Officers from three law enforcement agencies who fatally shot a Hmong American man during an evacuation from last year’s Lava Fire in Northern California will not be charged for the incident, according to prosecutors.
On June 14, Siskiyou County District Attorney Kirk Andrus announced that the use of deadly force by four officers who opened fire on Soobleej Kaub Hawj was “justified,” and that each of them was cleared from criminal liability.
The Lava Fire began on June 24, 2021, after lightning struck in the northeast of Weed. A small fire ignited in a remote area of an old lava flow and eventually expanded to burn thousands of acres of land, including communities and marijuana farms.
The evacuation on June 28, 2021, started shortly after 8:30 p.m. A roadblock was installed to prevent residents from entering the fire zone at the Mount Shasta Vista subdivision.
Hawj, 35, was leaving the subdivision when he tried to turn south onto County Road A-12 and further into the evacuation zone. There, he was met by officers from multiple law enforcement agencies who reportedly tried to stop him.
Hawj allegedly pulled out a semi-automatic handgun, putting the surrounding officers on alert. He then purportedly pointed the firearm at the officers, which triggered his fatal shooting.
In a nine-page letter obtained by Vice News, Andrus described one officer’s decision to open fire as “perfectly appropriate, even in hindsight.” He added that “it is entirely possible that his quick action to fire on Hawj saved lives.”
The district attorney said toxicology results showed that Hawj had meth in his system at the time of the shooting. Meanwhile, a search of his GMC pickup truck revealed a 132-pound weed load, two assault rifles and another handgun.
Hawj leaves a wife and three children, who witnessed his death from a second vehicle that followed his truck during the evacuation. They remain skeptical of the district attorney’s findings.
“Even if allegations are true about the meth in his system and marijuana in his car, it doesn’t justify the shooting,” the family’s lawyer, Nancy Ly, told Vice News. “We expected the DA’s report would be self-serving. We knew that coming in, based on the history [in Siskiyou County], the non-trust, and the rhetoric before the shooting. We weren’t surprised.”
Prior to the incident, tensions had been high between local authorities and Hmong residents. For months, police had been cracking down on the illegal cultivation of cannabis by Hmong farmers, and the community has accused authorities of discriminatory, anti-Asian policies.
Ly told Vice News that the Hawj family is considering a civil lawsuit. They are also reportedly conducting an independent investigation.