The investigation into a mass shooting in Monterey Park, Calif., is focused on the gunman’s prior interactions at two dance studios he targeted and whether jealousy over a relationship was the motive, law enforcement sources said.
The sources stressed that the investigation is in its early stages. But detectives believe that 72-year-old Huu Can Tran had frequented the clubs — the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park and the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra — and that the shooting might have been sparked by a personal dispute.
They also believe Tran was having unspecified emotional problems that had been getting worse in the weeks before the shooting.
It will likely take weeks to unravel what happened. Detectives began serving search warrants at multiple locations Sunday.
Tran had been living at the Lakes at Hemet West, a mobile home park whose sign billed it as “a 55+ active living community,” according to a public record and law enforcement sources. A security guard turned away a Los Angeles Times reporter at the front gate Sunday night.
“I still have questions in my mind, which is, what was the motive for this shooter? Did he have a mental illness? Was he a domestic violence abuser? How did he get these guns, and was it through legal means? Well, those questions will have to be answered in the future,” U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, a Democrat whose district includes Monterey Park, said Sunday night during a news conference.
Tran fatally shot himself as officers approached his vehicle parked at a strip mall near Sepulveda and Hawthorne boulevards in Torrance on Sunday following a countywide manhunt.
The shooting, which stunned the Monterey Park community on the eve of Lunar New Year, is one of the worst in modern Los Angeles County history.
Authorities say the gunman opened fire inside Star Ballroom Dance Studio on West Garvey Avenue around 10:20 p.m. Saturday, killing 10 people — including My Nhan, 65, and Lilan Li, 63 — and wounding 10 others. Earlier in the day, thousands of people had come to Monterey Park for the start of a two-day Lunar New Year festival.
About 20 minutes after the rampage in Monterey Park, the shooter walked into Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in nearby Alhambra, officials said.
“The suspect walked in there, probably with the intent to kill two more people,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said. “But two community members disarmed him, took possession of his weapon, and the suspect ran away.”
The weapon, a 9 mm Cobray M11, provided law enforcement with the first clues to the gunman’s identity. Authorities were able to link the gun, which was used with an extended magazine, to Tran. Paired with security footage, the information allowed them to launch a manhunt, according to a law enforcement source.
Authorities found Tran inside a white van in Torrance with a self-inflicted gunshot wound about 1 p.m. Sunday. During the search of the vehicle, several pieces of evidence were found linking the suspect to both locations, officials said.
Authorities have not indicated what specific evidence was discovered. However, they said a handgun was found inside the van, which had stolen license plates.
Monterey Park Police Chief Scott Wiese said the first law enforcement responders on the scene were “some of my youngest officers,” several of whom had been on the street for only a few months.
“When they came into the parking lot, it was chaos. There were wounded people. There were people trying to flee out all the doors,” Wiese said.
They entered the building within a few minutes of arriving, and discovered a scene of carnage Wiese said “that none of them had been prepared for.”
The shooting occurred near where tens of thousands had gathered Saturday for the start of a two-day Lunar New Year festival, one of the largest holiday events in the region. Saturday’s New Year festival hours were scheduled from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The festival had been scheduled to conclude Sunday, but the day’s events were canceled “out of an abundance of caution and in reverence for the victims,” Wiese said.
Winn Liaw, 57, said she lives about two blocks from the studio and was in bed shortly before 11 p.m. Saturday when she heard what sounded like firecrackers. She assumed they were part of a Lunar New Year celebration until she heard helicopters circling her neighborhood.
She had woken early Sunday to check out the setup for the celebration that had been planned for later in the day when she learned about the shooting.
“This kind of thing doesn’t happen in my neighborhood,” she said, adding that she thought living in a mostly Asian community would insulate her from violence. “It’s starting to get worse and worse.”
Monterey Park, a city of 61,000 in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles, is 65% Asian American, 27% Latino and 6% white, according to census data.
One of the anchor suburbs in the San Gabriel Valley, Monterey Park is a hub of Asian American supermarkets and restaurants.
The Star Ballroom Dance Studio sits behind a Chinese herbal store along West Garvey Avenue. International ballroom competitors teach waltz, tango and Chinese dance classes every day. The dance studio, which opened 30 years ago, offers party room rentals and karaoke happy hour as well.
On Saturday night, the studio listed an event between 8 and 11:30 p.m. as “Star Night, $10.”
Dance instructor David DuVal taught at the studio, most recently samba and tango on Thursday morning.
He said that the studio has Saturday night parties and that a lot of people who attend are older.
“There’s definitely going to be people in their 70s, 80s, people in their 90s,” he said. “A lot of people I teach are older people. I have a feeling it could be one of them or people I know.”
DuVal said he learned what happened Saturday night over WeChat. He reached out to one of his students, who was there and hid under a table.
There are couples who have been visiting the dance studio for a decade or more.
“It’s old people dancing to music for fun. It’s their exercise,” he said.
Saturday’s shooting comes five days after six people — including a 10-month-old baby, his 16-year-old mother and a grandmother — were killed in the Central Valley farming community of Goshen in Tulare County.
(Los Angeles Times staff writers Laura Newberry, Debbie Truong, Rebecca Ellis, Grace Toohey and Alexandra Petri contributed to this report.)
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