A burst of gunfire killed a man in the parking lot of the Eden Center shopping plaza in Falls Church on Saturday night, and while police were investigating that incident, they discovered a man dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Falls Church police said early Sunday that they were investigating the case as a possible homicide-suicide, in which the alleged shooter subsequently killed himself. But later in the day, police could not definitively say that the suicide victim was the killer, pending ballistics tests and further investigation.
Police did not release the names of either man Sunday. But the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce and witnesses at the scene identified the homicide victim as Tai Phan, 51, of Annandale. He was a part-time bass guitar player who had been heading for a 10 p.m. show in the Viet Star restaurant in the Eden Center, along with a guitar player, Hai Tran.
Tran said Phan pulled his car into a parking space near Viet Star, and the two of them got out about 9:55 p.m. As he emerged from the passenger side, “I heard two shots, bang bang,” Tran said through an interpreter. “I ducked down and then didn’t hear any more shots, so I went inside.” He said he did not see who fired the shots or where they came from.
He said two men came in and told him that “somebody was chasing Tai.”
A Falls Church officer on patrol nearby pulled into the parking lot and found the victim on the ground near the VIP Bistro, about 100 yards from Viet Star, Falls Church Deputy Chief Mary Gavin said. The assailant was gone. Police said the victim was pronounced dead at the scene.
Police descended on the popular Vietnamese shopping and entertainment complex, which is on Wilson Boulevard near the Seven Corners area, in search of the shooter. Many patrons fled, including everyone in Cafe Metro, said Thuy Ngo, one of the cafe’s owners.
Ngo said she went to her car shortly before midnight, about two hours after the shooting. “I wanted to go home,” she said, but there was a sedan blocking her in. A man was in the driver’s seat, and “I wanted to wake him up, to move,” she said.
But the man was not asleep. He was dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Gavin said. A gun was found in the car. Gavin said she thought the gun was of “similar caliber” to the one used to kill the victim, but further testing was needed.
Gavin did not know a motive for the shooting. She said she did not think the victim was chased across the parking lot, though others in the Eden Center disputed that Sunday.
The incident was another blow to the image of the Eden Center, a vibrant hive of commerce for the estimated 80,000 Vietnamese Americans in the Washington area. In August, Falls Church police and the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force conducted a raid of 14 coffee shops and bars that had video gambling machines inside. Nineteen people were arrested on misdemeanor illegal gambling charges. Police then held a news conference to declare that the Eden Center was a den of gang and drug activity. But no gang or drug charges have been filed.
“Since the raid, things still haven’t gotten back to normal,” Binh Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce, said as he stood with patrons and business owners in the Eden Center parking lot early Sunday trying to obtain information for the police. “A lot of people are about to lose their businesses,” Nguyen said, and he pointed to several nearby spots that had recently lost one shop and been replaced by another.
Nguyen owns the V3 nightclub in the Eden Center and said his security officer outside the club counted six shots, but in separate bursts, leading him and others to believe that shots were fired outside the Viet Star and in a wild chase across the parking lot. Another man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said he was standing near VIP Bistro and heard three shots, each spaced several seconds apart.
Nguyen said Phan was well known in the Eden Center as a talented musician, “a good guy. A shy guy. Music is his passion.” He did not know what family Phan had in the area and said he thought he worked as a computer programmer.