SUMTER, S.C. -- Touna Xiong found out his wife was pregnant the day before he died. His youngest daughter is three years old now. He never met her. And the criminal case against the man who shot him to death has yet to come to trial.
Xiong went hunting early that morning in the Sumter National Forest in Chester County, South Carolina. It was the first day of deer season, October 11, 2008. Game wardens called the gunshot that killed him a “hunting accident.”
But a medical examiner who performed an autopsy had a different word for it: homicide. The death left the family with troubling questions about how it happened and whether the South Carolina justice system ignored them because they were ethnic Hmong and the shooter was a white man.
“We were quite patient for three years that they still haven't done anything but we just felt they didn't want to dig deeper into the case,” said Konmeng Vue, Xiong’s nephew.
Xiong and the man who shot him, Michael Lee Hawkins, a factory worker from Spartanburg, shared one thing in common other than deer hunting. They were both Christians. And Xiong’s extended family forgives the shooter, but feels they’ve never gotten justice.
“As a fellow Christian I forgive him – no hard feelings,” says Konmeng , a student at Winthrop University, “But I just want to know the truth. What was the reason he was shot?”
Xiong was one of the Hmong people who emigrated to the U.S. from Laos after the Vietnam War.
The family lived in California and Oregon before moving to York County shortly before he died. They came for an affordable place to spread out, grow vegetables and raise chickens to gather fresh eggs.
The family planned to work together to open a Chinese restaurant. But three years later, those plans vanished and the case has yet to come to trial.
At the I-Team’s request, Xiong’s brother-in-law, Yang Vue, took us back to the spot where he witnessed Xiong’s death. Dirty yellow crime tape still clings to the trees.
“I’m right here and my brother-in-law is right here,” says Vue, pointing to a spot just a few feet away.
Xiong was packing up his tree stand. Hawkins later told game wardens he mistook it for the sound of two bucks butting their antlers together. Xiong was in full camouflage.
But Vue says he was standing right next to his brother-in-law wearing a bright orange vest with reflective tape.
The shooter was on the ridgeline above. Game wardens measured the distance at 118 feet.
“First shot I don’t see but the second shot I saw his gun,” said Yang Vue. “My brother-in-law said, ‘Somebody shot us!’ and he ran.”
Xiong crouched and ran. The shooter fired a third round. It hit him in the lower back.
“I don’t understand why he say it’s a deer,” Vue says emphatically, staring down into the clearing from the ridge. The sky was clear that afternoon. Witnesses agree the shots were fired within minutes of sunset so there was still daylight. And the distance was less than 40 yards.
“It’s not accident,” Vue said.
The shooter fired a Remington Bushmaster 30-06, a semiautomatic rifle fitted with a scope.
The bullets can travel more than a mile. South Carolina game wardens require hunters to take training before they are eligible for a license which instructs the hunter never to fire without visually identifying the target as a buck (unless it’s doe season) and further considering what is behind the target.
“My client thought he was shooting a deer,” said Doug Brannon, a lawyer for Michael Lee Hawkins.
Hawkins had decades of experience as a hunter. He’s a married father of two who held the same job at the same Leigh Fibers plant near Spartanburg for more than 20 years.
“Mr. Hawkins is a very devout Christian,” said Brannon. “He was a quiet person before this. He is a quieter person today. He is very remorseful.”
Appearing in court for a bond hearing in May of 2009 after being held for five days in jail, Hawkins reportedly cried.
Hawkins and his son, then 10 years old, had set up a deer blind on the ridgeline after 4 p.m. that afternoon. His attorney said they never saw Xiong sitting in a tree stand just a few dozen yards down the hill.
“What they thought they saw was two bucks standing on their back legs,” said Brannon.
Brannon says Hawkins didn’t know he had shot a person until he climbed down from the ridge.
“He handed the phone to his son and said, ‘Dial 911,' and then he started to attempt CPR,” said Brannon.
The log of the original Chester County 911 dispatch reads: “(Caller) states he just shot a Mexican….has 2 other Mexicans down there with guns.”
The men were ethnic Hmong – not Mexicans. But Hawkins told game wardens his son was “hysterical” and was afraid they were about to shoot them. So they ran away.
“He couldn’t understand the language they were speaking and they were being circled – surrounded,” said Brannon.
Vue and four friends and family members thought the shooter was getting away. So one friend quickly drove his truck to block the one-lane dirt road, the only way out of the public hunting lands.
Vue showed us the spot. “When he come in he turn the car this way and block the road,” he said.
By all accounts the standoff was tense when Hawkins pulled up in his truck. Everyone was armed with high-powered rifles. That’s when witnesses agree that a friend of Hawkins, Richard M. Arthur, Jr., a Wellford, South Carolina patrolman in the truck with Hawkins and his son, flashed his badge.
“He said, ‘I am the cop so put your gun down!’” said Yang Vue. “’If you don’t put your gun down you go to jail.’”
Brannon acknowledges that Arthur probably asked the men to put their guns down but he denies they were threatened with jail.
The hunters eventually passed the truck that was blocking them. Just up the road, they encountered Department of Natural Resources (DNR) game wardens and turned around and came back. By then Touna Xiong lay dead, face down in the woods.
The DNR game wardens took hours to go over the crime scene, taking photos and measurements. But initially they did not charge Hawkins with a crime.
“In fact he was told by DNR that he would not be charged,” said Brannon. “It appeared to be an accident.”
The prosecutor did not charge Hawkins with reckless use of a firearm while hunting until May of 2009 – seven months later.
Xiong’s sister Mai Vue says she repeatedly called and e-mailed the Solicitor’s office in Chester but did not learn of a trial date until the day the I-Team called the prosecutor. The trial is set for July.
“The problem I can see – because we are Asian and he is American – that’s why,” said Yang Vue.
But Vue is an American citizen. So is his wife. So are his children. And so was Touna Xiong. I ask him, “When you say he’s an “American” you mean he’s a white man?” “Right, yes,” he says.
Solicitor Doug Barfield flatly denies the case is being treated any differently because of Xiong’s ethnicity or because of the shooter’s friend in law enforcement.
"We have no real great explanation (why it has taken three years) other than we're a small circuit and have a relatively large number of cases,” Barfield told me by phone.
Hawkins is set to be tried in Chester County in July.
The crime of reckless use of a firearm while hunting carries a penalty of not less than three months or more than three years in prison.
Xiong’s family won a $50,000 civil judgment from Hawkins’ insurance.
His widow left the two oldest children with his parents and took the two youngest children back to California, including the daughter she bore without him.