Man who beat Hmong American hunter Sao Vang charged with battery

Kevin Elberg, in his arrest photo.
Kevin Elberg, in his arrest photo.

43-year-old Kevin Elberg, a Wisconsin man who beat 64-year-old Sao Lue Vang on November 5th over a trespassing dispute, has now been charged with battery with intent to injure and with false imprisonment (read criminal complaint here). Both crimes are felonies and carry a maximum sentence of six years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

As reported earlier this month, the incident began when Vang was out with friends squirrel hunting on public land in Pepin County; he became separated from his fellow hunters when he encountered Elberg, who was also out bow-hunting on his parents’ property. The events that follow this initial meeting are disputed, but what we do know is that Vang left the incident with a lacerated liver and a hand cut so badly it required several stitches.

Sao Lue Vang, 64, was severely beaten by Kevin Elberg on November 5th after a trespassing dispute. Vang's family are questioning if racial bias may have contributed to the attack.
Sao Lue Vang, 64, was severely beaten by Kevin Elberg on November 5th after a trespassing dispute. Vang’s family are questioning if racial bias may have contributed to the attack.

Speaking to media a month after the incident, Vang says that he was approached by Elberg on November 5th who told him he was trespassing. After apologizing, Vang turned to leave. That’s when Elberg tackled Vang from behind, he says, punching and kicking him repeatedly leaving the older man dazed and in pain, and bleeding from multiple internal injuries.

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.

By contrast, Elberg claims that when he approached Vang, Vang ignored him for several moments and then, when Elberg got within 3 feet of him, began yelling in an agitated fashion, and then raised his .22 caliber rifle at him (to about “crotch-level”). Elberg says that when he pushed the rifle away, Vang threw himself at Elberg, which is when Elberg says he “football tackled” Vang to the ground, pinning him down and disarming him. Then, Elberg claims he decided to drag Vang up a hill and then to the road; when he slipped, Elberg says Vang made an attempt to reach for his rifle, and Elberg again beat him resulting in the cut hand.

Vang vehemently denies that he ever raised his rifle at Elberg. Meanwhile, Elberg denies ever punching and kicking Vang, instead claiming that the lacerated liver and other internal injuries arose when Elberg pressed down on Vang’s chest with his knee to disarm him — or, in a separate statement to another officer, as if by magic. In an interview with Officer Peter Pillman, Elberg opines:

“He was moaning after that. That’s when I think the incident with whatever happened to him medical-wise happened.”

Yes, that’s when Sao Vang’s liver lacerated itself.

I’ve got to say, Elberg’s story seems suspicious at best. Internal injuries of the sort that Vang sustained simply don’t come from a single knee pressed into the chest. Elberg claims self-defense, but  did self-defense require beating the elderly man into unconsciousness and causing life-threatening injuries? Why did Elberg start dragging Vang through the woods, which might have exacerbated the older man’s injuries? And after beating a stranger into unconsciousness, why did he call his parents, rather than police or emergency medical personnel? There are other bizarre aspects to Elberg’s story, like his claim that he at-first thought Vang was a “kid with a pellet gun” until he wrestled him to the ground; yet, if so, isn’t Elberg saying he thought it was rational to full-on football tackle a child with a toy gun, which he also claims he did because he thought his life was in danger when the gun was pointed at him?

One of the possible reasons for the bizarre series of decisions and conflicting account of events in Elberg’s statements may be because he was actually intoxicated at the time of the attack. The criminal complaint against Elberg included a statement by the officer first on the scene, saying that Elberg had a “distinct odor of intoxicants”. Elberg denies drinking prior to his encounter with Vang.

Ultimately, it will be up to the courts to decide whether Elberg’s actions were an appropriate use of force related to self-defense as he attests, or whether he brutally battered a helpless man as Vang claims.

Residents of Wisconsin rally in support of Justice for Sao Vang and social justice for all Hmong Americans.
Residents of Wisconsin rally in support of Justice for Sao Vang and social justice for all Hmong Americans.

What we know already, however, is that this latest case can only further inflame the already tense racial climate of the Midwest.

Anti-Hmong intolerance rose to a frenzy after the 2004 shooting by Hmong American Chai Vang of eight White hunters, and remains a palpable aspect of racial politics in the Midwest today. Few examples rise to the level of mainstream media coverage, but some can be found: in 2007, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison made a series of anti-Hmong comments in the classroom forcing an apology from the school. In 2011, a Hmong American candidate for public office in St. Paul posted a racist voicemail she received from an anonymous caller ranting about the Hmong community. Later that year, a local morning show was forced to apologize for creating an anti-Hmong parody song and airing it on the radio. Anyone living in the Midwest can cite these, and countless more examples of anti-Hmong microaggressions that never make headlines, as representative of the racial climate that Hmong Americans continue to face today. Even in the coverage of Sao Vang’s beating, I noted how mainstream news weirdly dehumanized Sao Vang; instead, a picture of him was captioned with the Otherizing label, “Hmong Hunter”.

Now, the Hmong American community in Minnesota and Wisconsin is rallying behind Sao Vang and are advocating for justice for him. Last week, students in Durand, WI organized a rally in solidarity with Sao Vang and his family, and also to highlight all anti-Hmong racism and violence in Wisconsin.


Rally organizers wrote:

This rally [was] not solely about justice for Sao Lue Vang but [was] also about social justice for all Hmong in Wisconsin. Its goal [was] to highlight the omnipresence of racism and the deleterious effects of racially based violence.

This Friday, we [sent] the following messages to the Pepin County Sheriff’s Department, the Pepin County District Attorney, and the local media:

(1) Hmong lives matter (2) The WI Hmong community will no longer tolerate anymore racially based violence (3) The WI Hmong community will be alert on and swift to respond to injustices committed against us.

The Hmong American community is also encouraging supporters around the country to please sign the petition and contribute to Sao Vang’s legal fund on GoFundMe, as well as to like the Justice for Sao Vang Facebook Page.

Kevin Elberg is scheduled in court December 15th.

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