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.