La Crosse County Sheriff Jeff Wolf said that releasing the mugshots of the three men who were killed in the town of Hamilton last month was part of a strategy to obtain more information during the investigation, but apologized if the move caused any harm.
On July 26, the La Crosse County Sheriff’s office shared a media release on its Facebook page that included mugshots of Nemo Yang, Peng Lor and Trevor Maloney, the first photos to be released of the victims by officials.
The three men are believed to have been killed over a collective $600 debt, and were shot execution-style in a quarry in the town of Hamilton in the early hours of July 23.
Several media outlets, including the Tribune, used the mugshots in stories online following that release but began to take them down after members of the community began to speak up.
“That’s really harmful,” said Criminal Justice Management Council member Heidi Svee at Wednesday night’s meeting. She pointed to Wisconsin State Statute 950.04, which provides a bill of rights to victims and witnesses of crimes, the first of which is to “be treated with fairness, dignity and respect for his or her privacy by public officials.”
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“By sharing mugshots of victims, whether they are deceased or still alive, creates a lot of harm,” Svee said, also noting that it contributes to existing racial bias in the community.
Wolf said the goal of releasing the mugshots was transparency, and the decision came after a media outlet in the community filed an open records request to obtain the photos.
“For a couple different reasons related to a strategy in trying to develop suspects, we chose to release the pictures,” Wolf said. “We’re totally aware of the fact that they can be demoralizing to a victim.”
Wolf said that police communicated with the victims’ families that the photos would be released.
“It was done to be transparent with the public. It was also done as a strategy to obtain more information,” he said. “I apologize if people have hurt feelings. It isn’t that we weren’t concerned about the victims or we wouldn’t have spent countless, sleepless nights working on this case.”
Svee, who is the program coordinator at New Horizons Shelter & Outreach Centers, said that “criminalizing a victim ... can also deter victims from coming forward in the future,” and called on officials to not repeat this same process, instead suggesting pulling photos off of social media.
“I wouldn’t say that we would never do it, but in this case we felt it needed to be done for various reasons, which may come out later,” Wolf said. “We’ll take it into consideration, but in this case we felt in the victims’ honor and serving justice that we thought we could identify people with information that would see these pictures.”
“I just think that we owe it to our community members to just think things through like that, and maybe look at alternatives instead of doing something that could cause harm,” Svee said.
Two suspects, Nya Kou Thao, 33, and Khamthaneth Rattanasack, 41, are currently in custody awaiting their next court date of Sept. 10. The two are being charged with three felony counts each of first-degree intentional homicide and one felony count of a felon in possession of a firearm.