Two men accused of the 2018 slaying of a Hmong-American hunter in Bath Township will stand trial. This comes after a three-day preliminary hearing to determine whether there is probable cause to bind the charges over from the District Court to the Circuit Court to move the case forward to the formal trial.
Clinton County District Court Judge Michael Clarizio ruled that there was probable cause to bring the cases of Thomas Olson, of Grand Blanc Township, and Robert Rodway, of St. Johns, to trial on charges of first-degree felony murder and felony firearms possession, with an alternative charge of second-degree murder. The decision came at the end of an exhaustive preliminary hearing that lasted from March 21-23. Eleven witnesses were called to testify over the first two days of the hearing, with arguments and Clarizio’s decision coming on the third day.
Both defendants waived their right to arraignment and entered not-guilty pleas after Clarizio determined there was probable cause for the case to go to trial. Subsequent motions for bond for both defendants were also denied.
More than four years ago, on Nov. 16, 2018, Chong Moua Yang, 68, of Lansing, was found dead in the Rose Lake hunting area of Bath Township. Family spokesperson Attorney Joseph Yang described Rose Lake as Chong Yang’s, “hunting home.” Chong Yang was found by a family search party after they became concerned when he did not return home that night and several calls from his family went unanswered. The experienced hunter was found with a single fatal gunshot wound to the back of his head. The medical examiner ruled Yang’s death a homicide.
Investigators said it was evident Chong Yang had been in his hunting stand that day, near the area he was found. Family members said Chong Yang always hunted with a shotgun, backpack, and hunting knife, none of which were found by investigators. Two batteries were found near his head, leading investigators to believe Chong Yang was wearing a headlamp that night, which investigators believe was stolen along with the other items.
No physical evidence has been proven to link the two men to the victim. Neither Olson nor Rodway’s DNA was found on Chong Yang’s body, nor was his DNA found on property of Olson or Rodway that was tested by Michigan State Police. Using a search warrant, metallurgy tests revealed no connection between ammunition found in Rodway’s home and bullet fragments found on Chong Yang. Investigators have not found Yang’s belongings that they believe were stolen around the time of the shooting.
Bath Township Det. Bryan Miller, the lead investigator into Yang’s death, testified that at least four people in the area heard a gunshot sometime around 6 p.m., after the sun had set on that night. It is illegal to shoot deer more than 30 minutes after sunset in Michigan, making the sound of a gunshot at that time of night stand out to those who heard it. Chong Yang’s flashlight was found turned on underneath his body, which prosecutors argued was indicative that it was already dark outside when Yang was shot.
Years passed as investigators sought to find Chong Yang’s killer. The case picked up national attention from hunters and the Hmong community, sparked by a social media campaign started by Yang’s children: #OrangeJustice. The OrangeJustice Facebook page has more than 2,000 followers. Orange is the color of hunter safety, and Chong Yang was wearing his orange hunting vest at the time he was killed.
Miller testified he felt pressure to deliver justice to the Yang family by finding who was responsible for Chong Yang’s death. Bath Police asked the FBI for assistance with the investigation in 2021. FBI agents testified to GPS location data and Google search history retrieved from Olson’s phone as well as text messages between Olson and Rodway’s phones.
GPS data placed Olson’s phone in the Rose Lake area on the evening of the killing. Though location data could not be retrieved from Rodway’s phone, the defendants allegedly told investigators they drove to the area separately but were hunting together that day, but got lost in the unfamiliar area and split up for a time before reconvening and leaving in separate vehicles.
An FBI agent testified that Olson’s Google search history later that night and in following days showed searches from his account such as, “Bath Township Police twitter,” and, “missing hunter.” The agent also testified that in the following months searches from Olson’s account included, “US-Costa Rica extradition treaty,” and, “prison in Costa Rica.” Olson lived in Costa Rica before returning to Michigan prior to his arrest in 2022.
The FBI agent also testified about texts between Olson and Rodway’s phones. One allegedly sent from Rodway’s phone included an image of a reward poster put up by Yang’s family offering a reward for information about the killing, followed by, “Haven’t caught ya yet,” then corrected to “*us.” The response from Olson’s phone allegedly read, “One suspect has fled the country.” That text thread allegedly occurred in September 2020, while Olson was living in Costa Rica, prior to any law enforcement contact with Rodway and Olson.
Another text allegedly sent from Olson’s phone referenced a news article about a man confessing to murder and read, “I mean we killed that guy, you don’t see us crying about it.” Rodway’s phone allegedly responded, “LMAO.”
Olson allegedly told investigators that these texts were simply a shared dark sense of humor.
Clarizio disagreed with that assertion when delivering his decision, calling the texts, “damning admissions.” Clarizio said he found the texts, “disturbing at least, not to mention, I think, very incriminating.” Ultimately, Clarizio said it was for a jury to determine whether these texts constitute admissions or some kind of dark joke.
The cases against Olson and Rodway were bound over from the 65A District Court to the 29A Circuit Court, as the cases now move to the desk of Michigan Circuit Court Judge Shannon Schlegal. With more hearings expected before the formal trial phase, there is not yet a timetable for the trial to begin.