It started out as a deer hunt, but no four-footed animals shed a drop of blood. That can’t be said of the hunters.

They not only shed blood, they lost their lives, as targets in a shooting rampage which left their bodies scattered across a grisly death scene in the northern Wisconsin woods.

It all happened so quickly, the survivors scarcely realized what happened. Only a few minutes – but, when the shooting stopped, five were dead and three wounded. One of the injured died later in the hospital.

The man who fired the deadly shots walked away into the woods.

The details of the confrontation are shocking enough, but add race and cultural differences to the mix, season it with allegations of hate and racism, and you’ve got yourself a simmering pot of problems. That’s what faces authorities in Wisconsin.

That reality hit squarely when the man charged with the killings made his statement. He told police the hunters shot at him first, cursed at him and shouted racial epithets.

In this politically correct age, them’s fighting words. But what if they’re not true? What if it’s the knee-jerk defense to any confrontation between people of different races in a country that used to consider itself a melting pot? What if the media play down the incident because of the inflammatory nature of the defense? What if the courts give credence to the physical differences between the people and allow that to influence their decisions?

What if?

It’s too soon to tell. The dead are being buried as I write this: The first funeral last Friday, Nov. 26, the day after Thanksgiving – three more on Saturday, the last two on Monday.

On one side is the group of about 15 hunters, old friends, who were beginning their annual hunting trip Nov. 21, on 400 acres of private property as deer season opened.

On the other side is a lone hunter, a Hmong immigrant from Laos, who lives in Minnesota. A truck driver, married, with six children, 36-year-old Chai Soua Vang, who qualified as a sharpshooter during six years with the California National Guard and two in the Ready Reserve.

According to survivors, several of the hunters came upon the stranger in their hunting platform. They radioed back to the others asking if anyone should be there and were told “no.” Some of the others headed for the scene as one man approached the stranger.

According to injured survivor, 48-year-old Lauren Hesebeck, the man got off the deer stand after a verbal exchange and started to walk away. Then, he took the scope off his rifle, turned and began firing at the group. Police say the shooter picked off his other victims as they ran to help.

Hesebeck radioed for help, but the gunman continued shooting. Terry Willers, 47 years old, shot once at the man, but missed. When rescuers arrived, they grabbed all the living and drove out. One remembered the shooter’s hunting license number by writing it in dust on a dirty vehicle.

In the end, the man fired at least 20 shots from his SKS rifle. There was just one gun among the victims. It had been fired once.

The shooter walked until he came upon another hunter and said he was lost. He got a ride out. Four hours after the shootings, he was arrested. Vang is being held on $2.5 million bail on suspicion of murder and attempted murder.

Among the group of hunters was Robert Crotteau and his 20-year-old son, Joey as well as Terry Willers and his daughter Jessica, 27. Crotteau and Willers co-owned the land.

When the carnage ended, Willers was gravely injured and Jessica shot dead, sitting in an ATV as she arrived to help. Robert Crotteau and his son both dead – Joey chased down and shot in the back. He was unarmed.

Also killed were Al Laski, 43; Mark Roidt, 28; and Denny Drew, 55.

Survivor statements were consistent and clear: They found a trespasser, told him about it and he suddenly opened fire, deliberately shooting and killing. The police statement said that the man saw one of the hunters still standing on the trail, shouted at him “You’re not dead yet?” and he shot again.

The statement of the shooter raises the spectre of racism and bigotry. Vang says the hunters surrounded him, swore and threatened with racial slurs.

He says one hunter aimed a rifle at him, took a shot, but missed. Vang says he shot twice at the man who fell to the ground. He didn’t say why he continued shooting.

There’ve been problems between Hmong and hunters before – it’s not simply race. Hunters complain the Hmong do not understand the concept of private property. “No trespassing” isn’t understood. It’s a cultural difference not resolved by changing geography.

Hmong were brought here from Laos after Vietnam. They fought on our side – haven in the United States was a reward and protection against communist retribution. It’s proved a mixed blessing.

There are some 180,000 across the country with highest concentrations in Wisconsin, Minnesota and California. In every community, there are cultural clashes involving illiteracy, delinquency, arranged marriages, spousal abuse and more.

How do you resolve that? How do you respond to charges of racism? How do you deal with senseless death? How do survivors live with endless grief.

The only winners in this tragedy are the deer. Most hunting trips have been cancelled.

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