The Associated Press
BIRCHWOOD, Wis. — Clovis resident Ron Pierson was “absolutely mortified” last week to hear that two acquaintances — Robert Crotteau, 42, and son Joey, 20 — were slain during a deer hunt 20 miles from his former home in Rice Lake, Wis.
Pierson said he played softball and socialized with the Crotteaus when he worked at a radio station in Rice Lake.
But the co-owner of KICA FM-98.3 and AM-980 in Clovis said he doesn’t believe last month’s shooting of eight deer hunters will negatively impact hunting in Wisconsin.
“I think the people will probably scrutinize where they hunt a little more than they did …” he said, “but I don’t think that will dissuade anybody from continuing to hunt there.
“Dear hunting is absolutely second to God up there. Those people are pretty proud. It’s a ritual.”
But some Wisconsin hunters say they can’t get the slayings off their minds.
Seventy-year-old deer hunter Phil Baker is a mountain of a man who had a hard time concealing his weariness and sadness last week.
Standing in the door of his ramshackle trailer house, less than a mile from the site of the shootings, Baker tried to be upbeat about his recent days spent in the Wisconsin woods. He talked about renewed friendships and “good times” spent roaming the woods, but he couldn’t get the slayings out of his mind.
“I found myself checking other deer stands all week,” said the hunter from Hamilton, Ohio, who has traveled to Wisconsin’s Sawyer County for three decades to pursue whitetails. “I haven’t been comfortable in the woods at all.”
While the shooting, which left six dead, has stunned nearby Rice Lake, it also cast a pall over Wisconsin’s celebrated hunting season, which ended Sunday. And it left an indelible mark on northern Wisconsin hunters and their traditions.
“This is our 9/11,” said hunter Dave Daggett of Omro, Wis., whose hunting camp was 11/2 miles from the shooting scene. “Things will never be the same.”
Hunters say they will be more wary of meeting strangers in the woods, and that wariness will be particularly acute when Hmong and non-Hmong hunters cross paths. They say they’ll also be more nervous when trespassers are confronted; and some wonder aloud about the shooting’s impact on their children.
His voice low and somber, Baker said, “God willing, I’ll be back next year. It’s not going to chase us away, in that respect. You can’t change years of habits. There’s too much fellowship, too much friendship.”
The incident appears to have started when Chai Soua Vang, 36, of St. Paul, Minn., climbed into a deer stand on private property and was confronted by hunters who owned it. After he began to walk away, officials said survivors recounted, he turned and fired upon the group. Five hunters died there, another at a hospital. Two survived.
Charges against Chai Soua Vang, a Hmong who claims he was racially ridiculed and shot at first, are expected this week.
A certain contradiction exists in deer hunting: Everyone in the woods is armed, but no one ever imagines another hunter leveling a gun at them. A code of safety and ethics demands it. Violating such a basic tenet will get a hunter barred from a camp or a hunting party, no questions asked.
So when Rollie Thompson of Marshfield, Wis., heard a burst of gunfire not far from his deer stand last Sunday, he equated it with another successful hunter, not a homicide. When he heard screams and more gunfire, he thought it was odd. Perhaps someone celebrating a big buck, he thought.
“They were rapid-fire shots,” Thompson said. “And screaming and hollering. … You wouldn’t think anything of it. You would think it’s just a bunch of guys hooting and hollering.”
Thompson’s hunting camp, an ancient mobile home parked along Deer Lake Road, lies just over a hill from where the shooting occurred. Soon emergency vehicles were screaming by, police cordoned off the area and search planes hovered overhead.
Nearby, the wool-clad men of the High Chaparral deer camp have been coming to Wisconsin’s North Woods for 38 years.
Unless you count a cabin fire, few things have interrupted the camp’s time-honored, nine-day-long appointment with the whitetail bucks of Sawyer County.
That is until Sunday, when a stranger came knocking at the cabin door.
“Get your guys out of the woods,” the stranger warned. “There’s a guy going through the woods shooting anyone wearing blaze orange. Five hunters are dead, three are wounded.”
Only part of the chilling warning was true — the count of the dead and wounded — but initial news of last Sunday’s shooting spread instant fear through High Chaparral and other deer camps in the region.
“It scared the bejeezus out of us,” said High Chaparral member Richard Mulvey of Omro, Wis.
Daggett didn’t think twice about hopping on an all-terrain vehicle and riding into the woods to alert his grown son, Danny, about the trouble.
“Danny wasn’t in his blind and I thought, `Oh, my god,’ “ Daggett said. “This is a guy who usually doesn’t come in until sunset. … You couldn’t help but fear the worst.”
Daggett found his son in another blind. They gathered back at the camp with the rest of the group and after the television news announced Chai Soua Vang’s arrest, the camp relaxed.
Soon after news of the shootings hit airwaves, frightened spouses and mothers were calling the camp. Yet in the hours after the shooting, no one in camp dreamed of going home.
Sitting on 80 acres of private woods, High Chaparral members continued to hunt throughout the week on thousands of acres of public land surrounding the camp.
“Now when we see a blaze orange coat in the woods, you ask, `Is it one of our guys?’” Daggett said. “Do we have to worry about them? Not only did this guy take six lives, but he took the pleasure out of the hunt for thousands of us.”
Deer stands and blinds are another subject. It’s an unwritten rule that hunters don’t occupy other hunters’ deer stands or blinds, unless the season is winding down and other hunters have gone home. When a stranger occupies a stand, the dispute is usually settled with words, not actions.
That’s what makes Sunday’s fatal confrontation baffling and disturbing, hunters said.
“The code of ethics is, if you didn’t build it, you don’t belong in it,” said Jared Wagner of Omro.
Camp members wondered aloud about public opinion on hunting after the shooting.
“(Wisconsin) Gov. (Jim) Doyle had a good statement that this didn’t have anything to do with hunting,” said Wagner.
“But nationally, it must give hunters a black eye,” continued Brad Daggett, Dave’s other son at the camp. “People in the coastal states, where hunting isn’t a tradition, they’re just going to look at us as a bunch of idiots.”
Gathered around the fireplace, other members nodded their heads in agreement.
Jason Roeder, a club member and youth pastor from San Jose, Calif., said he was making a videotape of this year’s hunt at High Chaparral for his youth group back home. He hoped to show inner-city kids the joys of deer hunting. After the shooting, he was torn over the project.
“I don’t know. Part of me feels that now, more than ever, they should see what deer hunting’s like, the camaraderie and the friendships,” he said.
Rice Lake hunter Rick Timmers pulled into the Bear Paw sporting goods store on Wednesday to register a buck he shot on Saturday before the shooting. The owner of a construction company, Timmers said he was a friend of shooting victims Robert Crotteau, Terry Willers and Al Laski through the construction trade. Crotteau and Willers owned a concrete company, and Laski was a local lumberyard manager.
“I’ve been hunting now close to 30 years,” Timmers said. “When I was raised, everybody knew everybody else out in the woods. If you ran into somebody, chances are you knew them. You didn’t think about trespassing. Now you don’t dare step on anybody’s land.
“Yes, I’ve been hunting this week,” he added. “But one of my daughters, who’s 10, is concerned that I won’t come home. You say, `We’ve got to move on. We can’t live in fear.””
Timmers’ other daughters are 14 and 16 years old. The oldest is a friend of victim Robert Crotteau’s daughter. Before the shooting, the Timmers’ family talked about introducing the girls to deer hunting. “But they’ll never hunt now,” Timmers said.
But Treig Pronschinske, who registered a doe Wednesday at Ed’s Pit Stop in Birchwood, Wis., had another take on the shootings’ aftermath: “People are going to be safer. It makes it feel like you want to be a little kinder to others in the woods.”
CNJ News Editor Mike Linn contributed to this report