Video released of the officer-involved shooting during a wildfire evacuation
Video released of the officer-involved shooting during a wildfire evacuation

Screenshot from video below

Ryan Sabalow, Jason Pohl, The Kansas City Star

A California district attorney declined to charge four police officers who shot and killed a 35-year-old Kansas City, Kansas, man last summer as police evacuated hundreds of people during a wildfire.

Soobleej Kaub Hawj, 35, was shot by four officers with the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office on the night of June 24, 2021, as the lightning-sparked Lava Fire burned in rural Northern California near the Oregon state line.

At 8:32 p.m., Hawj, who was driving a white GMC pickup, pulls up to the intersection where officers are directing the drivers.

But as the car turns right, dust billows out from the car’s spinning wheels. Deputies with the sheriff’s office and police officers fire at least a dozen shots at the car. His truck then crashes into a parked law enforcement vehicle.

Hawj died at the scene.

Asian American activist groups would soon be enraged, convinced the shooting outside the predominantly Hmong subdivision was motivated by race and local law enforcement’s desire to push out those who were growing illegal marijuana. Protesters would bring an international spotlight to the ongoing tension in the remote pocket of Northern California near the Oregon border, tying it to the broader “Stop Asian Hate” movement sweeping the country.

For nearly a year, the Siskiyou County District Attorney’s Office, which was investigating the shooting, was silent on whether officers were justified.

Last week, District Attorney Kirk Andrus announced that he’d cleared the four officers who fired their weapons. His nine-page letter detailed what officers told investigators about that evacuation gone awry.

One officer, who was just 6 feet from a handgun Hawj allegedly pointed at him, told investigators that the gun’s barrel was “the darkest hole I’ve ever seen in my life pointing directly at me.”

The district attorney’s letter may have cleared the officers of any wrongdoing, but some, including Hawj’s family, have lingering doubts. His wife has retained a lawyer, and the family filed a claim against the county — the precursor to a lawsuit.

To understand better what happened that night, The Sacramento Bee — and its lawyers — for months sought records and videos related to the shooting. That footage, eventually obtained through the Public Records Act, corroborates much of Andrus’s account. But it also revealed confusion among the evacuees and what some believe was unprofessional conduct on the part of at least one federal officer trying to usher people to safety through a chaotic and active crime scene.

The dashboard and police body camera footage shows Hawj’s pickup being fired upon after the driver revs the engine at the checkpoint. It shows officers pulling a gun from the bloodied driver’s lap. One officer, breathing heavily moments after firing his weapon, is shown in the footage saying the driver fired and tried to ram him and his fellow officers.

But the visual record isn’t complete.

Cameras that recorded the moment the shooting started were in police cars that were parked too far away or were pointing the wrong directions to record clearly what preceded the gunfire. The officers who fired their guns also didn’t have their body cameras on, so seeing what they saw that led them to open fire is impossible.

The lack of footage likely will create even more doubt in the Hmong community already wary of law enforcement.

“We need the body cams,” one man wrote on a Hmong Facebook group’s post. “Other than that, white privilege at work here. The DA doesn’t care for him as a minority.”

Siskiyou County Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue said the shooting happened so quickly that the officers who fired at Hawj didn’t have time to activate their cameras before firing. They wouldn’t normally have the cameras rolling while directing evacuation traffic — hours of such uneventful footage would eat up too much battery life and memory, LaRue said.

But dashboard camera footage shows officers scrambling for cover behind parked squad cars and fire engines. As additional officers arrive and activate their body cameras, footage shows firefighters and officers attempting to resuscitate Hawj.

“Can someone get some f—— gloves?” one deputy shouts as he gingerly pulls a blood-soaked handgun off Hawj’s bloody lap and drags his body out of the white pickup, its interior covered with blood and littered with shards of broken glass.

“Get some CPR stuff,” another officer shouts.

“He’s breathing,” someone shouts.

They place handcuffs on the man’s limp body — a standard, if controversial, law enforcement practice. Police say cuffing a wounded suspect is necessary to ensure officers’ safety in the event the suspect isn’t as hurt as he or she seems and tries to fight back.

They flip him over. A deputy starts chest compressions before she’s relieved by a firefighter.

The officer’s body camera pans to a deputy, breathing heavily. His voice quivers from the adrenaline surge.

“A mag and half,” the deputy says, describing how many rounds he fired. “He shot here and then f—— floored it and tried to ram us.”

Andrus said the gun in Hawj’s lap was a loaded .45 caliber Colt 1911. At least one spent .45 shell casing was found on the passenger seat, which Andrus said corroborated an officer’s statement that he believed Hawj had fired at him.

Later, an autopsy report showed Hawj, who had methamphetamine in his system, died from three bullet wounds to his head. He also suffered wounds throughout his upper body and both of his feet. The report doesn’t specify exactly how many rounds hit him.

Hawj had a $50,000 warrant for his arrest in Colorado for marijuana and firearms charges.

Andrus said that even though investigators will never know what Hawj was thinking when he tried to run through the checkpoint, he might have thought the officers were trying to seize the 132 pounds of marijuana he was hauling in totes in the bed of the pickup. Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office raids on the pot farms in the Mount Shasta Vista subdivision are a common occurrence, and deputies regularly destroy their marijuana, but Andrus said none of the officers had any intention of seizing anyone’s plants that day.

In reality, he said, officers were just trying to get everyone out of the fire’s path.

“He had a cash crop in the back of his truck that he apparently was willing to defend,” Andrus wrote. “He may have had the misapprehension that residents were being funneled into an area where they would be searched for marijuana. He would have been wrong.”

Nancy Ly, the Sacramento attorney whose firm Hawj’s family hired, said the district attorney’s account and the video footage don’t tell the whole story.

“The family is obviously disappointed that no one is going to be held criminally liable for the killing of Soobleej,” Ly said. “They’re looking forward to getting more answers as our investigation on the civil side continues.”

Hawj and Lee were refugees who came to the U.S. in 2004 from Southeast Asia and were planning to build a life in Kansas City, Kansas. Lee and the children were visiting Hawj, who had recently come to Siskiyou County, and the family arrived earlier that day for a visit, the attorney said. Lee and their children were in the car directly behind Hawj’s pickup as it approached the checkpoint. They were traumatized when they watched officers shoot him to death. Lee Hawj has also seen the same footage The Bee obtained.

“It was heartbreaking and very hard for her to watch,” Ly said. “It was very, super emotional.”

Tensions between the pot farmers, almost all of whom are Asian American, and local authorities, almost all of whom are white, had been ratcheting up for months, even before the 26,409-acre Lava Fire forced them to flee. Some argued that authorities were discriminating against the Asian Americans.

The police shooting thrust those claims into the mainstream.

Elected officials from Sacramento to Minnesota led protests demanding a federal investigation. Rumors spread across social media that the cops were in on a racially motivated cover-up. A Hmong man held a three-week hunger strike at the Siskiyou County courthouse to protest the shooting.

Sacramento City Council member Mai Vang spoke at one rally last summer, saying that sparsely populated Siskiyou County was becoming a hub for the fight against anti-Asian hate. She declined through a spokesperson to comment for this story.

The wildfire shooting, the allegations of racism and the illegal cannabis grows in a state that recently made pot otherwise legal garnered international news reports.

“Inside the Police Killing That’s Rocking Cannabis Country,” one headline said.

Anger over marijuana, discrimination claims

The Mount Shasta Vista subdivision in the lava rock-covered hills of Big Springs is filled with dirt lots that, in the past few years, have been converted to hundreds of illegal marijuana grows.

Thousands of greenhouses covering the hillsides are now visible from miles away.

Many in the community see them as a spreading eyesore and claim the areas around the greenhouses are filled with trash, raw sewage and chemical waste. Local authorities also accuse the growers of having ties to drug cartels — a claim growers deny.

On one side of County Road A12 — the road evacuees were fleeing toward — are greenhouses tended primarily by Hmong farmers, such as Hawj. That’s the side of the road the fire burned through. On the other side of the road are newer greenhouses that the Hmong and local authorities say are tended primarily by another group of people of Chinese descent.

The influx in Asian growers, which officials estimate to be anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 people during the growing season in the warm months, represents a major uncounted demographic for Siskiyou County, with an official population of just 44,000. Before the pot boom, census figures showed the county was 86% white and 1.6% Asian.

Proposition 64, approved in 2016, may have legalized marijuana across California, but it allowed local governments to ban commercial cannabis operations if they choose. Some conservative rural counties, such as Siskiyou, have chosen not to allow any commercial cannabis operations. Siskiyou limits the number of pot plants an individual can grow on a property to 12.

Rules on the books haven’t stopped the mega-grows from taking root.

Early on, the growers quickly found a way around a fundamental problem at the parcels they purchased. Most of the land they bought had no running water on site. The growers started purchasing water from nearby farmers’ agricultural wells and would have it delivered by truck to fill swimming pools and portable tanks.

Citing blight and rising violent crime in the neighborhood as well as local residential wells running dry, Siskiyou County officials passed a local ordinance that prohibited selling water to the cannabis farms. Another prohibited water trucks from delivering to the illegal grows.

They tried to starve the growers of water.

At the height of the “Stop Asian Hate” movement last year, the Hmong community claimed local authorities were targeting them because of their race when law enforcement officers began pulling them over if they were hauling water to their properties. The sheriff also threatened to arrest water-providers and others who supplied soil and fertilizer to the pot farmers.

The sheriff and other county officials denied they were targeting anyone because of their race. Instead, they said they were focused on those who were “aiding and abetting in the illegal activity.”

While the grows are illegal, critics contend the county’s policy was an overreach that also deprived people from having water for bathing, drinking and for vegetable gardens and livestock.

“We came here just to make a living,” Peter Thao, a former Sacramento mortuary owner and spokesman for the Hmong community in Big Springs, told The Bee last spring before the fire. “And we feel that we are being targeted.”

Thao’s number was disconnected as of this month, and efforts to reach him through his attorney for this story were unsuccessful.

Lava fire outflanked firefighters

The June 24 lightning storm ignited what became known as the Lava Fire. The next day, firefighters headed to its ignition point in a field of lava rock below the Mount Shasta volcano, a few miles north of the city of Weed.

They believed they had the quarter-acre fire out by 4 p.m. But the fire smoldered in the rocky crevices of the lava field, kicked up overnight, and eventually turned into an inferno that triggered evacuations miles from its ignition point.

Over the next four days, as 30 mph winds howled, the fire had run 8 miles and shot a smoke plume miles into the sky, making it look as if Mount Shasta had erupted.

Flames were racing toward County Road A12 as the fire burned a path through the middle of Mount Shasta Vista, torching a number of the Hmong’s greenhouses and the plants inside them.

That a tiny fire grew into a monster infuriated some in Siskiyou County. They believed the U.S. Forest Service had a chance to put it out when it was still burning in the lava rocks.

A Forest Service official acknowledged that firefighters made a mistake. They believed they had extinguished the fire after they first found it in the lava field.

“I apologize for that (fire) getting out,” Todd Mack, Shasta Trinity National Forest fire management officer, later told angry community members during a town hall meeting. “I’ll take the heat for that … I will own that.”

But the Hmong growers were upset at firefighters for another reason when the fire reached their properties. They believed authorities intentionally allowed the fire to reach the subdivision to do what the water ordinances had failed to accomplish: burn their marijuana grows.

Officials dispute the allegation.

“There was a lot of misinformation that was sort of being spread around in the community about what we were trying to do out there that day,” LaRue, the sheriff, told The Bee in a recent interview. “What seems to have been pretty prevalent was the idea that we were trying to force them out so that we could, you know, eradicate their marijuana.”

Instead, LaRue said hostile pot growers hindered firefighting efforts by blocking access to first responders. Growers, he said, shouted hostilities and refused to allow the firefighters on their properties.

Hawj, the man killed in the shooting, was one of the growers who had waited until the last minute to leave to collect as much cannabis as possible, the district attorney wrote.

He also was heavily armed, according to the district attorney.

Aside from the handgun, investigators also found two assault rifles in the truck. One was an AR-15-style rifle with silencer and a 50-round drum with 24 rounds. The other was an AK-47-style rifle with a loaded 30 round magazine in the backseat, Andrus said. In a backpack on the backseat was another Taurus 9 mm holding 16 rounds.

Andrus’ report said law enforcement officers also encountered a group which claimed it was “hired by Cal Fire” to fight the fire but wore shorts and T-shirts and no firefighter safety gear. “It was soon confirmed that their assertion was not true,” Andrus wrote, “and that they were in the area to try to protect an illicit marijuana garden.”

At one point, LaRue said, someone threw rocks at fire personnel.

The day turned deadly by sunset.

‘Fire’s coming. We gotta go.’

The body cameras that were switched on in the shooting’s aftermath also show a tension as deputies and other officers ordered evacuees — many of whom appear to speak little English — out of a dangerous fire zone that had just become an active crime scene. Tempers flared in the chaotic evacuation.

With the exit route now a crime scene, the evacuation turns to gridlock. Sirens wail in the distance and a group of five officers carrying rifles walks to the stalled line of pickup trucks and SUVs along the dirt road. The final rays of sunlight on the horizon give way to the suffocating blanket of smoke.

“Let me see your hands,” one of the officers shouts toward a white pickup, driven by an Asian driver. At least three sets of hands pop out from the truck’s windows.

“Take it easy,” the officer, whose camera is running, says under his breath to his keyed-up and heavily armed colleagues. “Take it easy.”

“Any weapons in the car?” one of the officers asks. “Guns? Knives? Bazookas?”

But they keep walking, after telling the people in the truck to lower their hands.

“We need to get these people moving,” the officer wearing a camera says a few minutes later. “We can’t keep them down here with the f—— fire right the f— over there. I know we have a crime scene down there, but, f—, we’ve got to get people out of here.”

An officer responds that he’ll see if they can get traffic moving toward safety.

The line of traffic starts moving.

“I have my dog back there. Can I go … ” one woman, a passenger in a white pickup, frantically tells an officer.

“Nope,” he cuts her off. “The fire’s coming. We gotta go. I’m sorry about your dog. Get going.”

Later, the officer wearing the body camera walks past the slow-moving vehicles. He approaches a pickup that’s trying to back up and turn around. It’s stuck. Its driver has dug the tires deep into the sandy soil. Another pickup hauling an enclosed trailer is inexplicably going the other direction, against the exodus.

They’ve blocked traffic.

A U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer is furious.

“Four-wheel drive!” the federal officer bellows to the flustered Asian woman behind the wheel of the stuck large red pickup. “Put it in four-wheel drive!”

A sheriff’s deputy approaches her door and coaches her through the process of engaging the truck’s four-wheel drive system. With his help, she’s able to rock the truck out of the holes its wheels have dug.

“Just go! Just go! Just go!” he tells her before walking over to the infuriated Forest Service cop, who’s watching as the other pickup hauling an enclosed trailer tries to make an elaborate multi-point turn on the narrow dirt road.

“Friggin’ thousand pounds of dope,” he said pointing to the trailer, and the pot he believes is in it.

“Of course,” the deputy said. The federal officer replied, “Totally worth dying for.”

Minutes later, the federal officer is screaming into the open window of a van driven by an Asian woman who apparently tried to maneuver around the line of cars.

“You’re going to kill somebody,” he yells like a drill sergeant, his voice going hoarse. “Pull your head out and do right. I see you in here again, I’m going to arrest you. ”

She looks terrified as he slams the van’s door.

“Sometimes you have to lay the law down — I don’t like to scream and yell,” he says later as the two officers watched the line of cars drive past.

He’s agitated that the growers had been trying to load up as much of their product as they could with the fire bearing down, he says. They should have been out of there by this point, the officers say. They had much of the day.

“They don’t want to get caught with their dope, so they’re putting everyone else’s life at risk,” the federal officer says. “We came here two hours ago and told them to evacuate. You can see what they care about: Getting as much harvested as they can.”

Language barriers and hot tempers

The stress on the part of the officers and the evacuees is understandable, said Kevin Robinson, a retired assistant chief from the Phoenix Police Department who teaches criminal justice at Arizona State University.

But that doesn’t mean it was OK for the Forest Service officer to scream at them like that.

“It’s a police officer’s job to try to remain calm, cool and collected when all things around them are doing just the opposite.”

Plus, Robinson said, yelling at people who may not be fluent in English doesn’t help anyone understand the stressful situation any better.

“People do not always listen,” Robinson said. “I get that. I understand that frustration. But it does not need to be put on full display.”

Forest Service spokesman E. Wade Muehlhof said in an email that the officer was working “under very stressful conditions with a wildfire approaching coupled with powerful and unpredictable winds.

“During the evacuation, there were shots fired, further heightening the stress,” he said. “Law Enforcement and Investigation personnel strive to be professional in all settings.”

Muehlhof didn’t respond to The Bee’s request to learn the officer’s name and where he was assigned.

Ly, the attorney for Hawj’s family, said the officer’s conduct shows “mistreatment from local law enforcement.”

“It was very harsh,” she said. “There was a lot of, I guess you could say, demeaning things towards the Hmong in terms of directing them out of that area.”

The officer is “screaming at people like they’re animals,” said Glenn Katon, the litigation director at the San Francisco-based Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, one of the groups that has filed amicus briefs in the water case.

More than one-in-five U.S. households speak a language at home other than English. Authorities, especially those in rural places like Siskiyou County, often struggle to have qualified interpreters available for court services, let alone during urgent wildfire evacuations. The sheriff last month said overall staffing levels were “at some of the lowest numbers I can recall.”

That absence of interpreters in law enforcement can fuel misunderstandings and even biased conduct, a recent California State Auditor report found.

The Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office in 2019 hired its first Hmong-American deputy, who in his time with the department helped communicate with other wildfire evacuees. He wasn’t one of the officers shown on body camera footage speaking to evacuees at the Lava Fire evacuation. Deputies in the footage instead spoke English.

After the fire, the growers moved ahead with a federal civil rights suit claiming their rights were being violated and that the prohibition on water deliveries was threatening their most basic needs.

“My current living situation is much like when I lived in the jungles of Laos,” one of the residents wrote in a declaration filed in court. “However, in the jungle I had plenty of water and never had to worry about getting water.”

“We are only able to bathe one time per week,” wrote Koua Lee, another resident. “We do not have enough water to stay cool and hydrated in the summer heat… We must rely on the shade of the trees to keep cool. I am thirsty all the time.”

The judge overseeing the case issued an injunction in September that stopped the county from blocking water deliveries, though she left in place the ban on selling water for cannabis. She said the suit raises “serious questions” about racial discrimination.

While the county has made some modifications to its ordinances, the judge last month overruled their request to toss the injunction. “Serious questions persist,” she wrote.

At the same time, Katan said deputies have been pulling over Asian Americans at rates far higher than others in the community, and they were being charged at substantially higher rates for violating the county’s water ordinances before the injunction was issued.

Katan said he also is troubled by the way the sheriff refers to the Asian growers as being all criminals and outsiders who don’t belong in Siskiyou County, and that their properties look like something out of a “third-world country.”

“The comments that the sheriff makes that make it sound as though all Hmong people are, you know, drug kingpins is really bigoted,” Katan said.

LaRue, the sheriff, did not return requests for comment since Andrus issued his letter.

In the year since the shooting, the sheriff has only become more motivated to remove the illegal pot farms. There’s a problem he’ll freely admit: He doesn’t have the staff to handle the workload. And lately, he said, political forces in Sacramento have little interest in getting involved.

Last month, the Sheriff’s Office issued a statement on Facebook about the pot farms.

“A STATE OF EMERGENCY IN SISKIYOU COUNTY,” it began.

The post invited state and federal officials to witness the “disaster first-hand.” The post, which includes a video, shows large busts the Sheriff’s Office had made already this year. It shows piles of trash they found at the grow sites and dead and sickly dogs that the sheriff said had been abused. Aerial footage shows greenhouses, filled with illegal marijuana, sprawling across the landscape and the swimming pools and portable tanks supplying them with water. LaRue said the 4,000-gallon pools receive multiple deliveries via water truck each day.

“The allegations about water being used for drinking purposes, livestock, you can look around these sites and you will not find those things present,” he said in the video.

He makes no mention of anyone’s race.

A hearing in the growers’ federal discrimination lawsuit is scheduled for July. Hawj’s family has another year before they’d hit the deadline to file a federal lawsuit in a wrongful death case.

Meanwhile, much like this time last year, the drought-stricken juniper and sagebrush is again primed to burn.

©2022 The Kansas City Star. Visit kansascity.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.