A Siskiyou County, California district attorney announced on June 14 that four police officers will be cleared of charges after shooting and killing a man who drove a truck full of cannabis through a wildfire checkpoint.
But over the past year, witnesses and cops provided conflicting stories about what happened that day, which involved an Asian American worker.
In June last year, lightning ignited the devastating Lava Fire, and amid the chaos, things unraveled when they pulled over a man driving a truck with over 100 pounds of cannabis inside.
Officers were directing a line of vehicles leaving the area to escape the torrent of flames. Soobleej Kaub Hawj, 35, of Kansas City, Kansas, was driving a pickup truck that was loaded with 132 pounds of cannabis. He was most likely working for one of the many illegal greenhouses in the area. He also had firearms in the truck.
Police say that Hawj ignored orders to turn west onto County Road A-12, a main road at a checkpoint on June 24, 2021 as a fire ravaged a rural Big Springs area near the California-Oregon border, District Attorney Kirk Andrus said.
Officers say he panicked, fired a round at one of the officers, then they returned fire and shot him in the head, chest, arms, and legs. The police say they found a loaded .45 caliber Colt 1911 handgun on Hawj’s lap. Other assault rifles were found later.
However witnesses say over 60 shots were fired at the victim and that dash cam footage wasn’t released. The incident led to national outcry over suspicions about a possible anti-Asian American hate crime with the #StopAsianHate hashtag.
Officers attempted to clear their names. The Sacramento Bee reports that District Attorney Kirk Andrus sent out a nine-page letter Tuesday that outlined his findings to the officers’ supervisors at the Sheriff’s Office at the Etna Police Department and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In his letter, Andrus said the point of the checkpoint wasn’t to find cannabis but simply to get people out of the area before it was engulfed by flames. Hawj, however, may have thought he would be stopped and searched, Andrus said.
“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.”
Police say Hawj also had an arrest warrant in Mesa County, Colorado, on a cannabis and gun-related charge.
Siskiyou County already banned large-scale cannabis cultivation, but as of last year estimated there were 5,000 to 6,000 illegal greenhouses growing weed in the Big Springs area.
Locals in the Big Springs area say the farms typically involve immigrant workers of Hmong and Chinese descent. Because of the renewed focus due to the case of Hawj, The Daily Beast profiled “the embattled Hmong community in Northern California” that typically end up trimming or working in cannabis fields.
Not everyone was buying the police story, which is what led to the investigation in the first place. The Southeast Asia Resource Action center released a joint statement with Hmong Innovating Politics last August when the case was still fresh.
“One witness said over 60 shots were fired at Hawj during the incident,” the organizations wrote. “In response, Zurg Xiong held an 18 day hunger strike pushing for the release of body and dash camera footage from the shooting and an independent investigation from a different agency. On July 21, Oakland City Councilmember Sheng Thao, Elk Grove School Board Trustee Sean Yang, Sanger Unified Board President Brandon Vang, and Sacramento City Council Member Maiv Yaj Vaj sent a letter to California Attorney General Rob Bonta requesting an independent investigation into Hawj’s death.”
“The shooting is the result of escalating racial discrimination against the Hmong and Asian American community in Siskiyou County, CA. In 2016, multiple incidents of voter suppression against Hmong residents by the Siskiyou Sheriff’s Office were reported. More recently, the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors enacted water ordinances targeted at Hmong and Asian American farmers while being aggressively and disproportionately enforced by the Sheriff’s Office.”
For the time being, it appears the officers are off the hook and will not face any criminal charges in the matter.