undoubtedly remember the horrifying news that came out of the northwoods on Nov. 21, 2004: Six hunters were shot and killed in cold blood in the Blue Hills of Sawyer County. The five men and one woman, members of a close-knit party of hunters from nearby Rice Lake, were murdered by another hunter, Chai Soua Vang, whose trespassing on private hunting land sparked a verbal confrontation and ultimately violence.

In addition to creating shock, anger, and pain among hunters and nonhunters alike, the murders exposed cultural and racial rifts – the victims were white, the killer was a Hmong immigrant – that have yet to fully heal in Wisconsin.

Now, more than a decade later, the case has finally been chronicled in the form of a book, Tree Stand Murders, that not only describes the killings and the subsequent trial, but also attempts to answer a question that continues to reverberate in the air like a rifle shot: Why? With meticulous research, scores of interviews, and an open-minded approached toward the facts and the biographies of the participants in this tragedy, author David B. Whitehurst has likely come as close to answering that question as is humanly possible.

As Whitehurst writes in the preface, “This book intends to document exactly what happened for the benefit of present and future generations, to provide greater understanding and deeper insights into the calamity, to relieve residual angst, to build bridges between peoples, to avoid myths, and to bring facts to fantasies.”

While he lives in the Chicago suburb of Libertyville, Ill., Whitehurst has been deer hunting in the Blue Hills for 25 years, and he has developed strong friendships with people in the Eau Claire and Rice Lake areas. On that fateful Sunday afternoon in 2004, Whitehurst and his friends were hunting in the Blue Hills when they realized something was amiss: Ambulances zoomed to and from the Rice Lake hospital and a surveillance aircraft buzzed the treetops searching for the shooter. When Whitehurst and his party emerged from the woods, they were shocked to learn that five hunters had been shot dead (a sixth would die later).

“I knew right away that somebody should write a book, because this was a big incident,” Whitehurst said in an interview. Three friends, all published authors, encouraged Whitehurst to write the book himself. Whitehurst, a retired manufacturing company executive, began to make preparations for the project, and attended Vang’s 2005 trial in Hayward.

Shortly after his arrest, Vang confessed to the killings, and although his account of the events changed repeatedly, his culpability was never in question. As defense attorney Steven Kohn is quoted as saying, “This certainly does not seem to be a ‘whodunit.’ It seems to be a ‘whydunit.’ ”

After any crime, “Why?” is perhaps the most difficult question to answer. That was especially true in this case: Why did an incident of trespassing so quickly escalate into the killings of six people – Robert Crotteau, Joey Crotteau, Alan Laski, Mark Roidt, Jessica Willers, and Denny Drew – and the wounding of two others?

“I would say that to understand his frame of mind and mental outlook, none of that excuses what he did.”
– author David B. Whitehurst, on assessing the motivations of Chai Vang, who murdered six Rice Lake hunters in 2006

In addition to sitting through the trial and reading hundreds of pages of police reports, Whitehurst interviewed survivors, police, attorneys, experts, and members of the Hmong community, including Vang’s uncle. The depth of his research allows him to lay out a detailed explanation of what happened – and why.

At the center of the story is Vang, who immigrated to the U.S. from war-torn Laos as a child, settling first in California and then in Minnesota. Vang was a hard-working man and an avid hunter, but he also had a quick and violent temper: He’d once pointed a loaded gun at his first wife during an argument. Vang also had a history of ignoring hunting laws: He’d been fined for trespassing while hunting two years earlier and had failed to pay the fine, meaning that a second citation would have led to a loss of hunting privileges. 

It was against this background that Vang wandered onto a private plot of hunting land in Nov. 21, 2004. “His frame of mind was not good at that point,” Whitehurst said of Vang. “He was totally exhausted by working two jobs. He hadn’t eaten all day.” In addition, Vang had grown up in a culture where private ownership of hunting land was a bizarre concept: In Laos, no one owned the jungle or the animals in it.

Vang climbed into someone else’s tree stand, and then was confronted by one of the property owners, Terry Willers, who chastised him and told him to leave. As he was doing so, more members of the hunting party – led by the other landowner, Robert Crotteau – confronted him. “The basis of the conflict derived from cultural differences, racial differences, and – primarily – an explosive personality clash between two strong-willed, independent, hard-working, determined men,” Whitehurst writes. Crotteau verbally bullied the trespasser, hurling racial epithets at him. As Vang once again departed, Crotteau shouted that they would report him to the sheriff: The tag number on Vang’s back had betrayed his identity. Crotteau and his hunting party couldn’t have known it, but it was this threat that caused the short-fused Vang to explode.

Because the book was just published, Whitehurst has received little feedback from readers, Rice Lake residents, or the Hmong community. Instead of re-opening old wounds, Whitehurst hopes the book reinforces ongoing efforts in Wisconsin and Minnesota to emphasize that all hunters, regardless of race, should be able to access public hunting land (some Hmong hunters report being intimidated by white hunters on public property), and also that all hunters, regardless of race, must respect private property.

Whitehurst acknowledges he’s not sure how readers will react to the book, particularly to his attempt to explain the many factors that led Vang to violence. “I would say that to understand his frame of mind and mental outlook, none of that excuses what he did,” Whitehurst says. “I understand his situation, but you still have to come down to realize that human life means much more than that.”

Reading and discussion with David Whitehurst, author of Tree Stand Murders • Tuesday, Mar. 17, 4-6pm • The Volume One Gallery, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire • (715) 552-0457 • VolumeOne.org

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