By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008
In a rare spasm of violence that terrified passengers on a crowded Montgomery County bus, a gunman killed a 14-year-old boy and seriously wounded two other teenagers Saturday night after arguing with them moments earlier, police said.
The shooter was in a group of three to five people who had words with Tai Lam and his friends as the Ride On bus approached Piney Branch Road and Arliss Street in Silver Spring about 11 p.m., according to police. They said that the first group got off the bus at that stop and that the gunman then turned and fired several shots at the teenagers inside.
Lam, a freshman honor student and wrestler at Montgomery Blair High School, was pronounced dead a short time later at a hospital. The other victims, ages 14 and 15, were in serious condition yesterday, police said.
Lam Cao, the 16-year-old brother of the slain teenager, also was on the bus and disputed the police account of an argument, saying that the shooting was unprovoked.
Cao said the gunman with the gelled hair jerked his hand toward his waist as if he was about to pull a gun on those he'd taunted earlier. Cao said he flinched, not sure whether the gesture was serious. A moment later, he said, he watched in disbelief as the man repeated the move but this time began firing.
Cao said that one member of the shooter's group held the door of the bus open as the gunman fired.
"It was like he just wanted to shoot anybody," Cao said, flashing back to the instant before his brother screamed, "I'm shot!"
After the shooting, Cao said, the bus driver stepped on the gas and the bus lurched forward, allowing the automatic door to close. The bus went 20 to 30 feet before coming to a stop, and people on the bus began dialing 911, he said. Ambulances then arrived, he added.
Cao said about a third of the passengers were high-school students and the rest were other commuters.
Lt. Paul Starks, a Montgomery County police spokesman, said detectives are investigating whether the shooting was gang-related. It occurred less than two miles from Langley Park, which is just across the border in Prince George's County. Langley Park and neighboring communities have contended with rising gang violence in recent years, including homicides and assaults attributed to MS-13.
Police said the suspected shooter appeared older than the victims and described him as a Hispanic man in his early 20s. They did not release the names of the two wounded teenagers.
Starks said he could not recall a similar crime taking place on a county bus. "It's certainly disturbing to hear about," he said. "This happens very infrequently, if at all, in Montgomery County."
By Cao's account, the gunman had gotten on the bus looking for a fight. "He started speaking in Spanish and then a girl translated and said he was looking for trouble. She said that he wanted someone to touch him" just to start the fight, Cao recalled.
Cao said he and his brother were part of group of more than 10 high-school students making the 20-minute trip back to the Quebec Terrace apartments area from downtown Silver Spring. They had gone to Chick-fil-A and walked around the mall, much the way they do every Friday and Saturday night, he and several friends said.
As the bus neared the Arliss Street stop, Cao was visiting with friends near the front, he said. His younger brother remained near the back of the bus, sitting with fellow freshmen from Montgomery Blair.
"I don't understand," Cao said. "His problem wasn't with any of us, but I know he must have aimed at my brother. He shot him right in the chest."
Last night in the Vietnamese American family's cramped Silver Spring apartment, dozens of friends and relatives gathered to comfort the boy's mother, Ngoc Lam, 41. In the living room, a makeshift Buddhist shrine was growing with each new visitor. Cluttered around a framed 8-by-10 picture of Tai Lam were his favorite apples, a bowl of noodles, incense and his Class of 2012 high school identification card.
Ngoc Lam was speechless.
"What can she say? What can we all say? We are not safe right here in our own homes," the boy's grandmother, Jackie Ri Lam, said loudly as neighbors looked on.
Lam had just started wrestling -- in the 103-pound weight class -- following in his older brother's footsteps, friends and family members said. He was developing other interests, too. He was in the fashion club at school, said Motuma Teramu, 15. And, according to a group of eighth-graders who looked up to him, he was a "stylish" freshman. He almost won the best-dressed award last year, said Ashley Pichardo, 13.
Rebekkah Williamson, a freshman at Springbrook High School who was among Lam's best friends, said he was known for "always being in downtown Silver Spring, wearing a scarf around his neck in whatever color that matched his shoes and giving everyone hugs. He always had a smile on his face, and an iPod in his ears," she said in an e-mail. "He meant so much to me, and many others."
Zoe Hofmann, 13, an eighth-grade student at Takoma Park Middle School, said she saw Lam in downtown Silver Spring on Saturday night, shortly before he died. She wore a scarf yesterday in his honor. She said he was "so caring about everyone" and "a very diverse person" who took pride in making friends with people of all ages.
Although only a freshman at Montgomery's largest high school, Lam had more than 400 friends from all over the county on his Facebook account. By yesterday evening, hundreds of students had joined memorial pages on the Internet networking site. One memorial page had the heading: "You didn't deserve this one bit." Another displayed a photograph of Lam with the caption, "RIP lil Tai we love you!"
Some Montgomery Blair students vowed to wear black Wednesday, their next scheduled day of classes. Steve Simon, a spokesman for Montgomery public schools, said counselors will be available for students that day.
Starks described the suspect as 5-foot-4 to 5 foot 7 inches tall, with no facial hair and wearing a black hooded jacket and blue jeans. Police said the suspect also has a tattoo with lettering on the side of his neck. Anyone with information about the crime is asked to call Montgomery homicide detectives at 240-773-5070.
Staff writer Daniel de Vise contributed to this report.