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Vang sentenced to life in prison

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Chai Soua Vang, 37, was ordered to serve six life prison terms, one after the other, guaranteeing he would never be freed from prison. Wisconsin does not have a death penalty. (MPR file photo)
A Wisconsin judge has sentenced a St. Paul man to six consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole, in the shooting deaths of six hunters last fall. Chai Soua Vang, a Hmong immigrant, says the hunters -- all white -- confronted him with racial epithets and threats when he wandered onto their property. Survivors of the shooting say there were no threats. Several of the victims were shot in the back.

Hayward, Wisc. — The hearing lasted for two hours. It was drenched with pain.

Seven family members described how the killings have affected a close group of friends who worked and played together.

They described the fathers and brothers and sister and fiance they lost. They said all were good people, devoted to family and willing to help others.

Theresa Hesebeck's husband, Loren, was wounded, and her brother, Denny Drew, was killed. She told the judge the community's life changed forever, on the opening weekend of last year's hunting season.

"As the day's events unraveled, I learned that eight people had been shot, and five were dead, in our normally peaceful north woods. The joy of the hunting atmosphere of our great north woods had been forever changed. And no one in the nation could believe the horror," she said.

One of the victims, Jessica Willers, was planning to be married last summer. Her mother, Patti Willers, shared her pain.

"We will never be able to see her walk down the aisle on her father's arm. She will never get to hear the words 'mommy.' I will never hear the word 'grandma' from her kids, something we were all kind of looking forward to," she said.

Jessica's father, Terry Willers, was one of two survivors. He described his friend Bob Crotteau, another victim, as a family man who worked hard for his living and shared his hunting cabin with friends. During the trial Vang said Crotteau yelled ugly racial slurs at him as he ordered him off the property.

"Sure, Bob may have scolded Vang in the woods," he said. "Bob worked hard for that land he bought. He didn't do anything to deserve being shot."

All the family members asked the judge to hand down the maximum sentence.

Vang's wife also spoke. She said she'd heard for years about incidents in which white hunters harassed Hmong hunters.

"I know that Chai would never have shooten (sic) anybody if he didn't feel that his life was threatened. He would not have done anything to anybody if they did not push him to the limit," she said.

And then Vang spoke. He told his victims' families that he understood their anger, frustration, and grief.

"You lost a loved one; my family also lost a loved one as well. But your lost ones and I have, we done something great for the people in this country, the people who continue to live, and to learn how to be better in the future," Vang said.

He said he hopes everyone learns how to live in peace together, and how to treat one another better.

Vang also addressed his children.

"You don't have to do things like I did," he advised. "Walk away from trouble if you can. You don't have to fight to be a man or a woman. But you always will have the right to defend yourself under any circumstance."

And then it was time for sentencing. Circuit Judge Norman Yackel said Vang had an explosive temper and a low character. He said killing six people was a crime that deserved the sentence called for under Wisconsin statute - life in prison.

"They were all vibrant people living in their lives to the fullest and were cut down in the prime of life. They were six horrific crimes and each one deserves a life sentence consecutive to the other," the judge said.

The judge could have recommended the possibility of parole, but he did not.

Vang's lawyer said Vang has instructed him to file an appeal.