Hmong shaman testifies at trial in west Modesto slayings

rahumada@modbee.comJanuary 23, 2014 

A Hmong shaman testified about his faith’s rituals and beliefs Tuesday in a trial for a man charged in the killings of two people shot at close range with an automatic rifle in west Modesto.

Atwater resident Tou Vang Xiong spoke of “killing two tigers” after shooting his girlfriend, Gao Sheng Her of Merced, and his friend Nhia Yang of Modesto, according to previous testimony from Yang’s sister. Xay Yang testified that “tiger” is commonly used in Hmong culture as a derogatory term for people they dislike.

Neng Yee Lee has been a shaman for nearly 40 years and began as a shaman in his native country of Laos. He has lived in the U.S. for eight years. He told the jury that shamans in the Hmong faith are able to help people solve problems in the spiritual world.

These spiritual world problems can manifest themselves as visions of wild spirits or warrior spirits, he said in court, and those spirits can harm people by creating illness, for example.

Lee testified that spirits can appear as animals, typically tigers, and even ordinary people can sometimes see these visions of spirits. “It’s not real tigers but spirits,” Lee said with the help of a court-appointed interpreter.

Shamans perform rituals to scare off these threatening spirits. They also perform rituals when people are born and when they die. Lee said he has not seen a spirit since he moved to this country, but others, even children, have said they have seen spirits.

“If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you,” Lee testified.

The Hmong shaman was called to the witness stand by defense attorney Ruben Villalobos. He has told the jury that his client didn’t think he was attacking his girlfriend and his friends that early morning.

Villalobos has argued that Xiong and those shot had smoked a lot of methamphetamine in the hours before the shooting. He plans to call an expert to testify about “methamphetamine psychosis” and the effects of the highly addictive drug on the brain. He is seeking a verdict that results in a charge less serious than murder.

The shooting occurred about 5:20 a.m. July 20, 2009, inside a small detached room behind the Yang family’s home. Previous testimony has indicated that Xiong shot his girlfriend, Nhia Yang and Lee Pao Yang with an AR-15 rifle. Lee Pao Yang survived and has testified in the trial.

Xiong then held Xay Yang at gunpoint, according to her testimony, and demanded that she help him get home. She eventually locked him out of the house.

Lee Moua, a neighbor, testified Tuesday that he spotted Xiong through his home’s front window. He said Xiong was holding two guns, standing on the walkway leading to Moua’s house and yelling, asking the neighbor to call his father.

Moua testified that Xiong appeared abnormal and anxious, standing there wearing only pants and swinging around the guns as he made his demands. Moua said Xiong never aimed the guns at him. But Moua didn’t let Xiong come into his home because he didn’t know him and he was armed. He said he was afraid for his family.

Xiong was standing near a cat that appeared to have a broken limb. Moua testified that Xiong tapped the cat to move the animal away.

“He asked why are we raising tigers,” said Moua, who also was called by the defense to testify and spoke through an interpreter.

He said Xiong didn’t tap the cat in anger or aim the guns at the cat.

Testimony in the trial is expected to continue Monday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or (209) 578-2394. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeCourts.

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