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Inside the Monterey Park shooting: Dancing, then gun shots

Community members in Monterey Park, Calif. are reeling after a gunman killed 11 people at a dance hall Jan 21. (Video: Alice Li, Rich Matthews/The Washington Post)

MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — On Saturday night, thousands of people gathered in the nation’s first suburban Chinatown at a festival to welcome the Lunar New Year — the first such party in Monterey Park since the pandemic began three years ago. There was music and street food and carnival rides, and all along the avenue, people danced in the Year of the Rabbit.

An hour after the outdoor party wrapped up, the dancing continued for an older crowd inside Star Ballroom Dance Studio on West Garvey Avenue, which had served for more than three decades as the sweetest spot in town, where people in their 50s, 60s and well into their retirement years came together to show off their moves, learn the basics and be with each other. A family, many of them called their crowd.

Then, at about 10:20 p.m., with dozens of people inside the hall and several twirling across the gleaming wooden floor, a man wearing a thick black coat and a heavy ski hat walked in, aimed a firearm and started shooting people.

Monterey Park shooting survivor recounts the attack: 'Jim protected me'

On the 21st day of 2023, in a gentle gathering spot 15 minutes east of downtown Los Angeles, a 72-year-old man carried out the fifth mass killing of this young year, the fifth time four or more people have been killed in a single incident in the United States. The killer — identified by police as Huu Can Tran, an immigrant from Vietnam who worked as a truck driver and occasionally danced at Star — shot more than 20 people, 11 of whom died. Most of them were of Asian descent, which immediately raised fears that someone was targeting them because of their heritage.

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Mass killings in the U.S.
When is something a mass killing?
The Washington Post uses the term mass killing to describe any event in which four or more people, excluding the shooter, are killed by gunfire.
The Post generally only uses the term mass shooting when we’re citing an organization such as the Gun Violence Archive whose definition differs from ours. The GVA defines a mass shooting as an event in which four or more people, excluding the shooter, are injured or killed by gunfire, including events with no fatalities.
Are these events becoming more common?
In 2022, there were 647 mass shootings (here are the events in 2023 so far.). In 2021, 2020 and 2019, there were 690, 610 and 417, respectively. Before that, the Gun Violence Archive tracked fewer than 400 a year since 2014. Most gun deaths continue to be from suicides and homicides, with men making up the majority of both perpetrators and victims.
How to stay safe in a mass shooting
Every situation is different, but experts advise that you try to stay down, small and out of sight; move away from the gunfire as quickly as is safe; and hide behind a wall if possible.
Where to find support
News of mass killings can be upsetting, especially if you are dealing with violence-related trauma. But help is available. You can call or text 988 for the national 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline if you’re experiencing any kind of crisis (it’s not only for suicidal thoughts). Here are more resources.

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A Saturday night meant for celebration instantly morphed into a harrowing weekend of fear, sorrow and the gnawing anguish that forever stains each new addition to the crowded American map of mass killings.

It was 10:22 p.m. when Monterey Park police fielded the first 911 calls from the dance hall: Shots fired inside Star Ballroom Dance Studio on the city’s main drag. Police from the 77-officer department responded within three minutes.

Inside, people took cover under tables, hid in corners and fled when they could.

Customers were “pouring out of the location, screaming,” said Capt. Andrew Meyer of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

When officers came into the parking lot, “it was chaos,” Monterey Park Police Chief Scott Wiese said. “There were wounded people, there were people trying to flee out all of the doors.”

On the police radio, word came at 10:33 that “all units 122 West Garvey [were] clear to enter.”

The officers — some in their first months on the job, many still on the job after working the street festival — charged into a room of unspeakable carnage: Pools of blood, people shouting and wailing.

Many of the officers had gone through active-shooter training in the past few weeks. Still, said Wiese, who was sworn in as chief on Thursday, “they came across a scene that none of them had been prepared for. … And my young officers did their job.”

In the middle of the dance floor, men and women were sprawled on their backs, lifeless.

At 10:38, on the first responders’ scanner: “We have multiple patients at this time. We’re still looking for a number.”

In all, the officers found 10 people dead — five men, five women — and 10 others injured. One body was found in a vehicle outside the studio, probably shot before the rampage, said Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna. The rest were inside the studio.

A woman in her 70s died Monday at LAC+USC Medical Center, the hospital announced, pushing the death toll to 11. One of the dead was in her 50s, six were in their 60s and four were in their 70s.

Fourteen miles away, on the Verdugo fire department’s radio channel, the dispatcher put out an alert: “Additional units requested, multiple victims, gunshot wounds.”

More police arrived, ambulances, worried friends, people who had been at the festival — outside Star studio, a growing crowd; inside, a horrific crime scene.

My Nhan — Mymy to her family — was among the dead. The studio was her weekend place, a family statement said, and “unfairly, Saturday was her last dance.”

Survivor Hattie Peng described how she was saved by her friend Jim during the Monterey Park, Calif. shooting which killed 11 people, on Jan. 21. (Video: Arelis Hernández, Alice Li/The Washington Post)

A man known as Mr. Ma or Boss Ma, later identified as Ma Ming Wei, a private instructor who enchanted customers with his enthusiasm for dance, was one of the first to fall, witnesses said.

The wounded were taken to several hospitals, where their conditions varied.

The shell casings that police found inside the studio indicated that the killer had fired 42 rounds, Luna said late Monday.

Despite all the suffering, “This could have been so much worse,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who served three terms as Monterey Park’s mayor. An hour before the attack, thousands of people had gathered a block away for the Lunar New Year celebration.

About 20 minutes after the shooter left the studio in Monterey Park, he walked into Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio, less than three miles north in Alhambra.

Brandon Tsay, who works part time at the dance studio his grandparents established, was in the lobby when he saw the Asian man with a gun in his hand.

“When he was looking around the room, it seemed like he was looking for targets — people to harm,” Tsay, 26, told ABC. “He started prepping the weapon and something came over me. I realized I needed to get the weapon away from him.”

Tsay said he lunged at the man and grabbed the firearm, which police later described as “a magazine-fed semiautomatic assault pistol.”

The gunman “was hitting me across the face,” Tsay said. “Bashing the back of my head. I was trying to use my elbows to separate the gun away from him, create some distance.” Tsay prevailed, pointed the gun at the man and ordered him to leave: “Get the hell out of here! I’ll shoot!”

The man hesitated, then stepped out and jogged back to his white van, Tsay said.

Tsay called the police, the gun still in his hand.

“The suspect walked in there, probably with the intent to kill more people,” Luna said. He called Tsay a hero.

Minutes after Tsay’s call, police swarmed the ballroom. No one else had been hurt. Investigators began searching for evidence, and the gun Tsay had grabbed turned out to be the key, as they quickly traced the weapon, a Cobray M11 9mm semiautomatic, to the shooter’s name and description.

By morning, a handwritten note would be attached to Lai Lai’s door: “Closed in observance to Stardance Tragedy.”

Around 11:30 p.m., Monterey Park’s mayor, Henry Lo, started receiving tweets from friends and residents, alerting him to a shooting in his city. Lo had spent Saturday at the festival, among the thousands who crowded downtown streets, swelling his community with revelers young and old. The atmosphere was joyful, brimming with hope that this new year could bring relief after the coronavirus had forced organizers to cancel the previous two celebrations.

But now, Lo didn’t know what to think. “My mind was: I can’t believe this is happening — is it happening? Is it a joke, a prank?” he recounted.

Through the wee hours of the night, Lo desperately checked on friends and family. He drove past the scene, a few blocks from city hall, but didn’t duck under police tape, not wanting to disturb the authorities’ work. The mayor called Monterey Park’s city manager, Ron Bow, who had been in touch with law enforcement and confirmed the news for the mayor: The worst imaginable had happened.

Sometime during the night, a man fitting the description of the shooter showed up at a hospital emergency room seeking treatment for his injuries, law enforcement sources told Los Angeles news outlets. But the man waited only a short time and left without being seen by a doctor.

In Washington, President Biden was briefed on the unfolding events at 5:45 a.m. and he directed the FBI to assist local authorities.

As the sun rose over the San Gabriel mountains northeast of Los Angeles, the mechanics of mass death clicked into place in yet another American community. A victim assistance operation opened inside a senior center five blocks from the shooting site. Hospitals called in extra help. Elected officials, police and other first responders assured worried residents that they were looking for the killer.

“We thought we were finally getting back to normal, and then to have this horrible thing happen — it’s shattering,” said Chu, the congresswoman. Monterey Park is known for being a “safe and quiet place to live,” she added. “We think of it as the place to raise our children and to live high-quality lives.”

Monterey Park was the first Asian ethnoburb, a suburb whose Chinese American developer marketed it as the “Chinese Beverly Hills.” Today, Asian Americans make up about two-thirds of its population.

As residents traded bits of information about the shooting Sunday morning, police in Torrance, a coastal city about 29 miles southwest of Monterey Park, spotted a white cargo van that matched the description of the one belonging to the gunman.

At 10:20 a.m., as officers pulled behind the vehicle, Luna said, the van entered the parking lot of a shopping plaza at Hawthorne and Sepulveda boulevards.

On the police radio, orders went out for officers to halt traffic from entering a parking area outside a shopping center with a Walmart, PetSmart and Hobby Lobby stores. Squad cars arrived and scattered across four lanes to block the road and hem in the van.

Around 10:40 a.m., an officer on the scene put out word on the radio: “Just a little bit of information: The Monterey Park case from last night — this is going to be related.”

Twenty minutes later, another officer said: “We should start organizing a tactical plan if we have sufficient resources to try and get this guy into custody and give him medical aid.”

“We’re working on that now,” another officer responded.

When officers emerged from their vehicles to make contact with the driver, Luna said, they heard a single gunshot.

Police pulled their cars back from the van and called for tactical teams.

At 11:04 a.m., the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department issued a special bulletin asking the public for help finding a man wanted in the shooting investigation. The bulletin showed two views from security cameras of an Asian man wearing glasses, a black coat and a ski hat.

But by the time the bulletin was posted on Twitter, officers had found the van.

At 12:52 p.m., three SWAT-unit armored vehicles surrounded the vehicle — one nose-to-nose, one nose-to-tail and one parallel to the driver’s side. A sheriff’s helicopter landed nearby. In single file, officers in military green crept up alongside the van. On the passenger side, officers opened the door and climbed inside. On the driver’s side, officers wearing blue surgical gloves opened the door and entered.

Within minutes, the SWAT vehicles moved away. There was no more threat: The gunman — later identified as Tran — had shot and killed himself and was slumped over the steering wheel. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Police found a handgun in the van.

Back at Lai Lai in Alhambra, officers had another weapon, which Tsay said he had taken from the gunman. It was an assault pistol with an “extended-large capacity magazine attached to it,” said Luna, who later described the firearm as a “9mm MAC-10 assault weapon.”

“You are no longer in danger,” Chu told residents during a televised news conference later in the day.

The wounds, however, were fresh. Six victims remained hospitalized late Monday. And investigators started trying to figure out the what and the why. No motive has been determined, Luna said Monday.

“We all want answers,” said Wiese, the police chief. “The problem is, we may never know the why.”

But Tran’s connection to the studio may offer some clues. He met the woman he would marry about 20 years ago at Star, she told CNN. He had been a regular at the studio, according to Mayor Lo. Tran introduced himself and offered her free dance lessons, the ex-wife said. They married soon after they met, and Tran filed for divorce a couple of years later, court records show.

Adam Hood, who said he met Tran about two decades ago and lived with him for several years, said Tran had grievances and “a lot of vendettas against people” over money, love and his alienation from people at the two dance studios he frequented — Star and Lai Lai.

“The only place that he would go at night were Star studio and the Lai Lai studio,” Hood told The Washington Post. “And he kept complaining to me that people there were not friendly with him.”

Hood, who took Tran to court nearly a decade ago to get a security deposit returned after renting space from Tran, said he was both surprised and not surprised to hear his former landlord’s name connected to the shooting.

“It’s a surprise because it’s hard to believe that someone would commit such a horrible, horrible murder, massacre,” he said. But “it’s not a surprise to me because if I knew this guy well, I knew someday sooner or later he could do something crazy.”

Tran lived in a double-wide trailer in the Lakes at Hemet West, a gated community for people 55 and older, in the San Jacinto Valley, more than 80 miles east of Monterey Park. Police entered the trailer Sunday and found a .308-caliber rifle, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and equipment indicating he was “manufacturing homemade firearm suppressors,” Luna said late Monday.

This month, Tran twice visited the police station in Hemet to complain that members of his family had stolen from him and poisoned him more than a decade ago, according to a statement by Hemet police. The man told police he would come back with documents proving his allegations. He never returned.

Thebault reported from Monterey Park. Fisher reported from Washington. Erica Werner in Hemet and Meryl Kornfield, Joyce Lee, Maria Paul and Brittany Shammas in Washington contributed to this report.

More on the California shootings

The latest: California has grappled with two mass killings in three days. A weekend shooting at a dance studio in Monterey Park left 11 people dead, and seven people were killed in related shootings at two locations around Half Moon Bay.

The victims: The identified Monterey Park shooting victims include a “loving aunt” and a joyful dancer. The people killed in the gunfire were all in their 50s, 60s and 70s, police said. Authorities have not released the victims’ identities in the Half Moon Bay shooting.

The suspects: Police identified the Monterey Park suspect as Huu Can Tran, a 72-year-old man of Asian descent, who was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound Sunday. Authorities arrested 67-year-old Zhao Chunli in connection with the Half Moon Bay shootings. He admitted to the shooting rampage at two farms and said he was bullied.

The weapon: Officers have described three guns they linked to the Monterey Park attacker: A rifle found in his home, a handgun recovered from his van and what they said was a modified semiautomatic taken away at the second dance studio. In the Half Moon Bay shootings, authorities recovered a semiautomatic handgun from the vehicle the suspect was located in. California’s gun laws are some of the strongest in the nation.

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