New details emerged Monday surrounding the shocking killing of a group of hunters in remote Sawyer County in northwestern Wisconsin.
Authorities identified the suspect, Chai Soua Vang, a 36-year-old from St. Paul, Minn., as the culprit of the multiple homicides. Police apprehended Vang around 5 p.m. Sunday, hours after he allegedly shot and killed five hunters and seriously injured three others upon being told to leave a tree stand on private property.
One of the three survivors, Denny Drew, died late Monday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Lauren Hesebeck was held at Lakeview Medical Center in Rice Lake in stable condition with a single gunshot wound.
The third, Terry Willers, suffered more serious injuries and was transported to the Marshfield Clinic in Marshfield, Wis. Hospital spokesperson Carla David said Willers was in serious but stable condition.
Officials, hunters react
Each of the eight victims hailed from Barron County, an area directly southwest of Sawyer County.
Barron County Sheriff Thomas Richie said the community is in a “state of mourning.”
“It’s hit the county hard,” Richie said. “It’s really made people think, asking how such a thing [could] happen, and I don’t think there’s any answers.”
In Rice Lake, with a population of 8,312 and the largest city in the county, the Dairy State Bank established a fund for donations Monday in remembrance of the victims. Pam Skowzgird, spokesperson for the bank, said the Rice Lake Hunters Survivors and Victims Fund received “quite a bit of support” just hours after being started.
Hunters expressed amazement that such an event could take place in the sparsely populated portion of the state. Third-year University of Wisconsin pharmacy student and hunter Brandon Ordway was shocked to find out so many people had been killed in a community nearby his hometown of Cumberland.
“Occasionally you hear about someone falling off a tree stand or something, but this was extraordinary,” said Ordway, who hunts in an area 30 miles away from the scene of Sunday’s killing spree.
Still, Ordway said the incident would not deter him from hunting in the future.
“It will definitely not stop me. I think people realize it was one of those weird things that happens and nobody knows why.”
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Northern Region Warden Mike Bartz said the shooting stood in contrast with what had been a remarkably safe pastime in recent years. And while a few fatalities occur each year in Wisconsin in connection with the sport, a homicide like what happened in Sawyer County is completely unprecedented, he said.
“Typically we are involved in shooting accidents that are fatal, and those are tragic, but the word accident is usually in there someplace,” Bartz said. “This was one of those things where what should have been a great tradition was just shattered.”
The gun Vang allegedly used in the murders, an SKS semi-automatic assault rifle, has gained popularity among hunters in recent years, according to Bartz.
“This particular model is relatively cheap — it’s easy to get ammunition and we’re seeing it more and more in the last 10 years,” he said.
Bartz noted the gun’s low recoil also makes it a popular choice for hunters.
Gun-control advocacy groups were quick to renew pleas for an assault-rifle ban in the wake of Sunday’s slayings. Jeri Bonavia, executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, touted a proposal from state Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, calling for a statewide ban on such guns.
“A shooting like this, unfortunately, does bring the issue back into the limelight,” Bonavia said.
A 10-year federal ban on certain semi-automatic assault rifles expired in September of this year. However, the SKS Vang used was not among the guns prohibited under the ban.
Bonavia said the incident should influence the state Legislature to act in the interests of those opposed to the prevalence of semi-automatics.
“The vast majority of gun owners, including hunters, are in favor of a ban, so the incentive is there to compel lawmakers to enact a ban at state level,” she said.