Naly Vang – Her husband gunned down her friends, but she escaped. Now she’s telling her story.

Introduction

In a world that looks for heroes in what people say, what they sing about, and what views they hold, it is good to see that there is a special place for those who carry each other’s burden.

Steps away from how people vote, what they smoke, what they drink, and what they wear there is still this need to cover each other and say you go away, into hiding if need be, and I will see if I can reason with your spouse.

 

Diane & Bob Look

Bob Look, Dianne Look’s second husband who was married to her for 25 years, said his wife took a protective stance over Naly.

“It probably had a lot to do with her first marriage,” Look said. “When I met Dianne, she was living in a trailer, trying to raise two kids on food stamps and a part-time job. I’m sure she probably related (to Naly’s struggles).”

……..

In the days after the shootings, Naly Vang walked through life as if in shock. She attended the funeral service for Dianne Look, where she was welcomed warmly by her husband, Bob Look, who had earlier made a special invitation to Naly.

“I wanted her at the funeral,” Look said. “I didn’t want her to accept responsibility for the acts done by somebody else.”

At the funeral, he hugged Naly and told her: “My wife loved you. I love you. We’ve been friends for so long. I don’t hold you responsible for any of this.”

Story

USATODAY
Keith Uhlig, Wausau (Wis.) Daily Herald
Link

WAUSAU, Wis. — Nengmy Vang was wearing a dark suit and a crisp, white shirt open at the collar on March 22 when he entered Marathon Savings Bank in the nearby village of Rothschild.

When she saw him, Naly Vang knew something bad was about to happen.

Naly and Nengmy Vang had been married 25 years, a troubled relationship that led to a long, contentious divorce process. That process wasn’t going fast enough for Nengmy, who strode to Naly’s customer service window at the bank just before 1 p.m. and demanded that she sign their divorce papers within 24 hours.

It was a demand he had made before, about an hour earlier when he called her cellphone. The 41-year-old woman said no. She wanted the divorce to go through legal channels, and besides, the request made no sense.

“There weren’t any papers to sign,” Naly said.

Naly Vang said the same thing again to his face. But now she was truly afraid. Nengmy was dressed way too formally to be heading to his job at a cheese factory. He snarled at her in Hmong: “Do you want to die now?”

“No,” she said. With that, he turned and walked out of the bank. Naly knew he was going out to his car, where he typically kept a handgun, and that he intended to come back to kill her.

“I was shaking,” she said. “My body knew it was serious.”

She turned to her longtime friends and co-workers, Dianne Look and Karen Barclay, who had been there for her so many times as her relationship with Nengmy splintered. She said, “I need a place to run. I need to hide.”

They told her to go out the back door, and she ran, panicked, into a Subway restaurant in the same strip mall.

The deaths of March 22

When Nengmy Vang returned inside Marathon Savings Bank moments later, he was carrying a gun.

Naly was gone. Nengmy shot and killed Look and Barclay, who, Naly believed, might have confronted Nengmy when he came back into the bank.

Ten minutes later, Marathon County 911 dispatchers took a call from the Tlusty, Kennedy and Dirks law office along Grand Avenue in Schofield, where Naly Vang’s attorney, 43-year-old Sara Quirt Sann, worked.

Nengmy Vang held two people at gunpoint before he shot and killed Quirt Sann, then left for his apartment at Aspen Street and Ross Avenue in Weston, a village about three miles to the East.

By 1:30 p.m., shots rang out there, too. Everest Metro Police Detective Jason Weiland was hit by a bullet and killed as he set up a safety perimeter around the apartment in which Nengmy was holed up.

Later in the afternoon, police officers from multiple agencies exchanged gunfire with Nengmy and stormed the apartment. Nengmy Vang was hit, seriously injured, and rushed to Aspirus Wausau Hospital where he remained until he died in the early morning hours of April 1.

The shooting spree and killings left an entire community reeling and shocked, and the grieving continues weeks after the event.

This story marks the first time Nengmy Vang’s original target, his wife Naly Vang, has spoken publicly about their troubles, her perspective on the events that led to tragedy and her efforts to cope with the aftermath.

It’s a portrait of an abusive marriage, and Naly’s view of a man she says was focused on money, his possessions and his need to control his wife and children. Her version of events is backed by records from the Everest Metro Police Department and sources who knew her and her husband.

In many ways, according to advocates for victims of domestic violence, it’s a typical story of unhealthy relationships. Even the violent ending is all too common. In 2015, 58 abuse cases in the state ended in death, according to the Wisconsin Domestic Violence Homicide Report. At times, that violence spills outside the home, as it did on March 22, leaving five families in mourning.

Naly Vang spoke to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin three times over the course of the last several weeks. The story was painful, she said, but she felt it was important for people to understand what happened.

Her life molded by war

March 22 wasn’t the first time Naly Vang ran for her life.

Born in Laos in 1975, she has childhood memories of fleeing their village on foot with family members to avoid the violence of civil war that erupted in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Laotian communist forces hunted down Hmong people who fought a CIA-backed proxy war in Laos.

It was a footnote in history, but the violence and upheaval of Southeast Asia four decades ago has been the dominant force forming Naly Vang’s life, as it has been for tens of thousands of other Hmong refugees.

Naly was about 6 years old and had no shoes, so she walked barefoot alongside her family members. Sometimes she rode on the top of a pack that was carried on an adult’s back. She remembers they moved at night, and she was warned not to make any noise.

Her biological father died in that chaos. Naly said as the family was fleeing for the safety of Thailand, he tried to go back to their home village to get food and other supplies. That journey included a river crossing, and he drowned.

When the family was in Thailand, Naly’s mother gave up care for her to an aunt and uncle. After a few years in a United Nations refugee camp, Naly immigrated to the United States in 1986 with her aunt, uncle and their family. They settled in Wausau.

She was sheltered and her freedom was limited, a hallmark of a traditional Hmong upbringing for girls in a patriarchal, clan-based system.

“My parents would hang up the phone if I talked longer than five minutes,” she said.

‘I don’t know what love is’

Naly is proud to be Hmong, and when she was young, as now, worked to represent her family and clan well. But later, as an adult, Naly pushed back against some cultural practices, such as being expected to prepare meals for large family gatherings.

The tension Naly felt within herself between Hmong traditions and American-style freedom often created tensions between her and those closest to her. It all played a role, she said, in the crumbling of the relationship she had with Nengmy Vang.

Naly was a naive teenager, about 16 years old when she met Nengmy Vang in the early 1990s. Things moved fast. He was a few years older and knew the Hmong culture and traditions. Naly thought at the time that would be good for her, to learn more, to be more in tune with her Hmong values. They really didn’t date much, and they really didn’t have time to get to know each other.

Nengmy drove a “a nice car. … It was a Toyota Celica,” Naly said. “I thought, he must be cool like that car. I thought, he’ll take us everywhere. … It sounds pretty silly now, but it’s true. We didn’t know what marriage was like.”

Nengmy quickly earned the good graces of Naly and her family. He was a hunter, she said, and when he’d go out into the field, he would bring back game and share it with her parents. That was a very traditional Hmong thing to do.

“We didn’t need the food, so it didn’t really matter. But in the old country, this was important,” Naly said. “I thought it was nice.”

Their marriage, when she was just 17 and he was 21, wasn’t arranged, but it was approved by both Nengmy’s and Naly’s families.

At the time, Naly felt marrying Nengmy was the right thing to do, the Hmong thing to do. Plus, she thought, getting married would mean she would have more freedom, be able to have more fun.

Did she love Nengmy then?

“I don’t even know what love is,” Naly said.

Victims ‘were like mothers to me’

Their first child was born just after they were married when Naly was still 17 years old, and the couple would go on to have seven children. The oldest is now 23 years old, the youngest 15 months. Two of her children are married and living on their own. Five of the kids still live with Naly in their Weston home.

Naly finished high school and began to attend college, first at the University of Wisconsin Marathon County, then at UW-Stevens Point where she graduated with a biology degree. Her aim was to go into the medical research field.

But, she said, “I just wasn’t a good enough writer. You need to be a good writer.”

In the first years of their marriage, Naly spent much of her time at home and school. It wasn’t a bad marriage then, she said. But it wasn’t a strong one either. She spent most of her time caring for the children, working, and going to school. Nengmy also worked, and gradually developed hobbies apart from Naly, focusing on hunting, fishing and photography.

He would hang out with male friends, many of them members of Naly’s family.

While still attending college classes, Naly began working part time at Marathon Savings Bank. She wasn’t earning much money, but the job gave her time and flexibility to care for her children.

“I felt like I just couldn’t leave that job,” she said. “I needed the flexibility in raising the kids.”

She also loved the working atmosphere. The Rothschild branch of Marathon Savings Bank is small, and the only people working there most of the time were Naly Vang, Karen Barclay and Dianne Look. The three grew close, and Barclay and Look became family to Naly.

“We were like sisters, or they were like mothers to me,” Naly said.

Look, the branch manager, would keep food in the bank’s freezer, usually leftovers of the meals she cooked at home. She often shared with Naly, insisting that Naly take some home with her. There would be times when Look would announce that the three would have a barbecue and they all would bring in food to share.

“I would bring in eggrolls, or chicken wings.”

Barclay, who worked closely with Naly, was especially kind. Naly often had to use her lunch time to run around town and do errands related to the children. When she returned to work, it wasn’t unusual for Barclay to turn to her and ask, “Did you eat lunch?” If she hadn’t, Barclay would cover for her to take time to eat.

When Naly was pregnant, Barclay was especially attentive. “She once brought me a car seat for the baby,” Naly said.

Later, after Nengmy and Naly had split up, and Naly was approaching the birth of her seventh child, both Barclay and Look offered to take her to the hospital and be with her for the birth.

“They just were very sweet and nice,” Naly said.

Money troubles and views on women

Barclay and Look were there for her as her relationship with Nengmy deteriorated.

About a decade ago, Nengmy began spending more time away from the family home. He was going to parties and drinking, Naly Vang said. Often he would come home and demand that Naly prepare food for him and his friends, or a large family gathering.

Naly said she was overwhelmed with work and caring for their children, because most of that work fell to her. She would push back and complain about having that added burden to entertain his friends.

“He started saying I was a bad wife,” Naly Vang said.

Nengmy responded by pulling away even further, attending more parties without Naly, often out of state.

Naly’s friends began to tell her stories about how they saw him dancing with other women. She said she looked at his phone bills, and saw that he was making call after call to another woman.

Naly handled the family’s finances, and the two of them clashed over his spending, she said. Court records show Nengmy had difficulty paying bills and was sued several times for unpaid credit card balances. The day before the shootings, legal action was taken to garnish the couple’s wages. All along Naly tried to rein in his spending, she said.

“But then I would go into the basement and see a new computer, or a new camera,” she said.

In 2008, Nengmy decided he would move out of the house, Naly said. She agreed that it was for the best.

During that time, their relationship difficulties spilled beyond the walls of their home. In late 2008, Nengmy called police to complain that his wife had damaged his property. He told officers, according to a May 30, 2008 Everest Metro police report, that Naly accused him of cheating on her and then she broke a camera and a phone.

He also showed a responding officer bruises on his arms and told the officer Naly bit him. Although Nengmy asked officers not to arrest Naly, Wisconsin state law requires an arrest if officers are called to a domestic fight and if there is evidence of a physical fight. Naly told officers that she bit him after he tried to hug her.

“She did not want him near her so she bit him in the arm,” the police report said. She was jailed in that incident and found guilty of a noncriminal offense of disorderly conduct and fined.

Throughout the last years of their marriage, Nengmy did not hit or push her, Naly said. But before he moved out, she said, he constantly derided and demeaned her over small things like staying up too late.

“He said that women were like cars,” Naly said. “You could use one for a while, and when it wears out, you get a new one.”

Mao Khang, a Southeast Asian coordinator at The Women’s Community, a Wausau organization that supports victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, has provided support and counsel for Naly Vang since the shootings.

Even though violence wasn’t typically part of the relationship between the Vangs, Nengmy’s constant diminishing of his wife and attempts to control her are aspects of an abusive relationship, Khang said.

“This is serious,” Khang said. “We see it all the time. The abusers are trying to control their victims.”

A history of police encounters

Nengmy moved out of the house in June 2015. Naly was three months pregnant with their seventh child.

Nengmy also filed for a divorce shortly around that time, and Naly agreed they should split. Nengmy pushed for a quick settlement, she said. He wanted to use the Hmong clan system, a cultural procedure in which elders help couples determine issues such as splitting of assets and custody of children. Naly wanted to go through a legal divorce using the American court system.

Naly wanted to make sure that she got custody, child support and other payments that would be determined by a judge, she said.

During this time Naly came to rely even more on the friendship and support of Look and Barclay.

Look, a Marathon Savings Bank assistant vice president and branch manager, and Barclay, a customer service representative, both had been through divorces and understood the pressures they cause.

Bob Look, Dianne Look’s second husband who was married to her for 25 years, said his wife took a protective stance over Naly.

“It probably had a lot to do with her first marriage,” Look said. “When I met Dianne, she was living in a trailer, trying to raise two kids on food stamps and a part-time job. I’m sure she probably related (to Naly’s struggles).”

Naly said Nengmy increasingly pressured her to quickly settle the divorce and sign papers.

She believes he had a relationship with a woman in Laos, and he told her he was making plans to move there. She saw, through their joint financial statements, that he was making moves to cash out assets such as a 401(k) retirement account. Sara Quirt Sann, her attorney, was taking legal steps to ensure that Naly could recover those assets due to her according to the law.

After he separated from his wife in 2015, Nengmy began to act erratically, irrationally and sometimes violently, according to his older brother, Vajloogjeb Vaj. Just days after the shootings, Vaj told the Associated Press that Nengmy has been acting “crazy” since he separated from Naly. A few months before the shooting, Vaj said, Nengmy had lost his temper and hit their mother. Vaj believed Nengmy had a severe mental illness.

USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin was unable to reach Vaj for this story. He did not answer phone calls and his place of business was closed when a reporter visited.

As Nengmy and Naly Vang moved to divorce, their relationship problems once again became a police matter. Five different police reports detail incidents from Oct. 10, Nov. 24 and Nov. 25 in 2015, when officers were called to their home as Nengmy tried to get his belongings out of the house. No arrests resulted.

Nengmy continued to fight Naly over money. Part of the divorce process was to determine whether Naly would receive a form of alimony payments. About a month before the killings, Nengmy and his brother approached Naly’s stepfather and asked him to ask her to drop the need for those payments.

If she didn’t, Nengmy told her stepfather that “something bad might happen,” Naly Vang said. When her stepfather relayed that message to her, urging her to relent on their request, she believed that it meant that Nengmy might commit suicide. “But that didn’t make sense,” she said. “I mean, it was like, $100 a month. Who would kill themselves over that?”

Hiding from her husband

Naly Vang got up at about 7:30 a.m. on March 22, the normal time. She started getting the kids ready for school. One of her daughters had a doctor’s appointment that day, and she and one of her older daughters took the younger child to the appointment.

She went to work around 11 a.m. and was into her routine when Nengmy called her. The call came in around 11:30 a.m., and Nengmy pressured her to sign the divorce papers. She put him off. He gave her 24 hours to do it, or he told her, she would be dead.  After they hung up, Naly told her coworkers Barclay and Look about the call. Both the older women urged Naly to call the police.

She did so, calling police on a non-emergency number. A couple of officers came to the bank, and listened to Naly’s story, writing notes for a report. They asked Naly if they should contact Nengmy. She said no.

“I thought it would only make him angrier, make it worse,” Naly said.

Naly doesn’t know the details of what happened in the bank after Nengmy returned with a gun, after she fled to Subway.

But she believes Look and Barclay saved her life. She thinks they confronted Nengmy together. They are heroes to her and many others.

When Naly ran into the Subway in a panic, with her cellphone in hand, she asked the clerk at the counter to call the police because her husband is trying to kill her.

“She looked at me like I was crazy,” Naly said.

A manager took over the situation and called police, who told her to lock the door, put customers in the back of the shop and not come out.

Naly waited with a group of strangers for 30 to 40 minutes. When she walked out of Subway, the yellow police tape surrounded the bank. She was put in a police car and taken to a police station where she told investigators her story. She wasn’t told until later that evening, around 7 p.m., that Dianne Look, Karen Barclay and her attorney, all strong women who stood by her and did their best to help her, were dead.

‘Nothing seems real to me’

In the days after the shootings, Naly Vang walked through life as if in shock. She attended the funeral service for Dianne Look, where she was welcomed warmly by her husband, Bob Look, who had earlier made a special invitation to Naly.

“I wanted her at the funeral,” Look said. “I didn’t want her to accept responsibility for the acts done by somebody else.”

At the funeral, he hugged Naly and told her: “My wife loved you. I love you. We’ve been friends for so long. I don’t hold you responsible for any of this.”

That’s the message that Look, a radio announcer for WFHR-AM (1320) in Wisconsin Rapids, has been consistently repeating since the tragedy happened.

“I don’t want people looking for scapegoats or an easy way out. Don’t make this into a bumper sticker solution,” Look said. “This had nothing to do with race, nothing to do with ethnic background.”

Naly attended the funeral Mass for Karen Barclay, as well. She was accompanied by Khang of The Women’s Community, and groups of people would crowd around the two women. They hugged Naly and whispered in her ear. It happened over and over as she waited in line to give her condolences to Barclay’s family.

“They were coworkers from the bank. Some were customers, too,” Naly said later. “They just told me they were there for me.”

Naly said she has received a lot of support from her colleagues and the community in that way. She also was getting emotional support from her family, but many of them were also close to Nengmy, so the situation is difficult and awkward.

Because they were still married at the time of the shootings, Naly, as the widow of Nengmy Vang, had obligations for his funeral. She had to negotiate financial arrangements for the service, which was held for 12 hours Saturday, April 22. She had to bring clothes for the service, and according to Hmong customs get her husband ready for his journey into the next spiritual world.

She also attended the funeral and sat near her husband’s body during the entire time. (Usually Hmong funerals last three days; this one was abbreviated to alleviate security concerns.) It was a surreal obligation, but one that Naly felt compelled to fulfill.

“I have to be there for my children. They are what keep me going,” Naly said. “But also for my parents. I don’t want to bring disrespect upon them.”

She relies on her older children to help care for the younger ones, especially the toddler. She worries about what she’ll do when the older kids move out of the house and take on lives of their own. She also worries about the state of her house, which hasn’t been maintained properly. It needs a new roof, carpeting and windows, she said. But it will do for now.

Naly has gone back to work. It wasn’t easy to return to the bank, and it’s been a slow process. At first she was given basic filing tasks to do, and told to rest frequently.

“I was so tired,” she said.

She doesn’t think too much about the future; she’s always found ways to take life day by day and to bounce back from adversity.

“If I am able to support myself, and if I have a place to live, I should be happy enough,” she said.

When she was told in an interview for this story that she must be strong to be able to do all that, she smiled. She shrugged her shoulders and slowly shook her head.

“I don’t know if I’m strong,” Naly said, “or if I’m crazy. … Nothing seems real to me.”

Videos

  1. Naly Vang Speaks Out
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