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Four Cops Cleared of Charges in Fatal Shooting of Man Driving Weed Truck

On June 14, a Siskiyou County district attorney in California announced that the four officers who shot and killed a man driving a marijuana-laden truck through a wildfire checkpoint will be released from jail.

Over the years, however, police and witnesses provided different stories on what really happened, including one involving an Asian American worker.

The Lava Fire was unleashed by lightning in June 2013. Police pulled over an unidentified man who had more than 100 pounds of marijuana inside his truck.

A line of cars was being directed by officers to leave the scene in order to avoid the ensuing fireballs. Soobleej Kul Hawj, 35 years old, drove a pickup truck laden with 132lbs of cannabis. It is likely that he worked for an illegal greenhouse in the vicinity. The truck also contained firearms.

According to District Attorney Kirk Andrus, Hawj was allegedly not following instructions to go west on County Road A-12. This main road is located at the checkpoint in Big Springs, California, and it’s where Hawj was stopped by officers.

According to officers, he panicked and fired at one officer before they returned fire, shooting him in the chest, head and arms. The police say they found a loaded .45 caliber Colt 1911 handgun on Hawj’s lap. Later, other assault rifles were discovered.

However witnesses say over 60 shots were fired at the victim and that dash cam footage wasn’t released. This incident sparked national concern about possible anti-Asian American hate crimes. #StopAsianHate hashtag.

The officers tried to get their names cleared. 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. Andrus indicated that Hawj might have thought he’d be searched and stopped.

“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.”

According to police, Hawj was also wanted for an Arrest warrant in Mesa County Colorado on a gun and cannabis-related offense.

Siskiyou County had already prohibited large-scale cannabis cultivation. However, last year it was estimated that there were between 5,000 and 6,000 illegal greenhouses in Big Springs.

The Big Springs community says that the majority of the farm workers are Hmong- and Chinese-speaking immigrants. The case of Hawj has brought attention to this issue. The Daily Beast profiled “the embattled Hmong community in Northern California” that typically end up trimming or working in cannabis fields.

The police story was not always believed by everyone, and that is why the investigation began. Hmong Innovating Politics and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center jointly released a statement last August, when the case was still being investigated.

“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.”

The entire letter to California Attorney General Rob Bonta can be viewed here. Also, check out the petition to support Soobleej Kaub Hawj’s family, which ended up receiving over 14,000 signatures.

It appears that the officers have been released from all criminal liability and are not facing any criminal charges.