Three weeks ago, 64-year-old Sao Lue Vang was out hunting with two friends in Pepin County, Wisconsin. It was a hobby that Vang had participated in for twenty years. He was familiar with the local public land, and with the etiquette of the local hunting community.
On November 5th, Vang and his friends parked on a road and hiked into the public lands. Vang then separated from his friends when he was confronted by Kevin Elberg, whose family owns private land that borders the public woods. Elberg accused Vang of trespassing, and then proceeded to brutally attack Vang. From a Facebook post written by an advocate of Vang’s family:
According to Sao [Lue Vang], Elberg started harassing, yelling, and accusing Sao for being on his property. Although Sao’s english speaking abilities are limited, he was able to understand what Elberg was saying. He politely apologized to Elberg for the misunderstanding. To which Elberg replied, “I don’t care”. The confrontation escalated.
Fearing that Elberg would harm him, Sao radioed his hunting party and proceeded to walk away from Elberg. Sao is 5’3, 117 lbs. Elberg appeared to be in his early 40’s, over 6 feet tall and weigh around 180 lbs. (The Leader Telegram newspaper later confirmed that Elberg had military background).
Suddenly, from behind, Elberg struck Sao with enough force to knock him onto the ground. Elberg wrestled Sao for his walkie talkie while Sao continued to cry out for help.
While on the ground and helpless, Sao was kicked and struck several more times in the stomach and body. Elberg then grabbed Sao’s rifle and struck him with it, causing lacerations and bleeding to his left hand. Sao pleaded for his life and continued to yell for help. Elberg put his hands over Sao’s mouth, causing him to gasp for air. Shortly after, Sao was unable to breathe and became unconscious.
Elberg was arrested on November 8th and released without bond, pending possible criminal charges. Meanwhile, Vang’s family are now speaking out, accusing Elberg of racial bias in this horrific assault (video after the jump).
In the interview, Vang describes the attack:
“I thought immediately, ‘I’m never going to see my kids again’. If I didn’t have my two friends there, he probably would have killed me.”
The attack reminds of a similar incident that occurred in 2004, when Hmong American hunter Chai Vang claims he was confronted and verbally harassed by a group of eight White hunters for using a private deer stand. Vang testified that after apologizing for being unaware that the deer stand was privately owned and after trying to defuse the situation by walking away, one of the hunters pointed a gun at him. Vang said that he was afraid for his life and was acting in self-defense when he shot his confronters: six died, including father and son Robert and Joey Crotteau, and another two were wounded.
The incident ignited long-standing racial tension in Minnesota between Whites and the growing Hmong American population, and community advocates even suggest that anti-Hmong stereotypes and linguistic barriers may have contributed to the original altercation as well as how Vang’s testimony was interpreted — and perhaps misinterpreted — during his trial. Vang was eventually sentenced to life in prison without parole on six counts of first degree murder.
However, the case has had lasting impact in Minnesota and the rest of the Midwest, where distrust and dehumanization of Hmong Americans remains high. In the aftermath of Chai Vang’s case, a picture of a bumper sticker emblazoned with the words, “Save a Deer, Kill a Hmong” was published in a local magazine.
In a documentary filmed about the incident (embedded at the bottom of this post and definitely worth the time to watch), Hmong Americans living in the Midwest talk about their alienation and marginalization at the hands of White locals before and after the 2004 Vang shooting. Language and cultural barriers persist that cast the Hmong American community as the Perpetually Foreign interloper in the eyes of the non-Hmong Midwesterner.
Ten years later, the tensions remain high, and the Hmong American community remains dehumanized. Even in the coverage of this latest incident, local news station WQOW neglected to name assault victim Sao Lue Vang in their on-screen card (included above), instead labeling him simply “Hmong Hunter”. Vang does not even earn the dignity of being named in the news coverage about his beating.
The Vang family is seeking answers in Sao Lue Vang’s attack, and have enlisted hep from the Coalition for Community Relations. Coalition representative Tou Ger Bennett Xiong told media:
Xiong said, “There are some alarming questions that I think, and on behalf of the Vang family, that, ‘Why is, even if he was trespassing, what led to these injuries, to his body, a four-grade liver laceration, where they (medical staff) couldn’t even address at one hospital, they had to transfer from Wabasha to a larger Mayo hospital to address?’”
After a month, Kevin Elberg has still not been charged with a crime, even though he was initially arrested on suspected battery.
Multiple Hmong American groups are now joining forces to demand an answer in Vang’s assault and to specifically demand to know why criminal charges have yet to be filed; involved groups include the Hmong American Community of Menomonie, the Hmong Councils of Greater Wisconsin, and the Hmong MidWest Hunters Association along with Vang’s family and the rest of the Hmong American community.
You can contribute to this coordinated community outcry to hold the Pepin County justice system accountable by signing this Change.org petition and sharing Vang’s story with your network.
Watch “Open Season”, the story of the 2004 shooting by Chai Vang:
Update: Kevin Elberg has now been charged with two felony counts; the criminal complaint against him further includes a statement by the first responding officer that Elberg smelled strongly of “intoxicants” in the moments after the attack.