Investigators in Monterey Park, California, are still searching for the motive of a 72-year-old gunman who is dead after killing 10 people and injuring 10 others in a shooting at a ballroom dance studio he used to frequent, devastating the majority-Asian community on the eve of its Lunar New Year celebration.
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Huu Can Tran was discovered late Sunday morning in the nearby city of Torrance, where he fatally shot himself as police approached his vehicle, the Los Angeles County sheriff said following a night that turned day in terror, with a gunman on the loose and families desperate for word from loved ones.
Hours earlier – not long after thousands of festivalgoers had crowded the city’s streets – a gunman had walked into Star Ballroom Dance Studio shortly before 10:30 p.m. Saturday and released a barrage of gunfire before driving to another dance hall in neighboring Alhambra, where two patrons disarmed him of a “magazine-fed semi-automatic assault pistol” with an extended, large-capacity magazine before he fled, Sheriff Robert Luna said.
“From his body language, his facial expression, his eyes, he was looking for people,” Brandon Tsay, who encountered the suspect at the Alhambra venue, told The New York Times.
When police arrived at the dance studio in Monterey Park less than three minutes after the first call for help, “they came across a scene that none of them had been prepared for,” city police chief Scott Wiese said. The shooter had inflicted “extensive” carnage, leaving behind chaos as people fled the building with those dead and injured still inside, he said.
The mass shooting is one of the deadliest in California’s history and at least the 33rd in the US so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archivewhich like CNN, defines a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are shot, excluding the shooter.
The violence came as a shock to many who felt Monterey Park – where some 65% of residents are of Asian descent – was a safe enclave for the robust Asian community. Amid Saturday night’s carnage and fear, the city canceled the second day of its Lunar New Year festival, typically one of its most joyous holidays.
“I’ve lived here for 37 years, and I could never have imagined such a terrible thing happening,” Rep. Judy Chu, who represents Monterey Park in Congress, told CNN on Sunday, adding, “This is a tight-knit community and it has been very peaceful all these years, so that’s why it is even more shattering to have this happen.”
Authorities have not named any of those killed or injured. The coroner’s office is still working to identify the deceased so police can notify their families, Luna said, adding that the victims are generally older than 50. Seven of the injured victims were still hospitalized Sunday, he said.
Here’s what we know so far:
• Suspect found in nearby city: At around 10:20 a.m. Sunday, police in Torrance – about 30 miles southwest of Monterey Park – spotted a white cargo van matching the description of one seen leaving the scene of the Alhambra dance studio, Luna said.
Officers followed the van into a shopping center parking lot and began getting out of their patrol car to approach the driver – later identified as Tran – but retreated when they heard a gunshot from inside the van, he said. Armored vehicles and SWAT teams arrived and eventually cleared the van, discovering Tran dead inside.
• Evidence links suspect to shooting: Inside the van, investigators found “several pieces of evidence” linking Tran to both the Monterey Park and Alhambra dance studios, the sheriff said, not providing further details. They also found a handgun, Luna said.
• Suspect was carrying semi-automatic weapon: The gun wrestled from the armed man at the Alhambra dance studio was a Cobray M11 9mm semi-automatic weapon, a law enforcement official told CNN; it is designed to take 30-round magazines that allow for rapid fire without having to frequently change magazines. The retrieved weapon was traced to the suspect, giving authorities his name and description.
• Motive still unknown: Investigators will consider any available criminal or mental health history, Luna said. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has obtained a search warrant for Tran’s home in a senior community called The Lakes at Hemet West in Hemet, California, about 80 miles east of Monterey Park, a Hemet Police spokesperson confirmed.
Tran could be quick to anger and at times suspicious, his ex-wife and others said.
As details of the shooting unfolded Sunday, President Joe Biden called the shooting a “senseless act,” while governors and other leaders across the nation called for action to curb gun violence and support for a community already on edge as harassment and attacks against Asian Americans surged during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Even as we continue searching for answers about this attack, we know how deeply this attack has impacted the (Asian American Pacific Islander) community,” Biden said. “Monterey Park is home to one of the largest AAPI communities in America, many of whom were celebrating the Lunar New Year along with loved ones and friends this weekend.”
A 26-year-old man who encountered the armed suspect at the Alhambra dance hall just minutes from the scene of the massacre knew immediately he was dangerous, he told The New York Times.
Brandon Tsay first was alerted to the man’s presence when he heard the front doors at Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio close as he worked in the ticket office of the business his family has run for three generations, he said.
“He was looking at me and looking around, not hiding that he was trying to do harm,” Tsay told The Times. “His eyes were menacing.”
The gunman pointed a semi-automatic weapon at Tsay, he told the Times, noting it was the first gun he’d seen in real life.
“My heart sank,” Tsay said, “I knew I was going to die.”
Tsay struggled with the man for about a minute and a half and eventually wrestled the gun from him, he told the Times. He was able to grab the weapon when the man took his hand off it, as if to manipulate it to begin shooting, Tsay said.
“That moment, it was primal instinct,” he said. “Something happened there. I don’t know what came over me.”
Once Tsay was in control of the gun, he pointed it back at the suspect and yelled for him to “get the hell out of here,” he said.
Hours later, Tsay was still processing what had happened – and already heartbroken for the Monterey Park community, told he the Times.
“We have such a tight-knit community of dancers,” he said. “It feels so terrible something like this happened, to have one of our individuals try to harm others.”
Tran had once been a familiar face at Star Ballroom Dance Studio, where he gave informal dance lessons, three people who knew him told CNN, though it is unclear how often he visited in recent years, if at all. He even met his ex-wife there about two decades ago, she said, adding he saw her at a dance, introduced himself and offered her free lessons.
The two married soon after they met, according to the ex-wife, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the case.
While Tran was never violent to her, she said he could be quick to anger. For example, she said, if she missed a step dancing, he would get upset because he felt it made him look bad. After several years together, she got the impression that he had lost interest in her, she said. Her sister, who also asked not to be named, confirmed her account.
Tran filed for divorce in late 2005, and a judge approved the divorce the following year, Los Angeles court records show.
Another longtime acquaintance of Tran also remembered him as a regular patron of the dance studio. The friend, who also asked not to be named, was close to Tran in the late 2000s and early 2010s, when he said Tran would come to the dance studio “almost every night” from his home in nearby San Gabriel.
Tran at that time often complained that the instructors at the dance hall didn’t like him and said “evil things about him,” the friend remembered, adding Tran was “hostile to a lot of people there.”
More generally, Tran was easily irritated, complained a lot and didn’t seem to trust people, the friend said. Tran’s friend said he hadn’t seen Tran in several years and was “totally shocked” when he heard about the shooting.
“I know lots of people, and if they go to Star studio, they frequent there,” the friend said, adding that he was “worried maybe I know some of” the shooting victims.
Tran worked as a truck driver at times, his ex-wife said. He was an immigrant from China, according to a copy of his marriage license she showed to CNN.
In 2013, Tran sold his San Gabriel home, which he had owned for more than two decades, property records show. Seven years later, records show, he bought a mobile home in a senior citizens community in Hemet.