Remembering Cha Vang

Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang

Six years ago, in early January of 2007, a Hmong man was brutally murdered in the woods of Wisconsin. His name was Cha Vang. He was thirty years old. He had a wife and five children. He was part of the last wave of Hmong refugees to come to the Midwest in 2004 to seek asylum from the retribution of Hmong people by the communist government of Laos for having helped the Americans in the Vietnam War.

I understand that the title of this piece may not be apt, but it speaks of my hope and my despair. It may not be apt because many Minnesotans and Americans will not know who Cha Vang was or what happened to him. How do we remember who we do not know? My own husband, a white man, a sensitive academic, conscientious of race in America, and well-informed on issues of justice—has no recollections of ever having heard of Cha Vang or what happened to him. And so today I write of it…because so few have written of it and I don’t know if anyone else would write of it again. I know in my heart that Cha Vang cannot be forgotten or else his life and so many of our own will mean little to this country we share.

I had just turned twenty-six years old when Cha Vang was killed. I was busy making the last of the edits to my first book, The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir. I was feeling a great sense of urgency because it was 2007 and, while the Hmong had been in America since 1975, we had yet to publish in our own name a full literary account of our story, and our journey as Hmong Americans. I knew that my book would be one of the first. I was burning to get my work done.

Then came cold January and the tragedy of Cha Vang.

Vang and a few Hmong men had gone squirrel hunting in the woods near Green Bay, Wisconsin. When Vang did not show up at a scheduled time and place, his hunting partner, Pao Moua, called 9-1-1 as a precaution in case Vang, who did not speak much English, had gotten lost. When the police arrived on the scene, they told the men to leave, and they began a search. It did not take them long to find Vang’s body in a depression in the woods, with a log and other debris covering it. He had been shot. There was a 3- to 4-inch stick in his clenched teeth, lodged into his throat. His face and neck had been stabbed six times.

At about the same time that Pao Moua reported Vang missing, James Nichols, a white man, went into a local hospital seeking treatment for a .22-caliber bullet wound to his right hand and an injury to his left. The police apprehended Nichols because he was a convicted felon and he was found with an illegal firearm—the same weapon that had killed Vang from fifty feet away.

In a court testimony, John Spaulding, Nichols’ previous employer, related a conversation between him and Nichols two months previous to the murder in which Nichols talked about wanting to kill a Hmong hunter he had encountered “way up north—in the middle of nowhere.” Nichols told Spaulding that he wished he would have killed him…because “he hated them little (expletive).”

In fact, Nichols told the police, on the record, “Hmong group are bad” and “Hmong are mean and kill everything and that they go for anything that moves.”

Nichols’ hatred for the Hmong was not a secret. The fact that he had killed Vang was not a question. The brutality of his crime was apparent on Vang’s body, which he had attempted to hide. The Hmong community asked for charges of a hate crime to no avail. The state prosecutors pushed for a first-degree murder conviction.

An all-white jury from Nichols’ hometown, Peshtigo, Wisconsin, was selected for the trial in Marinette County Court. Nine months after Cha Vang’s body was discovered, after five hours of deliberation, the twelve jurors came out with their decision: Defendant James Nichols was guilty of second-degree intentional homicide in the murder of Cha Vang.

According to the jurors, the deliberations were very “heated” because nine of the twelve felt that a conviction of first-degree murder was appropriate, three did not. In the end, the group “realizing that they would not be able to all agree on the first-degree conviction, focused on a lesser charge.”

After the verdict was read, Pang Vue, Vang’s wife, fainted outside the courtroom. Tou Ger Xiong, a community activist, read her prepared statement to the press:

“I have kept my silence because I have faith in the justice system in this new country I now call home.

“In January, my husband, Cha Vang was taken away from me and my children by the hands of Mr. Nichols. In addition, he was killed in a manner that I could not have imagined. I ask myself: How could something like this happen in America?

“The horrific manner in which he died will leave scars with me and my children for as long as we live. I want Mr. Nichols to know he took away a caring father, a brother, a son, a dear friend, and a loving husband.”

I remember Cha Vang.

Six years after the fact, as I am working hard to finish the edits to my second book, I find that I cannot forget Cha Vang. I am thirty-two years old now—older than Vang was when he was murdered. I have written the first book I sought to write. The urgency I felt has not eased. I understand that the work I have been burning my whole life to do may never be done.

I said to my husband, “Do you remember Cha Vang?”

He said, “No.”

It hurts me that few beyond Vang’s family and friends, the Hmong of my generation and those older than us, close friends and allies, remember him.

If the prosecutors had called for a hate crime conviction, then a public message would have been sent across Wisconsin and the nation that it was not OK to kill a Hmong man simply because he was Hmong—and no one else was around.

If the jurors had been more representative of the people that Vang came from and not merely of Nichols, then nine out of twelve jurors could have held on for longer than five hours for a conviction that would grant justice to the man who was murdered and the people who loved him.

If Vang had not been Hmong, if he had been born something more recognizable to the world we live in, more represented on the bookshelves of America or its silver screens, then perhaps people like my husband would remember him—along with the many others who died because of hate, whose legacies live on because of the continued fight against injustice, whose memories stand strong so that we can all grow in our humanity.

We cannot forget Cha Vang.


52 thoughts on “Remembering Cha Vang

  1. Justice was served. Unlike the Vincent Chin case, they, at least, convicted the scumbag and sent him to prison.

    One thing all people have in this country is the right to self-defense at least. You cannot rely on any government for your protection, for justice, or for equal treatment. You have to fight for that; however, you’re more likely to get justice as a minority in this country than most others.

    • Vincent Chin another tragedy of an Asian American who was beaten to a pulp and died four days later in the hospital.
      The two white blue collar criminal got away Scott free with a civil lawsuit payment of 1.5million but they haven’t paid and now with interest owes over 4millions. Sadly his mother passed in 2002 but she was able to established a scholarship for people in his honor. RIP

  2. Thank you so much. I myself am guilty of not knowing and remembering this tragedy. This had me in tears. May you RIP Cha Vang.

  3. All the things we do in this country will never be right to these people. The only time people know us is from a story like Cha’s. Or some gang banger doing a drive by. Anything to discredit hmong people.You write about the hmong people like you care and in reality you don’t .becuz us chose to go the other way . and you said yourself even he don’t remember it becuz it’s not in his nature to remember hmong people.

  4. Cha’s my distant uncle. I was at his funeral in St.Paul (Legacy Funeral Home) off of HWY 52. The photos displayed 12 feet from the entrance door will haunt me for life. America is land of the free and freedom of speech, (If you get the opportunity to)

  5. “When you’re finally up at the moon looking back on earth, all those differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend, and you’re going to get a concept that maybe this really is one world and why the hell can’t we learn to live together like decent people.”

    Frank Borman, Apollo 8

  6. I remember this event. I’m glad you are speaking about it for others to remember Cha Vang. Racism is strong in america. A minority killing a white person gets life, but a white killing a minority gets 69 year prison.

  7. Hello,
    my name is sierra .
    It makes me so sad to think of what cha vang had to Indore ,also he family. heart goes out to everyone effected by the senseless act of one evil and stupid person and why ??? because this man or should i say monster did not like something about the hmong men . he not only killed cha vang , but he took someones dad, brother, husband, son,uncle nephew. future grandpa god father i could go on and on . He got second degree murder what a joke … a joke is what this country has become what we as citizens have let this violent gang of murders liars, cheats that we call our gov,look around people they distract us with there toys cell phones computers ect. mean while ( ⬆⬆⬆) they dont care about any of us. time for us do what others before did)fight for a country we can be proud of

  8. Thank you for your story. I’ve never heard of him or his story. It’s sad that after all that, and to this day our people are still getting killed in those woods. If our brothers and sisters can come to terms that, life is filled with so much excitement, achievement and a world we haven’t explore much. There is no need to throw your life away for some animals. Therefore I thank you for sharing this article.

  9. Cha Vang is my Hmong brother. Chai Vang is my brother-in-law. Beside, both are Vang and none of us deserve any hatred. Because of hatred there has been so many wars and terrorists. The six white brothers and sister also related to me through Christ. If only we realize our connection, we can over come hatred. Because many of us did not recognize that Christ die for this kind of hatred, that is why hatred is still in our heart. I urge each of us to look at the cross as Rev. Billy Graham has called each of us on his last ministry. Christ died on the cross because of hate, jealousy, and our sinful nature. He died so we can be free. The word, “Hmong” means free. Let’s remember all of them to change who we are to benefit the community and the world. Yes, I am a Hmong and also an American citizen.

    • My brothers and sisters we live in a time of hatred and yes the American government has blind everyone with necessity. But the truth is our creator/creators gave us eyes to see beyond beauty and beast wrong or right but he/she forgotten to blind us from racism. Racism has existed before we all have been created and will exist after we all parish. None the less we live in this moment stop being an ignorant person. Be happy that you can breath and live as you only have one live to live.

  10. I remember Cha Vang’s story. I also remember Chai Vang’s story. We cannot change what has already happened. We need to learn from each and teach our children, white or Hmong, how to be better people than the killers in these circumstances were. Harboring anger and resentment in either case only teaches our children to hate.

  11. ou know, if the Hmong people don’t just keep to themselves and educate without holding disgrace over their own heads as to who we are,where we came from, why we’re here, and how we got here etc…then maybe ignorant people will just treat us like all the other ethnic groups. Just look at history, people of English descendents has always acted they way towards a new group of people who look different and are different. It’s in their nature! Plus so far every ethnic group went through a killing initiation similar as we did. Just remember that whomever that is of English descendents didn’t fit in either, hence why they’re here too! Hate has no mind, hate has no understanding, hate is a senseless act! Hate will always exist to create balance in this universe. All I really wanted to say to the Hmong is, “you stop your ignorance and stand united!”

  12. Though I have never met Cha Vang, I had followed with the media to seek justice and was disappointed with the verdict. Words cannot describe how I feel when I heard the verdict! Not even today! It’s a coincidence that only a few days ago I thought about Cha and to my surprise after mentioning it to my husband (who never heard about Cha Vang) was quite saddening but I know that I will always live on remembering this tragic event that happened to him. May he rest in peace.

  13. I’m a Wisconsin hunter and I remember Cha Vang’s murder. It made me sick with grief and shame. With all the pain and misery in this world it’s hard to understand why people have to create more out of nothing. I truly appreciate growing up with Hmong as a part of my community in Eau Claire. Please know that there are people who value the Hmong community.

  14. Thank you for your post. I had not heard of the tragedy of Cha Vang. I agree that we must not forget his story. But, we must also not forget the story of Robert Crotteau, Joey Crotteau, Alan Laski, Jessica Willers, Mark Roidt, and Denny Drew. These 6 people were murdered in the woods of Northwest Wisconsin on November 4th, 2004 by a Hmong man named Chai Soua Vang. I believe it is a travesty that people generalize hatred for an entire population, but injustice goes both ways. I pray that you also try hard not to generalize. We live in a broken world and we should all mourn together.

  15. Thank you for reminding the people who Cha Vang was. You’re such a great inspiration and impact to the Hmong people and not only the Hmong, but also to everyone else. I love your memoir and keep up with the good deeds. ❤

  16. Thank you so much for your story. I heard parts and bits of it but not the whole story but I understand it much more now. It just goes out to prove that even in this “free country”, we will never receive half the justice we deserve.

  17. Thank you for bringing this story into light. I will never forget this man because i remember reading on how he was killed so brutally. But i remember that i was most angry at the party that took him there on that horrible hunting day. They know that he can’t speak english very well, and yet they left him by himself in the woods. Personally, i don’t like to hunt myself, but i say if you do go hunting you should go in pairs. It was a sad day, he will not be forgotten.

  18. Thank you for writing this, he will never be forgotten! I am Hmong and this just makes me wanting to cry. I don’t understand why there’s so much hatred on Hmong, when were all silent? We keep our peace, we show our RESPECT and this is what we get out of it. Hurting one Hmong man is hurting our nation also. R.I.P Cha Vaj

  19. Thank you for writing this article. I cannot agree with you more. Cha Vang was my uncle. I’ve been reading articles written about his murder and yours is by far the best. Thank you for telling his story, pointing out the injustice of the American justice system, and acknowledging the race issue that still persists in today’s society.

    • The term “white” man is equivalent to “Caucasian,” as it is another term for that race. The author can’t decipher what ethnicity the white man was as oppose to knowing that Cha Vang is of Hmong ethnicity. Also, topics during the civil rights years use “whites” for Caucasians, and “blacks” for African Americans. I don’t see what the difference “Caucasian” would have made.

  20. Thank you for sharing! It’s a tragedy that Cha Vang survived the war in Southeast Asia only to be killed by hatred in this nation. May Cha Vang rest in peace and be remembered as a warrior.

  21. wat a powerful and sad story. I never heard of this story nor do I even know that cha vang existed until this day. the only thing I remember hearing of that ever occurred in Minnesota was the hmong guy who shot a couple of white guys while hunting. it saddens me how much hate, discrimination, and torment there is n this world. it worries me about he kind of place or world that my children will grow up in, whether being white, hmong, or n e other race. my heart goes out to cha vang’s family and his loved ones. and I pray for better days when I wake up n the morning. I did not know of this story nor did I even know that cha vang existed, but today, bcuz of ur story n ur courage to spek on his bhalf, the world will knw his story n wat has become of it. thank you n god bless!

  22. One can never forgotten such hidious crime like this, it makes me feel a little uneasy in wi, especially when it comes to enjoying the outdoor sports

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  24. Is very disturbing reading this article, that’s why I reside in a state that is with mixed cultures (CA) to be exact. We need to educate our own children through school, church, and/or organizations about hate crime. This hate crime got to stop! My condolences goes to the Vang family still.

  25. I remember Cha Vang. It seems the story went and stayed under the rug. Media did not want to give it much light at all, yet they made the Chai Vang story a national headline. Funny how the media works sometimes…

  26. I don’t remember Cha Vang. I remember bits and pieces of a Hmong man killed in the woods in Minnesota or Wisconsin, but forgot the details. Probably because I heard it from word of mouth, or because the news was limited on it. That story and the story of Chai Vang made me think about the racism against Hmongs in Minnesota and Wisconsin. It also caused me to think about the racism against Caucasians as well by Hmongs in those states. It will never stop if people don’t learn to cross cultural barriers to understand and respect the other side.

    I don’t think you can blame your husband for not remembering Cha Vang. We’re Hmong, and even we don’t remember. People don’t remember because it didn’t hit a chord in them, or they don’t care, or they’re ignorant. But for most Hmong who hear of such a story, it would hit a chord somewhere and that story will remain with them. Of the thousands of horror news we hear every year, something’s gotta mean something to us to stick in our minds. So for most Hmongs, they are Hmong so they remember.

    I wouldn’t expect other races to remember it much unless it struck something near and dear to their hearts, or unless they live in those states. I wouldn’t remember a news article about racism in Egypt if I read it more than a few months ago, let alone remember someone’s name in the event.

    You said that if the jurors had been more representative of the people that Vang came from and not merely of Nichols, then they could have held on longer for a conviction that would grant justice.

    To me that seems to show that there was doubt in the fairness of the jurors. Isn’t it an assumption to say that they came up with that conviction because they were white and not Hmong? Although I understand what you mean. However I disagree that they would be more fair if they were “Hmong”. It’s not about picking a side. It’s about doing the right thing and respecting other people, other cultures. And respecting humanity. It really doesn’t matter what race you are, if you are in a jury box, you should be fair no matter the race of the person who is on trial. If the jury was all white, but they were all just, then a just sentence would have been given. For the jury being all white…isn’t that selected by a machine or raffle and not by humans so that there is no human interference?

    And if there is any doubt on the fairness of the jury, I’m wondering if there was any demonstrations outside the courtroom or a scream for justice that should have been carried out by the huge Hmong population in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

    Besides the question of the jury, it is clearly a hate crime.

    People who study murder and hate crimes would know that someone being stabbed multiple times and with something stuck in their mouth even after they are dead would be evidence that points to some passionate hatred against an individual for whatever reason. These things are evident, especially with war victims.

    With the racial discrimination against this case, I’m surprised that there was little done to bring more attention to the world. Especially with the more educated Hmongs we have in MN and WI. The case doesn’t have to have the right conviction to bring attention to the world. It depends on people like you and I to pass this on so that people would be aware of the matter of injustice.

    • I find it hard to believe that you would think that the justice system is really a system based on fairness. Do you REALLY believe that jurors, even though they ARE supposed to be fair and unbiased, would actually be unbiased towards a man who looks nothing like them? I don’t know where you are from, but here in Wisconsin, there are some small towns where the populations are predominantly white. After cases like Chai Vang, there is no doubt that hostility towards the Hmong people have increased. Therefore, I DO believe that if the jurors were more diverse, we would have seen a different outcome.

      A more recent event with huge media attention was the Travyon Martin case. The jurors on his case was ALL WHITE FEMALES against a young black boy. Would the outcome be different if the jurors were more diverse? We may never know, but being someone who has grown up and witnessed and been a victim of racism and hate crimes, I DO believe that injustices can occur in this “judicious” government of ours.

      • S Vang recently these thing runs through my head n I wish I could express them as u did. Reading what u wrote makes me happy that even if I can’t, I will support u all the way. I so want to say Chai Vang was a survivor who did not get the right justice or fair treatment. I’m not saying what he did was right but in his case u fight n live or die without a trace when there r 6 of them. There r two cases this year, recently, that was not talked about or nothing was done about. It brings sadness knowing the murders got away free while chai vang is serving his…….

  27. They say justice is served in America. Think hard and think again my fellow minorities and Hmong Americans. Nice post!!! Don’t let injustices go unnoticed!!!

  28. i do remember this story and remember thinking how sad it is as a hate crime. i am trying as hard and as often as i can to encourage the hmong people here that i have met , all the stories, all the memories should not be forgotten . and these stories really need to be in print for others to read and remember and learn from ,. i would like to thank the hmong community for all they represent and have contributed to us here in , minnesota wisconsin and other states . i have met some great hmong friends here and i pray that others will open there hearts and take time to get to know this great people . i consider it an honor to have hmong friends .

    • I’m glad you can see through our skin to our heart. Not all Whites can see us the way you can. If you can help shed some lights unto their path, it will help in some way.

  29. Wisconsinites probably remember his name more. I wrote a piece on “How Chai Vang killed Cha Vang” in my Asian American course about race theories in America. Sad to say, but the bad press of the Chai Vang incident put bad light on the Hmong, which inevitably caused racial tensions that lead to hate crimes such as the slaying of Cha Vang. 2nd degree-intentional homicide is injustice and speaks volumes about our Judicial system in Wisconsin. Cha Vang will always be remembered and his story will be retold by people like you and me.

    • I really don’t think Chai Vang killed Cha Vang. The racism people will be racism people, nothing more, nothing less. That hate crime act was waiting to happen, it just happened to come after the Chai Vang’s case.

      • I agree with you that Chai Vang did not literally kill Cha Vang hence the quotations around the title of my piece. What I was merely stating was that the slanted media in the Chai Vang case caused even more racial tensions that had already existed. In Cha Vang’s incident, this racial tension inevitably boiled over the top.

  30. Just so you know… I remember Cha Vang. I am from Wisconsin but was living across the country at the time. I was saddened and surprised it didn’t get prosecuted as a hate crime for all the evidence it obviously was. I am ashamed of the xenophobic remarks I hear from my fellow Wisconsinites. There is much we all need to learn about each other. Unfortunately – there are those who will insist on remaining ignorant. Thank you for your remembrance.

  31. I wrote a paper about the Cha Vang killing for my racism class. Every article that I read about the incident never displayed a picture of James Nichols in a bad light: always dressed casually or in a suit and tie, rarely ever in an orange jumpsuit or on the stand in court. Although I am pursuing my degree in journalism and plan to be a part of the media, many times, the media, deliver their news with a biased slant. Look at the incident of the seven white hunters killed by Chai Vang in 2004. Search his name on the internet and what automatically pops up are mug shot pictures of him in an orange jumpsuit. I am not saying this to justify any of these cases. It’s a shame how racial stereotypes are embedded in so many aspects of every day life.

  32. I remember this. I did not live in Wisconsin at the time, but I worked for a newspaper, so perhaps that’s why I remember it more clearly than others. I did not remember his name, however. I will now.

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