On July 7th, 2017, a SWAT team in Riverside, California shot and killed an unarmed man named Manuel Diaz. The event was caught on camera by a bystander who posted the footage to Facebook.
Soobleej Kaub Hawj needed to rescue his family out of the burning Shasta Vista. The Lava Fire, started by lightning, was ripping through a remote Northern California neighborhood on June 28, burning acre after acre of high desert scrubland, as well as the dilapidated homes of farmers and greenhouses full of marijuana plants.
The 35-year-old Hawj, his wife, Lee, and their three children were scheduled to take a summer vacation to Mount Shasta Vista, an unincorporated neighborhood in Siskiyou County near the ancient gold-mining town of Yreka. They’d traveled up from Kansas City, Kansas, to see friends and family in the ethnic Hmong population in the region. Hawj and his family were forced to escape for their life as flames encroached and smoke billowed into the night sky.
Hawj rode shotgun in a white GMC truck with his dog Silk. Lee and his children—two girls and a son, aged 7, 14, and 16, respectively—traveled in a different vehicle.
Hawj and his family arrived at a police checkpoint on the highway at one of the entrances to Mount Shasta Vista, which was under an evacuation order, a few minutes after 8:40 p.m.
The precise sequence of events is still unknown, but according to the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office, Hawj attempted to make a turn that would have brought him past the evacuation zone. Sheriff’s officers, police from a neighboring small town, and state game agents all stood in his way.
The officers were “communicating” with Hawj when he abruptly “raised his hand and aimed a semi-automatic handgun” at them, according to the sheriff’s office. The cops opened fire, raining bullets down on Hawj’s vehicle. The bullets missed his family in the other vehicle, but hit his dog, severely injuring Hawj. Medics from a neighboring fire department attempted to assist him, but he died on the spot.
According to his family’s lawyers, Hawj was not a marijuana grower, but the deadly shot happened during a crackdown by local police on illicit plants in Mount Shasta Vista, escalating long-simmering tensions. The dispute is about water availability amid California’s drought, and the Hmong have accused Siskiyou County’s elected leaders and sheriff of systematic bigotry.
The county has tried to limit irrigation water availability, claiming that it is being squandered on weed, which many Hmong farmers cultivate to supplement their income on otherwise barren terrain near Mount Shasta Vista. It seems like an effort to push the Hmong, mainly first- and second-generation Southeast Asian immigrants, out of a conservative and majority-white county, the latest episode in a long history of anti-Asian bigotry going back to California’s gold rush.
Hmong residents of Mount Shasta Vista filed a class-action federal lawsuit in early June to challenge the water regulations. Photos of animals they say died of thirst were included in court papers, as well as claims that the water restrictions hindered their capacity to defend their properties from the blaze.
“The tensions were sparked by the Lava Fire. That’s when we realized we couldn’t depend on the local administration or the police to safeguard our lives.”
“They’ve just been fueling the emotions ever since they enacted the water ordinances,” said Zurg Xiong, a 33-year-old Hmong man who lives in Mount Shasta Vista. “And so, in that Lava Fire, the tensions finally erupted. That’s when we realized we couldn’t depend on the local administration or the police to safeguard our lives.”
Xiong embarked on a three-week hunger strike on the steps of the county courthouse after the shooting, demanding that the state undertake an impartial investigation. The case is still being investigated by the county’s district attorney, Kirk Andrus, who issued a statement to VICE News denying the claims of racism and revealing a new allegation against Hawj, claiming he was killed not only for having a gun, but also for “assaulting an officer—at first with a vehicle.”
The case has drawn global attention to Siskiyou County and has become a flashpoint in a larger cultural battle over climate change, natural resource management, and who sets the laws in a state where marijuana was legalized over five years ago.
Based on three visits to Siskiyou County and hundreds of interviews, this research provides fresh insight on Hawj’s death and the circumstances surrounding it. We talked with two individuals who were within earshot of the incident at the time, and they reported hearing several gunshots. We also received the Hawj family’s first public statement, in which they denounced the county DA and sheriff’s “conflicting and self-serving” comments.
The sole video available, according to LaRue, shows officers approaching the vehicle, seizing a.45-caliber handgun from Hawj, and discovering a spent round casing that matched the gun. Andrus also verified the footage’s existence. When the shooting happened, at least one of the cops was wearing a body camera, but LaRue and the DA claim the video didn’t begin until after Hawj was dead.
“People want to witness a first-person perspective of the shooting, but we don’t have that,” LaRue said. “The body camera footage we have after the event is very graphic, and I believe that publishing it would serve no purpose other than to show officers removing the weapon from the driver.”
The Hmong community and its supporters have questioned the police story, questioning why Hawj would place his family in the midst of a gun fight while trying to flee the fire, and how it’s conceivable that the police cameras weren’t rolling when the deadly bullets were fired. The Hmong also complained of harassment by the sheriff’s office and overzealous enforcement of water regulations, which they said created a “we vs. them” attitude that transformed the county into a flashpoint. It was only because of the Lava Fire that it blew.
WAR IN THE SECOND PART
In 2014, the first Hmong homesteaders came in Mount Shasta Vista, attracted by the inexpensive property and beautiful mountain vistas. The unorganized neighborhood, a rough stretch of sand, volcanic rock, and chaparral, had lain empty for decades after a developer attempted and failed to sell off two-acre lots as rustic vacation homes. There were few takers before the Hmong arrived, with dirt roads, no sewage system, and terrain unsuited for digging wells.
Many Hmong in Siskiyou County may trace their ancestors to the northern Laotian highlands. During the battle in nearby Vietnam, the CIA recruited Hmong warriors to fight communists in their nation in a “secret war,” which resulted in harsh persecution. In the early 1980s and 1990s, refugees began to trickle into the United States, with many spending years in Thai refugee camps. Over 300,000 Hmong people reside in the United States now, but the latest wave of approximately 15,000 refugees, which included Hawj and Lee, didn’t arrive until 2004.
According to a statement sent by the Hawj family’s attorneys to VICE News, the couple was “trying to live the American dream.” They had bought a house in Kansas City and were renovating it. The excursion to Mount Shasta Vista was “intended to be the final family vacation of the summer before the kids began school,” according to the family.
Mount Shasta’s 14,000-foot summit is reported to remind Hmong elders of their homeland, but the subdivision’s magnificent vistas of the mountain come at the cost of a lack of basic infrastructure and services, such as indoor toilets. Generators provide electricity, and the majority of the buildings are made of plywood. Xiong, the hunger striker, claimed he lived in a “shack” with his cousin and uncle for nine months in the area.
“When you think of frontier stuff like old cowboys and the Oregon Trail, that’s exactly how we’re living.”
“Imagine classic cowboy and Oregon Trail–type stuff, and that’s exactly how we’re living,” Xiong added. “The weather is wonderful there. You might have 60-mile-per-hour winds one day and 110-degree heat the next.”
Xiong was born and reared in Milwaukee and was residing in Minneapolis at the time of the demonstrations over the police shooting of George Floyd, which included a Hmong-American officer who is accused and has pled not guilty in Floyd’s murder. Xiong decided to “go away into the mountains” and attempt life on the farm in the midst of the turmoil and epidemic.
“It seemed like I was back in Laos, living in a hamlet with other people who live the same way,” Xiong added. “People approached me and said, ‘This is how it used to be back in the old country,’ where if my neighbor had a farming tool and I didn’t, I could borrow it and we would assist each other with anything we needed.”
Hawj and his wife were planning a road trip holiday with their children to that idyllic-sounding Hmong village, which Xiong described as “extremely kind” and “egalitarian.”
Instead, they found themselves in the middle of a water battle.
WATER IN THE THIRD PART
The Hmong depend on Steve Griset, the proprietor of a big farm near Mount Shasta Vista, for water. Even though the surrounding region has grown more dry, Griset can irrigate his alfalfa fields and maintain the animal-feed crop lush and green thanks to a deep well on his land. Griset came in 2015, just as the Hmong were establishing themselves, and he had no problem selling a little amount of water to his new neighbors at initially.
However, as the community expanded, so did the need for services. The Hmong deliver water in tanker trucks with a capacity of up to 4,000 gallons. For the largest vehicles, Griset charged a cent per gallon, or $40. According to court documents, approximately 100 water trucks passed through Mount Shasta Vista every day at one time.
“They’d have to wait two or three hours for water at times, and they’d constantly ask for more.”
Griset said, “There were so many vehicles that they’d be queued up waiting.” “They’d have to wait two or three hours for water at times, and they’d constantly ask for more.”
Griset claims that even on the busiest days, he only sells about 350,000 gallons per day to the Hmong, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly 6 million gallons he pours on his own fields. Even yet, when California’s drought worsened, the snowpack atop Mount Shasta melted away, and shallower wells in the county went dry, the sight of lengthy lines at Griset’s pump and trucks sloshing with water started to irritate some residents.
The county Board of Supervisors decided in May to make water trucks illegal on a few major routes, mainly around Mount Shasta Vista, because they “create hazardous driving conditions” and “detract from the quality of life and welfare of people who live beside and near these roadways.” Residents were restricted to transporting no more than 100 gallons at a time under the new rule, which was rigorously enforced by the sheriff’s office.
The county also made it unlawful to “engage in the act of squandering or improperly utilizing groundwater… for the purpose of growing cannabis,” targeting Griset and others who sold water to Mount Shasta Vista residents without accounting for how each gallon was used.
While Griset’s water is meant for irrigation rather than drinking, some people use it for showers and other domestic needs, as well as for watering dogs, chickens, and other animals. When Griset refused to cease pumping, the county launched a civil action, alleging that the farmer was operating a commercial water station in an agricultural zone.
Griset said, “All of a sudden you’re turning off water to thousands of people.” “I’ve never heard of employing it as a strategy, as a political and police move to just refuse people water in our nation. This is heinous.”
The water rules, according to county authorities, are colorblind since they only target individuals who cultivate marijuana, who in this instance happens to be Hmong. Accusations that the legislation is racist, according to District Attorney Andrus, are “just a self-serving assertion by an interested organization,” and illegal producers in the neighborhood are “notoriously and openly revolting against California law.”
“The objective of the legislation, as I understand it, is to shut off water to a particular Mount Shasta Vista community—a community of green plants that cannot be cultivated lawfully there,” Andrus remarked, capitalizing his own words for emphasis. “No race of person is allowed to legally cultivate cannabis to the degree that it is being done in these areas.”
Griset claims he attempted to reach an amicable agreement, but the conflict developed into a lawsuit and an event that scared him. He awakened one morning in May, after the legislation went into force but while still loading trucks for the Hmong, to discover one of his pumps had been broken and was spouting a fountain of water into the air. He stated it seemed to have been assaulted with an axe by someone he didn’t know.
Griset repaired the pump and built a fence, but between that event and the county’s legal action, he chose to turn off the water.
“To prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, we’ve given the county the chance to sit down,” Griset added. “Let’s calculate how much water we should give them. Let’s collaborate. And we were completely disregarded at every level.”
WEED, PART 4
A convoy of Siskiyou County sheriff’s officers dressed in tactical gear and pulling a bulldozer drove into Mount Shasta Vista on a crisp Friday morning in late August to execute raids. With their assault weapons drawn, the deputies used bolt cutters to break the padlocks on driveway gates and emptied the homes.
Deputies could be seen approaching from miles away, and the occupants had already gone. On one of the lots, a half-eaten cup of soup lay steaming on a table, interrupting a farmer’s morning. Another driveway was littered with children’s toys, but no one was home.
The deputies got to work, using chainsaws to chop down the wooden frames of greenhouses containing thousands of illegal marijuana plants. They plowed over the fields with the bulldozer, crushing several hundred pounds of processed marijuana into dust.
Despite the fact that marijuana has been legal in California since 2016, Siskiyou County prohibits commercial production and limits personal grows to 12 plants. More than 5,000 greenhouses with illegal gardens are estimated to be scattered over Mount Shasta Vista, providing marijuana to the black market, contaminating the environment, and sucking up water, according to the sheriff’s office.
The operations’ top officer, Lt. Behr Tharsing, claimed the Hmong had just grown too blatant to be tolerated. He described them as “the most dominating growers in the county” and “perhaps the most arrogant.” “If you drive down the road, you’ll see that they’re not concealing anything. It’s there in your face.”
Marijuana has a long history in Siskiyou County, dating even before the Hmong arrived. Outlaw farmers have long found the county perfect for clandestine grows, with enough of sunlight and a total land area larger than three states, most of it vast public forestland. LaRue, who became sheriff last year, agreed with Tharsing that the Hmong’s lifestyle at Mount Shasta Vista made them noticeable.
“We’re talking about a metropolis dedicated only to the cultivation of marijuana. And it’s a terrifying image to see.”
Sheriff LaRue said, “We’re not talking about a few of marijuana greenhouses out in the middle of nowhere.” “We’re talking about a metropolis dedicated only to the cultivation of marijuana. And it’s a terrifying image to see.”
We followed the officers as they executed search warrants at the sheriff’s request. Inspectors from the county were also engaged in the searches, issuing abatement letters to unpermitted buildings and forcing owners to clear up garbage and waste on public nuisance grounds.
Deputies discovered two “spider tunnels” with significant amounts of marijuana and trimmings, as well as an unlicensed “ghost gun” handgun. Mount Shasta Vista was targeted because of armed robberies and a slew of other crimes linked to illicit crops, according to the police.
Other illegal growers have established themselves in Siskiyou County, with residents and the sheriff’s office reporting Chinese, Russian, and Mexican organizations. Some activities have been connected to organized crime, and the Hmong have been grouped together and labeled as a “cartel” or “Asian mafia.”
“In the afternoon, I adore the scent of diesel power.”
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican from the region, stoked the fires by releasing a video in which he accompanied the sheriff’s office in bulldozing greenhouses full of marijuana plants that he said were owned by a “Asian cartel.”
Before starting the bulldozer, LaMalfa quoted a phrase from the Vietnam film Apocalypse Now and remarked, “I adore the scent of diesel power in the afternoon.”
Another Hmong protest leader, Tong Xiong (not related to the hunger striker), claimed the cartel allegations are unfounded and are just thinly disguised bigotry by the sheriff, county authorities, and white residents. Someone put a spray-painted sign with the words “North Korea” at one of Mount Shasta Vista’s entrances, according to Xiong.
Tong Xiong stated, “[LaRue] says it’s not racist.” “But, you know, what are you saying when you portray an entire race as criminals and call them violent? That, in my opinion, is the definition of racism.”
Xiong, 37, was born in Thailand and immigrated to the United States, where he served in the Army National Guard and was deployed to Iraq before settling with his family in Mount Shasta Vista. Some grow for medicinal reasons, he added, adding that the Hmong were formerly known to plant opium poppies, another illegal crop, in Laos.
Xiong said, “They’re farmers.” “That’s all the Hmong people know how to do, particularly our elders.”
Mouyang Lee, a 46-year-old Hmong man, is charged with criminal conspiracy and money laundering for allegedly managing a greenhouse network spanning hundreds of properties. The case is still ongoing since he has pled not guilty. Lee’s attorneys released a statement claiming that the county’s prosecution is unfair and related to the Hmong-targeting water regulations.
“Many members of the community believe the Board of Supervisors’ actions against them are racist, and that the majority of the board is more concerned with career advancement than with protecting the community,” said attorneys Allison Margolin and J. Raza Lawrence, who are also representing the Hmong in their class-action lawsuit against the county over the water restrictions.
LaRue and county officials insist they are not dealing with small businesses.
“We’re looking at where illicit marijuana is being sold, and we have to concentrate on those areas where we can have the most impact,” LaRue said. “And if the folks who are producing marijuana happen to be Asian, so be it.”
BLOOD IN THE FIFTH PART
The sheriff’s enforcement of the water law and general crackdown on Mount Shasta Vista had the town on edge by the time the Lava Fire broke out in late June. Deputies stopped anybody who was Asian and driving a pickup truck on the highway near the neighborhood, according to many witnesses.
When the sheriff’s office issued an evacuation order, several in the Hmong community were skeptical, since they had no intention of letting their homes burn. Anyone who went out for supplies—or water—would be barred from returning and might be arrested, resulting in heated confrontations with sheriff’s officers among people who wanted to remain and battle the fire.
The burned remnants of trailers and greenhouses can still be seen driving through Mount Shasta Vista. A improvised monument with a crucifix, paper flowers, a spotless can of Bud Light, and other gifts stands at the entrance to the neighborhood where Hawj was murdered.
The only information about what happened that night that wasn’t provided by police came from an anonymous firefighter quoted in the Sacramento Bee two days after the shooting, who said it happened after a game warden from the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife banged on the hood of Hawj’s truck while ordering him to make a right turn. Hawj intended to turn left, according to the fireman, and a violent lurch of his car frightened the police.
“I believe he stepped on the gas a little too hard, and everything went wrong.”
The fireman said, “I believe he popped on the gas a little bit and it just went all awful.”
According to the newspaper, a farmer who lives across the highway reported hearing 60 bullets. Multiple gunshot holes were seen in Hawj’s truck’s doors and windshield, and the inside was splattered with blood in photos that circulated online following the event.
We talked with two individuals who were in the neighborhood at the time of the shooting and want to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the community. They remembered hearing two separate bursts of gunfire, each with dozens of bullets.
While LaRue told VICE News that a pistol and shell case were discovered in Hawj’s vehicle, he stopped short of claiming Hawj fired the initial shot. That crucial information increases the likelihood that officers pulled their guns and fired first at Hawj, who then attempted to retaliate, resulting in the second round of gunfire heard by onlookers.
The sheriff stated that when Hawj took out the pistol, the police “responded properly,” and that the animal evacuation operation was still a success.
“I can’t think of anything we could alter in the past to make it better,” LaRue added. “There were no casualties.”
“Well, it was due of his own actions,” LaRue said when reminded about Hawj.
Andrus claimed his investigation is still ongoing since he hasn’t interviewed all of the witnesses yet, according to a statement he sent to VICE News about the case. He called the body-cam video from the shooting’s aftermath “graphic and distressing,” and said he hadn’t decided how it will be disseminated or made accessible for viewing. He’s currently debating whether or not to prosecute the cops involved.
Andrus speculated on why the police involved did not use their body cameras, saying that filming the whole evacuation “probably did not seem essential to do” and would have depleted their batteries.
“The incident then unfolded with dramatic speed from an encounter that should not have been expected to be violent to one where the decedent was assaulting an officer—initially with a vehicle,” Andrus said, raising the possibility that Hawj was shot not just for pulling a gun but also for the way he drove his truck for the first time outside of the anonymous firefighter.
“Given the rapidity with which everything transpired, it’s reasonable to assume that the cops’ first concern would have been to defend themselves from an immediate physical threat, and that any other job, such as activating video, would have been seen as putting their lives in jeopardy,” Andrus said.
“I merely meant to say that, when viewing the incident from a dash cam some distance away, the decedent [Hawj] is being non-compliant with his vehicle, including driving the vehicle toward an officer who is directing him to turn another direction to safety,” Andrus said when asked for more details about Hawj possibly “assaulting an officer” with his vehicle. That was not the catalyst for starting fire. It’s just how the short meeting started.”
The California attorney general’s office is “reviewing requests for our office to look into the event,” according to a spokeswoman, but has so far refused to take up the matter. A state legislation that went into effect earlier this year provides the Attorney General’s office immediate authority when an unarmed citizen is murdered by police, but it leaves most other cases to local authorities.
The Hawj family did not answer the allegation that he was armed in their response to VICE News via their lawyers.
“If the District Attorney’s Office, Sheriff’s Office, and other relevant agencies really want to do justice for the family and community, they will immediately disclose all evidence, including video footage, for public viewing,” the statement stated.
Hawj’s 7-year-old daughter often inquires about her father’s whereabouts, according to the statement: “Her daughter knows daddy was shot and died since she saw it, but she cannot understand that he is gone forever.” The death of their father has a huge impact on the other two children.”
“We’d been anticipating the day when they’d assassinate one of us.”
On Sept. 3, a federal court in Sacramento temporarily barred the county from implementing the water truck law, stating it had the effect of “cutting off the water supply to a minority neighborhood that has lately been the subject of racial hatred.” Two more ordinances were upheld.
While the county fights the matter in court, water trucks have returned to Griset’s alfalfa field, albeit in less numbers than previously. Some people are still afraid of the cops, while others have just gone and have not returned. Griset believes it was the intention of county leaders.
Griset stated, “They’ve accomplished their objective because they wanted these individuals out of their county.” “They aren’t fond of them. They want them to get out of here. And that is just what has occurred.”
Zurg Xiong was one of the survivors of the migration. After going on a hunger strike to protest Hawj’s killing, he claims he received threats and decided it was no longer safe to remain in Siskiyou. He wants to return one day, with the goal of establishing Mount Shasta Vista as a charter city, allowing people to govern themselves.
“We’ll still have a city when cannabis is legal throughout the nation and no one cares about it and all of it is gone,” Xiong added. “We’ll be able to call this location home.”
It’s a vision of peace for the Hmong after centuries of displacement that others in the community share. Nobody feels secure in the county these days, he says, because of the recent events.
“We’d been waiting for the day when one of us would be killed,” Xiong added. “We knew it was just a matter of time until they murdered one of us because of how obvious the escalation between the police and other groups against our community was. And they succeeded.”