Shooting of Hmong American man during Lava Fire draws nationwide attention

Michele Chandler
Redding Record Searchlight
Surrounded by his supporters from the Mt. Shasta Vista Subdivision, Zurg Xiong sits in front of the county courthouse for the past week on a hunger strike in protest of the officer involved shooting of a Hmong man.

The killing of a Hmong American man by state and Siskiyou County law enforcement officers during evacuations from the Lava Fire last month has led to mounting calls for an investigation into the man's death, attracting attention from politicians and activists from beyond the region.

Representatives of the local advocacy group Siskiyou Hmong Americans United 4 Justice said Friday they will be holding a vigil demanding justice for Soobleej Kaub Hawj, the 35-year-old farmer who was shot and killed by law enforcement officials on June 28 as he and his family fled the Lava Fire. Official accounts of the report claim Hawj brandished a gun, although activists say eyewitness reports contradict the law enforcement narrative.

Sacramento City Council member Mai Vang plans to join local activists at the rally, which will be held at the Siskiyou County Courthouse in Yreka from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday. A Hmong American community activist from Minnesota, Tou Ger Xiong, will also speak at the vigil.

The local advocacy group said in a statement they will demand "an independent investigation" into Hawj’s death: "This vigil will be held to remember Mr. Hawj’s life and to bring attention to the fog that surrounds his murder."   

Two city council members from St. Paul, Minnesota, also have joined the vigil's organizers in calling for a federal investigation into allegations of racial discrimination toward the Hmong American community in Siskiyou County.

The two city councilmembers, Nelsie Yang and Dai Thao, released a statement on Friday demanding further investigation into Hawj's death.

“There needs to be accountability. The Sheriff’s Office made a mistake by killing an innocent man in front of his wife and three kids," Thao said. "This will only further drift the relationship between the community and law enforcement.”

Yang said “Hmong community members near and far reached out for my support to put a stop to these injustices." She said she supports the release of body camera video of the incident. 

The Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers has filed its own public records act request for that footage.

Sheriff alleges man who was shot fired gun at officers

According to a statement from the sheriff's department, the shooting occurred at the intersection of Shasta Vista Drive and County Road A-12 in the unincorporated Big Springs area of Siskiyou County.

Authorities said law enforcement officers trying to assist residents being evacuated instructed the driver of a GMC truck to turn north on County Road A-12, which leads out of the evacuation zone.

The driver "ignored numerous directions by officers" and instead attempted to drive around the roadblock and head back toward the evacuation zone, the statement said.

The driver "raised his hand and pointed a semi-auto handgun at the officers" and "may have" fired at the officers during the incident, according to law enforcement officials.

After being shot, Hawj died at the scene.

All involved officers, including those from the sheriff's department, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Etna Police Department, have been placed on paid administrative leave pending completion of an investigation, which is being led by the Siskiyou County District Attorney’s Office.

A statement from the Sheriff's Office on July 15 said, "There are certain details surrounding this incident that have not been made public as the investigation is ongoing; however, in the future, once the investigation is completed, a thorough report of the incident will be made public." 

'I will continue this hunger strike until talks are made or until I die'

Saturday's vigil will take place at the Siskiyou County Courthouse, where a local Hmong American resident has been staging a hunger strike for the past 10 days to spotlight Hawj's death.

"I will continue this hunger strike until talks are made or until I die," said Zurg Xiong, who lives in the Mt. Shasta Vista Subdivision, has been on a hunger strike since July 6  and has been demonstrating in front of the courthouse in Yreka since Sunday.

Tensions have been escalating between Siskiyou County's Hmong population and county officials since local authorities in May passed an ordinance limiting where water trucks can drive in an effort to curtail illegal marijuana grows. A second ordinance requires a permit to transport water on certain roads where illegal grows are known to proliferate.

Although outdoor marijuana cultivation is not permitted in Siskiyou County, the Big Springs area is a focal point for such activity. When the Lava Fire swept through a wide swath of the Mt. Shasta Vista subdivision on June 28 it destroyed the living quarters of Hmong farmers working in the area.

Xiong and other protesters allege that Hawj was killed unnecessarily while trying to protect his possessions. Hmong American activists also said the action by the Siskiyou Board of Supervisors unfairly cut members of their community off from their water supply.

So far, the Lava Fire has burned 26,316 acres and destroyed 23 structures, including 14 residences. On Friday, the blaze was 77% contained and not estimated to be fully extinguished until early August. The area's steep, rocky terrain, poor road access and limited water sources near the fire have hampered the efforts of fire crews, according to a spokesperson for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers correspondent Shareen Strauss contributed to this report.

Michele Chandler covers city government and housing issues for the Redding Record Searchlight/USA Today Network. Follow her on Twitter at @MChandler_RS, call her at 530-225-8344 or email her at Please support our entire newsroom's commitment to public service journalism by subscribing today.