Wisconsin hunter gets 69 years in prison for killing Hmong man

(AP) - A white hunter convicted of killing a Hmong man while both stalked squirrels in woods near Peshtigo was sentenced Wednesday to 69 years in prison.

James Nichols, 28, of Peshtigo, was convicted last month of second-degree intentional homicide, hiding a corpse and being a felon in possession of a firearm in the death of Cha Vang of Green Bay.

The slaying rekindled racial tension in northern Wisconsin, where a Hmong deer hunter fatally shot six white hunters three years ago.

Nichols spoke briefly before his sentencing. He stood and turned to Vang's widow, Pang Vue.

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"I am very sorry for what happened," he said.

Vue bent over, put her face in hands and began to weep, causing Nichols to pause.

"It has all been emotional for us, and I am greatly sorry for that," he added.

"The community needs as much protection as it can possibly get. The best we can do is make sure you can never do harm again."

Vue submitted a statement that was read before Nichols was sentenced. She called him a "heartless" person and said she has found it difficult to perform even simple household duties since her husband of 13 years died.

"I've been an emotional wreck and often time suffered from blackouts because I cannot comprehend why James Nichols decided to take the life of my husband," she wrote. "I see myself stuck in a dark tunnel and I cannot see the light."

Vang, a 30-year-old father of five, was found Jan. 6 in a wildlife refuge where Nichols had also been hunting squirrels.

Vang had a 3- to 4-inch wooden stick in his clenched teeth, and his body was hidden in a depression covered with a log and other debris. An autopsy indicated he 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.

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.

Defense attorney Kent Hoffmann said Nichols was disappointed with the sentence and he would appeal. Hoffmann declined to comment further.

Sheriff's deputies arrested Nichols after he went to a hospital Jan. 5 with a .22-caliber bullet lodged in his right hand and an injury to his other hand -- about the same time members of Vang's hunting party reported him missing.

Nichols did not testify during his weeklong trial, but the jury heard tape recordings in which he told law enforcement officials he acted in self-defense after Vang shot him.

Nichols said the fight started after he told Vang to leave because he was interfering with his hunt.

Nichols said he ducked behind a tree and took a "wild shot" at Vang with a shotgun. Vang shot him again before Nichols rushed him, took away his gun and stabbed him in the neck with a pocketknife, he said.

But Nichols also told authorities Hmong people are bad, mean and "kill everything and that they go for anything that moves."

Prosecutors used those statements and testimony from Nichols' former boss to argue that he took advantage of the woods' isolation to act on his prejudice against the Hmong.

They contended he was guilty of first-degree murder, but the jury convicted Nichols on the lesser charge, which allowed consideration of mitigating factors.

Marinette County Circuit Judge David Miron said it was hard for him to believe Nichols' claim of self-defense.

"I believe he did fire a shot at you, but it was in response to yours," the judge said. "I am sorry, but I can't believe anything you say as far as what happened with this incident."

Miron noted Nichols' history of violence against animals and others, his juvenile record and a previous conviction for burglary before sentencing him to the maximum time in prison followed by 30 years extended supervision.

"The community needs as much protection as it can possibly get," Miron said. "The best we can do is make sure you can never do harm again."

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.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)