TULSA, Okla. — Gunfire that erupted and left five people injured at a traditional Hmong New Year’s festival followed by the prompt arrest of two men suspected in the shooting have rattled this peaceful, tight-knit community of about 4,000 in east Tulsa, and some feared Sunday the rampage could deter other Hmong from attending upcoming cultural celebrations, including one set later this month.
“It’s really sad because a lot of people do not feel safe to go to the other New Year’s celebrations. I know there are people who don’t want to attend that anymore,” said Joua Xiong, who attended Saturday’s celebration along with hundreds of other Hmong people and heard the gunfire break out. “It’s very sad because this is the only time we really get to embrace our culture and unite as one.
“And I know a lot of other people will not come (to the Oct. 26-27 event) because of that,” she said.
Hmong are an Asian ethnic group mainly from Laos and number between 3,000 and 4,000 in Tulsa. Many have traveled to Tulsa from across the country during recent years seeking jobs.
Two men have been taken into custody and face multiple charges in the shooting of five people at Saturday’s festival, authorities said Sunday. Authorities were holding 21-year-old Boonmlee Lee and 19-year-old Meng Lee, both of Tulsa. Each faces five counts of shooting with intent to kill plus firearms charges.
It was not clear from jail records whether each had an attorney.
Tulsa police spokesman Capt. Steve Odom said a gun was recovered but that it will have to be tested to see if it is linked to the Saturday night shooting. Odom said the alleged shooters and the victims were all Hmong and that there was “probably a relationship” between the men charged and the victims.
The suspects were arrested shortly after the attack, which happened about 8 p.m. A police helicopter that was in the area spotted a car driving away from the scene with its headlights off and notified officers on the ground, who pulled it over.
The suspects had thrown clothes and a semi-automatic handgun believed to have been used in the attack out of the vehicle, police said.
A witness at the party described the chaotic scene, as people lined up to get dinner were sent running and ducking for cover when the shots rang out. There were at least 200 people at the celebration, which festival-goers likened to a Thanksgiving celebration in America.
For Xiong, who was walking with her family to get dinner Saturday night at the festival, she heard a loud “pop” sound, but didn’t think anything of it at first, believing it was a balloon.
“Then I realized we didn’t have any balloons over there, and then everyone started standing up and talking cover,” she recalled in an interview Sunday with The Associated Press. “Some people were crying already, and that scared us.”
Xiong said Sunday she did not know the two alleged gunmen and questioned why they showed up at the party.
“I’ve never seen them in my life,” she said. “They really don’t have common Hmong names, either,” she said. “I don’t know if they were from out of town or what,”
Spokeswomen for the two Tulsa hospitals where the victims were transported said they could not release information on the condition of the wounded Sunday, citing the ongoing police investigation.
But Xiathao Moua, the president of the Hmong American Association of Oklahoma, Inc., said he visited the two hospitals Sunday morning and said even though the victims sustained injuries from the shooting, they are expected to live. He would not elaborate further on the nature of the injuries to the victims, citing privacy concerns.
Moua described hearing the shots ring out Saturday night as some party guests were toasting with champagne and waiting in line to get dinner. What happened next, he said, was chaos and confusion.
“The emcee at the ceremony, he was on the stand and he told everybody to lay down under the table and the floor,” he said.
Moua also said he asked the victims at both Tulsa hospitals if they knew why they were targeted by the violence or if they could describe the shooters, but they could not, he told the AP on Sunday.
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