A white hunter convicted of killing a Hmong man as they both stalked squirrels in the woods was sentenced Wednesday to 69 years in prison.
James Nichols, 28, of Peshtigo, was convicted last month in the death of Cha Vang, a 30-year-old father of five. The slaying rekindled racial tensions in northern Wisconsin, where a Hmong deer hunter fatally shot six white hunters three years ago.
Nichols, a former sawmill worker, claimed he acted in self-defense when he shot and stabbed Vang Jan. 6. Prosecutors argued he took advantage of the isolation in the woods to act on his prejudice against the Hmong.
Nichols spoke briefly to Vang’s widow, Pang Vue. Vue bent over, put her face in hands and began to weep as he spoke.
“I am very sorry for what happened,” he said.
Nichols was arrested after he sought treatment at a hospital for gunshot wounds to both of his hands, about the same time Vang’s hunting companions reported him missing. Nichols initially said an unknown gunman shot him miles from the wildlife area.
But he changed his story after a deputy asked why he did not call police, and he helped with the search for the body, leading investigators to the area where a search dog found it the next day under a log. An autopsy indicated Vang was hit by a shotgun blast and stabbed five times.
Vang was born in Laos, fled to a refugee camp in Thailand and immigrated to the U.S. with his family in 2004. Several hundred thousand Hmong fled Laos for the United States after the communists seized control in 1975 following the Vietnam War. Many settled in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Nichols’ conviction came nearly three years after a Hmong hunter in northwest Wisconsin killed six white deer hunters following a racially charged confrontation about trespassing. Chai Soua Vang of St. Paul, Minn. — no relation to Cha Vang — is serving multiple life prison sentences.
After Cha Vang’s death, members of the Hmong community said they feared it was retaliation for the earlier killings.
Vang’s uncle Kou Vang, of St. Paul, Minn., said the family was “very, very pleased” that the judge gave Nichols the maximum prison term, but the sentence didn’t ease their grief.
“It is of little consolation to us. Mr. Nichols can go outside. He can feel the wind blow,” Vang said and broke into tears. “He can see his family. He can talk to his family. But ours is gone forever.”
Nichols’ father and his girlfriend left the courthouse without commenting on his sentence.
Nichols was convicted by a jury of second-degree intentional homicide instead of the first-degree charge he orginally faced, which could have gotten him life in prison. He also was convicted of hiding a corpse and being a felon in possession of a firearm.