A deputy with the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office empties bags of marijuana trimmings during a raid in the Mount Shasta Vista community.
A deputy with the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office empties bags of marijuana trimmings during a raid in the Mount Shasta Vista community. (Photo by Neil DaCosta/VICE News)

How a War Over Weed and Water Led to a Deadly Police Shooting

A California county cracked down on Hmong marijuana farmers by cutting off their water supply. Then came the wildfire.

PART 1: FIRE

Mount Shasta Vista was burning and Soobleej Kaub Hawj needed to get his family out. It was June 28 and a massive blaze known as the Lava Fire, sparked by lightning, was tearing through the rural Northern California neighborhood, scorching acre after acre of high desert scrubland, along with the ramshackle homes of farmers and greenhouses full of marijuana plants.

The trip to Mount Shasta Vista, an unincorporated subdivision in Siskiyou County, near the old gold-mining town of Yreka, was supposed to be a summer getaway for the 35-year-old Hawj, his wife, Lee, and their three kids. They’d driven up from their home in Kansas City, Kansas, to visit friends and relatives in the area’s ethnic Hmong community. But now with flames encroaching and smoke billowing in the night sky, Hawj and his family were forced to flee for their lives.

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Hawj drove a white GMC pickup with his dog Silk riding shotgun. Lee and the kids—two daughters and a son, ages 7, 14, and 16—trailed in a separate car.

A few minutes after 8:40 p.m., Hawj and his family hit a police checkpoint on the highway at one of the entrances to Mount Shasta Vista, which was under an evacuation order. 

It’s still unclear exactly what happened next, but according to the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office, Hawj tried to make a turn that would have taken him through the evacuation zone. Sheriff’s deputies, cops from a small town nearby, and state game agents blocked his route. 

The sheriff’s office has said the officers were “communicating” with Hawj when he suddenly “raised his hand and pointed a semi-auto handgun” at them. The police opened fire, peppering Hawj’s truck with a hail of bullets. The shots missed his family in the other car, wounded his dog, and left Hawj critically injured. Medics from a nearby fire crew tried to help, but he died at the scene.

Hawj was not a marijuana farmer, according to attorneys for his family, but the fatal shooting occurred in the midst of a crackdown by local authorities against illegal grows in Mount Shasta Vista, and it pushed long-simmering tensions to a boiling point. The conflict is over access to water during California’s drought, and it has fueled allegations of systemic racism by the Hmong against Siskiyou County’s elected officials and sheriff.

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Protesters hold up signs for Soobleej Kaub Hawj, a 35-year-old Hmong man who was killed by police during a wildfire evacuation in June. (Photo by Neil DaCosta)

The county has attempted to restrict access to irrigation water on the grounds that it’s being wasted on weed, which many Hmong farmers grow to eke out a living from the otherwise barren land in Mount Shasta Vista. To the Hmong, mostly first- and second-generation refugees from Southeast Asia, it’s felt like an attempt to drive them out of a conservative and majority-white county, the latest chapter in a long legacy of anti-Asian racism dating back to California’s gold rush. 

In early June, Hmong residents of Mount Shasta Vista filed a class-action federal lawsuit challenging the water laws. The court filings have included photos showing animals they claim died from thirst and allegations that the water laws hampered their ability to protect their properties from the wildfire.

“The tensions actually ignited in that Lava Fire. That's when we knew that we could no longer rely on the local government and the police to actually protect our lives.”

“Ever since they passed the water ordinances, they would just keep stoking the tensions,” said Zurg Xiong, a 33-year-old Hmong man who lived in Mount Shasta Vista. “And so finally the tensions actually ignited in that Lava Fire. That's when we knew that we could no longer rely on the local government and the police to actually protect our lives.”

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After the shooting, Xiong went on a three-week hunger strike on the steps of the county courthouse, calling for the state to conduct an independent probe. The case remains under investigation 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, suggesting he was killed not just for having a gun, but also after “assaulting an officer—initially with a vehicle.”

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Soobleej Kaub Hawj with his wife Lee and their children, ages 7, 14, and 16, in a photo provided by the family's attorney.

The case has focused national attention on tiny Siskiyou County and become a flashpoint in a broader culture war over climate change, control over natural resources, and who sets the rules in a state where voters legalized marijuana over five years ago.

This investigation—based on three trips to Siskiyou County and dozens of interviews—sheds new light on Hawj’s killing and the circumstances that led up to it. We spoke with two people who were within earshot of the shooting when it occurred and described hearing distinct barrages of gunfire. We also obtained the first public statement from the Hawj family, who broke their silence to decry “conflicting and self-serving” statements by the county DA and sheriff.

Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue described—but declined to release—previously unreported bodycam footage that he says proves Hawj was armed and fired at least one round during the confrontation with his deputies. 

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LaRue said the only video that exists shows the aftermath, when police can be seen approaching the truck, taking a .45-caliber pistol from Hawj, and finding a spent shell casing that matched the gun. Andrus also confirmed the existence of the footage. At least one of the officers involved was wearing a body camera when the shooting occurred, but LaRue and the DA say the recording didn't start until after Hawj was dead.

“People want to see this sort of first-person view of the shooting, but we don't have that,” LaRue said. “The body camera that we have after the fact is extremely graphic, and releasing it would really serve no purpose, in my opinion, other than to show the deputies taking the firearm from the driver.”

The Hmong community and their allies question the police narrative, asking why Hawj would put his family in the middle of a gun battle while attempting to escape the fire, and how it’s possible the police cameras weren't rolling when the fatal shots were fired. The Hmong also spoke of harassment by the sheriff’s office and aggressive enforcement of the water laws, creating an us-versus-them atmosphere that turned the county into a powder keg.

The Lava Fire was just the spark that made it blow.

PART 2: WAR

The first Hmong homesteaders arrived in Mount Shasta Vista in 2014, drawn by the cheap land and stunning views of the mountain. A rugged expanse of sand, volcanic rock, and chaparral, the unincorporated subdivision had sat vacant for decades after a developer tried and failed to sell off two-acre lots as rustic vacation properties. With unpaved roads, no sewer system, and terrain unsuitable for drilling wells, there were few takers until the Hmong came along.

Many of the Hmong in Siskiyou County trace their roots back to the mountains of northern Laos. During the conflict in neighboring Vietnam, the CIA recruited Hmong fighters to wage a “secret war” against communists in their country, leading to brutal repression. Refugees trickled into the U.S. in the early 80s and 90s, with many enduring years in Thai refugee camps. Today over 300,000 Hmong people live across the country, but the last wave of roughly 15,000 refugees didn’t arrive until 2004, the group that included Hawj and Lee. 

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A ramshackle camp at a marijuana grow site in Mount Shasta Vista. (Photo by Samir Ferdowsi)

The couple was “trying to live the American dream,” according to a statement issued by the Hawj family’s lawyers to VICE News. They had purchased a home in Kansas City and were fixing it up. The trip to Mount Shasta Vista was “supposed to be the last family trip for the summer before the kids started school.”

The 14,000-foot peak of Mount Shasta is said to remind Hmong elders of the landscape back home, but the subdivision’s tradeoff for spectacular views of the mountain is a lack of basic infrastructure and amenities, like indoor plumbing. Electricity comes from generators, and most of the structures are cobbled together from plywood. Xiong, the man who went on hunger strike, said he spent nine months living in the neighborhood in a “shack” with his cousin and uncle. 

“When you imagine frontier things, like old cowboy and Oregon Trail–type things, that's literally how we're living.”

“When you imagine frontier things, like old cowboy and Oregon Trail–type things, that's literally how we're living,” Xiong said. “The weather there is unbelievable. One day you have 60 mile-per-hour winds, the next day you would be under 110 degree-plus of sun.”

Xiong was born and raised in the Milwaukee area and had been living in Minneapolis when the protests erupted over the killing of George Floyd by police, including a Hmong-American officer who is charged and has pleaded not guilty in connection with Floyd’s death. Amid the unrest and the pandemic, Xiong decided to “run away into the mountains” and try life on the farm.

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Dogs on a property near the Mount Shasta Vista subdivision. (Photo by Samir Ferdowsi)

“It was almost like going back to Laos, going back to living in a village with other people who live the same way,” Xiong said. “People came up to me and said, ‘This is like how it was back in the old country,’ where if my neighbor had a farming tool and I didn't, I can ask to borrow that and we would help each other with whatever it is needed.”

That idyllic-sounding Hmong community, which Xiong called “very loving” and “egalitarian,” is where Hawj and his wife were heading on their road trip vacation with their kids. 

What they drove into instead was a war over water.

PART 3: WATER 

For water, the Hmong rely on Steve Griset, the owner of a large farm adjacent to Mount Shasta Vista. A deep well on Griset’s property allows him to irrigate his alfalfa fields and keep the animal-feed crop lush and green even as the surrounding area has become increasingly parched. Griset arrived in 2015, just as the Hmong were becoming established, and at first he had no issues selling a little bit of water to his new neighbors.

But as the community grew, so did the demand. To transport water, the Hmong use tanker trucks that can carry up to 4,000 gallons. Griset charged a penny per gallon, or $40 for the biggest trucks. At one point, according to court records, over 100 water trucks per day were going in and out of Mount Shasta Vista. 

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“Sometimes they'd have to wait two or three hours to get water, and they were always begging for more.”

“There were so many trucks that they'd be lined up waiting,” Griset recalled. “Sometimes they'd have to wait two or three hours to get water, and they were always begging for more.”

But even on the busiest days, Griset said, he only sold around 350,000 gallons per day to the Hmong—a few drops in the bucket compared to the roughly 6 million gallons he pours on his own crops. Still, the sight of long queues at Griset’s pump and trucks sloshing with water began to rankle some locals, especially as California’s drought worsened, the snowpack atop Mount Shasta melted away, and shallower wells in the county ran dry.

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Alfalfa farmer Steve Griset says he used to sell about 350,000 gallons of water per day to the Hmong community, while pumping over 6 million gallons on his own fields. (Photo by Samir Ferdowsi)

In May, the county Board of Supervisors voted to outlaw water trucks on a handful of main roads—mostly ones adjacent to Mount Shasta Vista—because the vehicles “created dangerous driving conditions” and “detract from the quality of life and welfare of those who reside alongside and near these highways.” The new law limited residents to carrying no more than 100 gallons at a time, with violations punishable by fines and strictly enforced by the sheriff’s office.

The county also made it illegal to “engage in the act of wasting or unreasonably using groundwater… for use in cultivating cannabis,” taking aim at Griset and anyone else who sold water to people in Mount Shasta Vista without accounting for how each gallon got used. 

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While Griset’s water is intended for irrigation and not drinking, some rely on it for showers and household purposes, as well as providing water to dogs, chickens, and other animals. When Griset refused to stop pumping, the county filed a civil lawsuit seeking civil penalties and accusing the farmer of running a commercial water station in an area zoned for agriculture.

“All of a sudden you're shutting off water to thousands of people,” Griset said. “I've never heard in this country of using that as a tactic, as a political and police action to just outright deny people water. This is barbaric.”

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Inside a greenhouse full of illegal marijuana plants on a property raided by Sheriff’s deputies in Mount Shasta Vista. (Photo by Neil DaCosta)

County officials maintain the water laws are color-blind because they only target people who grow weed, who in this case just happen to be Hmong. Andrus, the district attorney, called allegations that the law is racist “simply a self-serving statement by an interested group,” and said illicit growers in the community are “notoriously and openly rebelling against California law.”

“The purpose of the law, as I perceive it, IS to cut off water to a certain Mount Shasta Vista community—a community of green plants that cannot legally be grown there,” Andrus said, adding his own capitalization for emphasis. “There is no race of persons who is authorized to legally grow cannabis in these areas to the extent that it is being done.”

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Steve Griset was sued by Siskiyou County after he refused to stop pumping water for the Hmong. (Photo by Samir Ferdowsi/VICE News)

Griset says he tried to negotiate a peaceful solution, but instead the battle escalated with a lawsuit and an incident that left him spooked. One morning in May, after the law took effect but while he was still filling trucks for the Hmong, he awoke to find one of his pumps damaged and spewing a geyser of water into the air. He said it looked like someone—he’s not sure who—had attacked it with an axe. 

Griset fixed the pump and erected a fence, but between that incident and the litigation with the county, he decided to shut off his tap.

“We've offered the county the opportunity to sit down to avoid a humanitarian crisis,” Griset said. “Let's figure out how much water we should be giving to them. Let's work together. And we were ignored at all levels.”

PART 4: WEED

On a crisp Friday morning in late August, a convoy of Siskiyou County sheriff’s deputies outfitted in tactical gear and towing a bulldozer rolled into Mount Shasta Vista to conduct raids. The deputies used bolt-cutters to snap the padlocks on driveway gates, and cleared the properties with their assault rifles drawn. 

The deputies were spotted coming from miles away and the occupants had already fled. On one lot, a half-eaten bowl of soup sat steaming on a table, a farmer’s breakfast interrupted. Children’s toys were scattered across another driveway, but nobody was home.

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The deputies went to work, firing up chainsaws and cutting down the wooden frames of greenhouses filled with thousands of illicit marijuana plants. They used the bulldozer to plow through the crops and grind several hundred pounds of processed marijuana into dust.

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A sheriff’s deputy soaks a pile of illicit marijuana during a raid on a grow site in Mount Shasta Vista in August. (Photo by Neil DaCosta)

While marijuana has been fully legal in California since 2016, Siskiyou County bans commercial cultivation and has limited home grows to a maximum of 12 plants. The sheriff’s office estimates that more than 5,000 greenhouses with illicit gardens are spread across Mount Shasta Vista, supplying weed to the black market, polluting the land, and sucking up water. 

Lt. Behr Tharsing, the senior officer on the raids, said the Hmong had simply become too brazen to tolerate. “They are the most dominant growers in the county and they're probably the most arrogant,” he said. “You drive down the road, they're not hiding anything. It's smack-dab in your face.”

Siskiyou County has a long history with marijuana that predates the arrival of the Hmong. With ample sunshine and a total land area bigger than three states, much of it sprawling public forestland, outlaw farmers have long found the county ideal for clandestine grows. LaRue, who took over as sheriff last year, seconded Tharsing’s assessment that the Hmong’s lifestyle in Mount Shasta Vista made them conspicuous.

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“We're talking about a city that has been established just for marijuana. And it's a frightening picture to see.”

“We're not talking about a couple of marijuana greenhouses out in the middle of nowhere,” said Sheriff LaRue. “We're talking about a city that has been established just for marijuana. And it's a frightening picture to see.”

At the invitation of the sheriff, we followed the deputies as they served search warrants. County inspectors were also involved in the raids, slapping unpermitted structures with abatement notices and ordering owners to clean up trash and debris on public nuisance grounds.

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A sheriff’s deputy uses a bulldozer to destroy marijuana plants during a raid on a property in Mount Shasta Vista. (Photo by Neil DaCosta)

The deputies found two “spider holes'' where large quantities of weed and trimmings were hidden along with an unregistered “ghost gun” pistol. The cops cited armed robberies and a litany of other crimes connected to the illegal grows as justification for targeting Mount Shasta Vista.

Other illicit growers have set up shop in Siskiyou County, with locals and the sheriff’s office listing Chinese, Russian, and Mexican groups as having an established presence. Some operations are suspected of being linked to organized crime, and the Hmong have been lumped in and characterized as a “cartel” or “Asian mafia.”    

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“I love the smell of diesel power in the afternoon.”

The area’s Republican congressman, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, fanned the flames by releasing a video where he tagged along with the sheriff’s office to bulldoze greenhouses full of marijuana plants he claimed were owned by an “Asian cartel.”

“I love the smell of diesel power in the afternoon,” LaMalfa said, referencing a line from the Vietnam movie Apocalypse Now before firing up the bulldozer.

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Sheriff's deputies haul trash bags full of marijuana at grow site in Mount Shasta Vista. (Photo by Neil DaCosta/VICE News)

Tong Xiong (no relation to the hunger striker), another Hmong protest leader, said the cartel accusations are baseless and just thinly veiled racism by the sheriff, county officials, and white locals. Xiong shared a photo of a spray-painted sign with the words “North Korea” that somebody left outside one of the entrances to Mount Shasta Vista.

“[LaRue] claims that it's not racism,” Tong Xiong said. “But you know, if you paint a whole race as criminals and say they're violent, what are you saying? To me, that's the definition of racism.”

Xiong, 37, was born in Thailand and after immigrating he served in the U.S. Army National Guard, deployed to Iraq, and settled with his family in an area near Mount Shasta Vista. He said some grow for medical purposes, while also noting that the Hmong were known to sow opium poppies, another illicit crop, back in Laos.

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“They're farmers,” Xiong said. “Hmong people, that's all they know how to do, especially our elders.”

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Marijuana plants destroyed by sheriff’s deputies during a raid on an illegal grow site in Mount Shasta Vista. (Photo by Neil DaCosta)

One Hmong man, 46-year-old Mouyang Lee, faces felony conspiracy and money-laundering charges for allegedly overseeing a network of greenhouses spread across hundreds of properties. He has pleaded not guilty, and the case remains pending. Lee’s lawyers issued a statement alleging the county’s prosecution is unjust and linked to the water laws targeting the Hmong.

“Many members of the community feel the Board of Supervisors’ actions against them are racist, and that the majority of the board is interested more in career self-promotion than in protecting the community,” said attorneys Allison Margolin and J. Raza Lawrence, who also represent the Hmong in their class-action lawsuit against the county over the water restrictions.

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Tong Xiong, 37, has led protests in Siskiyou County since the police killing of Hmong man in June. (Photo by Neil DaCosta)

LaRue and county authorities maintain they are not dealing with mom-and-pop operations.

“We are looking at where the illegal marijuana is occurring, and we have to focus on where we can make the greatest impact,” LaRue said. “And if it happens to be that people are Asian that are growing marijuana, so be it.”

PART 5: BLOOD

By the time the Lava Fire erupted in late June, the sheriff’s enforcement of the water law and overall crackdown on Mount Shasta Vista had the community on edge. Multiple people described feeling as though deputies were stopping anyone who was Asian and driving a pickup truck on the highway near the subdivision.

So when the sheriff’s office issued an evacuation order, it was met with skepticism by some in the Hmong community, who had no intention of leaving their properties to burn. Anyone who ventured out for supplies—or water—would not be allowed to return and could face arrest, leading to tense encounters with sheriff’s deputies among those who wished to stay and fight the fire. 

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Driving through Mount Shasta Vista, the charred remains of trailers and greenhouses are still visible. At the entrance to the subdivision where Hawj was killed is a makeshift memorial, with a cross, paper flowers, a pristine can of Bud Light, and other offerings.

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The charred remains of a trailer and marijuana greenhouses in Mount Shasta Vista burned by a wildfire in June. (Photo by Samir Ferdowsi)

Previously, the only details not issued by police about what happened that night came from an anonymous firefighter quoted by 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 wanted to turn left, the firefighter said, and suggested a sudden lurch of his vehicle spooked the cops.

“I think he popped on the gas a little bit and it just went all bad.”

“I think he popped on the gas a little bit and it just went all bad,” the firefighter said.

A farmer who lives across the highway told the paper he estimated hearing 60 shots. Photos that circulated online after the incident showed multiple bullet holes in the doors and windshield of Hawj’s truck and the interior spattered with blood.

We spoke to two people who were in the area when the shooting occurred, and who requested anonymity for fear of backlash in the community. They recalled hearing two distinct barrages of gunfire, with dozens of shots in each burst.

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A memorial for Soobleej Kaub Hawj near the entrance to Mount Shasta Vista, where he was killed by police during a wildfire evacuation on June 28. (Photo by Neil DaCosta)

While LaRue told VICE News there’s video footage of a gun and shell casing being found in Hawj’s truck, he stopped short of saying Hawj shot first. That key detail raises the possibility that police drew their weapons and shot first at Hawj, who then possibly tried to return fire, leading to the second round of shots heard by bystanders.

The sheriff said the “officers responded appropriately” after Hawj pulled out the handgun, and that he still considered the wildlife evacuation effort a success. 

“I can't think of anything that we can go back and change that would make it any better,” LaRue said. “No lives were lost.”

Reminded of Hawj, LaRue replied: “Well, that was because of his own actions.”

In the district attorney’s statement to VICE News about the case, Andrus said his investigation is still underway because he has not contacted all of the witnesses yet. He described the body-cam footage from the aftermath of the shooting as “graphic and disturbing,” and said he had not settled on how it would be released or made available for viewing. He’s still deciding whether to charge the officers involved with crimes.

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Soobleej Kaub Hawj with his 14-year-old son in a photo provided by the family's attorneys.

As for why the officers involved were not using their body cams, Andrus said recording the entire evacuation “probably did not seem important to do” and would’ve drained their batteries.

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“The incident then unfolded with dramatic speed from an encounter that should not be expected to be violent to one where the decedent was assaulting an officer—initially with a vehicle,” Andrus said, raising for the first time outside of the anonymous firefighter the possibility that Hawj was shot not just for pulling a gun but also for the way he drove his truck.

“The speed with which this unfolded would suggest that the priority of the officers would have been to protect themselves from an imminent physical threat, and seeing to any other task, such as activating video, may have been perceived as endangering their life,” Andrus said.

Asked for more details about Hawj possibly “assaulting an officer” with his vehicle, 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. That is not what led directly to opening fire. It is simply how the very brief encounter began.”

A spokesperson for California’s attorney general said their office is “reviewing requests for our office to take a look at the incident” but has so far declined to take up the case. A state law that took effect earlier this year gives the AG’s office automatic jurisdiction when an unarmed civilian is killed by police but generally leaves other cases in the hands of local authorities.

In their statement to VICE News through their attorneys, the Hawj family did not address the claim that he was armed.

“If the District Attorney’s Office, Sheriff’s Office, and the other involved agencies truly intend to do justice for the family and community, they will release all evidence, including video footage, for public viewing without any further delay,” the statement said.

The statement said Hawj’s 7-year-old daughter often asks her mom when her father is coming home: “Her daughter knows daddy was shot and killed, because she witnessed it, but cannot comprehend that he is gone forever. The other two children suffer immeasurably from the loss of their father.”

“We'd been waiting for the day that they would kill one of us.”

As for the water dispute, the Hmong scored a partial victory on Sept. 3 when a federal judge in Sacramento temporarily blocked the county from enforcing the water truck ordinance, saying it had the effect of “cutting off the water supply to a minority community that has recently been the target of racial prejudice.” Two other ordinances were allowed to stand.

The county wants to take the case to trial, and while the fight plays out in court, water trucks have trickled back to the pump at Griset’s alfalfa farm, though fewer than before. Some still live in fear of the police, others simply left and have not returned. Griset suspects that was the desired outcome for county officials.

“They've achieved their goal because they wanted these people out of their county,” Griset said. “They don't like them. They want them to leave. And that's exactly what has happened.”

Zurg Xiong was part of the exodus. After protesting Hawj’s shooting with a hunger strike, he says he received threats and felt it would no longer be safe to stay in Siskiyou. He hopes to return one day, with a dream of turning Mount Shasta Vista into a charter city, so that residents can govern themselves. 

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Members of Siskiyou Count’s Hmong community hold signs protesting against Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue. (Photo by Samir Ferdowsi)

“When cannabis becomes legal across the country and nobody cares about it anymore and all of that's gone, we'll still have a city,” Xiong said. “We'll have a place we can call home.”

It’s a goal shared by others in the community, a vision of peace for the Hmong after generations of displacement. The way things have been lately in the county, he said, nobody feels safe.

“We'd been waiting for the day that they would kill one of us,” Xiong said. “Because of how blatant the escalation was between the police and the other communities against our community, and we knew it was just a matter of time before they killed one of us. And they did.”

Roberto Daza and Samir Ferdowsi contributed reporting.