The up-tempo version of the Chinese ballad “Light Rain in March” is catchy enough that several regulars at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park were line dancing to it around 10:20 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21 – the first night of Lunar New Year celebrations – the moment their lives were forever changed.
That’s when a man police later identified as Huu Can Tran, 72, carried a gun into the dance hall, squatted down and began pumping bullets into the cashier’s cage.
As people inside Star scrambled – and at least one dancer, James Goodman, a former homicide investigator for the San Gabriel Police Department, used his body to shield his dance partner – Tran started to wave the gun across his body, as if he were watering a lawn, the Washington Post reported in its description of the scene that night. This let him spray a wider arc of gunfire across a dance floor one instructor later described as “exquisite.” Two of those bullets hit but did not kill Goodman.
The first 911 call came at 10:22 p.m. Three minutes later Monterey Park police were outside Star, watching and helping as patrons left by every possible exit. At 10:33 p.m. police went inside, finding a crime scene with wounded and dead bodies that officials later suggested should not be seen by the public.
They did not find Tran. The one-time dance scene regular, who witnesses said was wearing a black coat and a pointy ski hat, was already in a white cargo van, heading to the Lai Lai Ballroom, about 2 miles north, in Alhambra.
But before he left Star, investigators said, Tran fired off 42 rounds, killing 11 people, ages 57 to 72, and wounding nine others.
It was neither the start nor the end of the most violent night in what is shaping up to be a most violent year.
More than 20 people already have died in mass shootings in California in 2023. In Monterey Park, they were:
Lilan Li, 63
Chia Ling Yau, 76
Xiujuan Yu, 57
“Monterey Park’s Lunar New Year festival features vendors offering unique gifts and specialty items, food booths with various types of delectable items, amusement rides, and lots of live entertainment…”
– City of Monterey Park’s online promotion for its 2023 Lunar New Year Festival.
On Jan. 7, two weeks before the massacre, Tran made the first of two brief visits to police in Hemet, the city where he’d been living since moving away from the Monterey Park area in 2020.
Tran didn’t present as mentally ill or incoherent, but police in Hemet later described an unusual complaint: Tran claimed his family had been trying to poison him for decades and were running a scam to steal his money. Police told Tran to bring some evidence. Though he returned on Jan. 9 there is no indication that they opened an investigation.
It’s also unclear what family Tran was referring to. Public records indicate his five-year marriage – to a woman he reportedly met at Star in the 1990s – ended in divorce, in 2005, and there is no record that they had children. And a man who later rented a San Gabriel home from Tran described his landlord, who lived in another building on the same property, as solitary, with no family.
The focus of Tran’s life back then was the local dance scene. The former tenant said Tran routinely presented himself as an unpaid, “freelance dance instructor” at the Star and Lai Lai ballrooms.
Tran may have had at least one other strong interest during that time.
Documents show that Tran, who was born in Vietnam in 1950 and naturalized as an American in 1990 or ’91, had a brief criminal record – a 1990 arrest for unlawful possession of a firearm. After the shooting, investigators searching Tran’s mobile home in Hemet found a .308 caliber rifle, hundreds of rounds of loose ammunition and tools that led them to believe he was building homemade firearm suppressors.
Though authorities said Tran hadn’t been to the Star dance hall in at least five years, his former tenant told the Southern California News Group that when he knew him Tran’s anger at people connected to the dance studios was white hot.
“Sometimes, he brought sentiments to me that the dance instructors didn’t like him. He thought he wasn’t welcome. He did not like the instructors as well and spoke evil of them,” the man said.
“I firmly believe the motive was his hatred toward a lot of people at Star studio and Lai Lai. There were a lot of people at both places who he hated so much.”
Still, Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said that investigators have yet to establish connections between Tran and any of the people he killed. Luna said the only firm indication, so far, that the massacre was pre-planned is the Sheriff’s Department’s belief that Tran left a motorcycle about a block away from the dance studio on the day of the shooting. The bike was a possible getaway vehicle, Luna said, though it’s unclear if it was used by Tran.
“… Past Lunar New Year events in Monterey Park have drawn crowds estimated at over 100,000 visitors per day from all over the Southern California area. Plan on attending now for a full weekend of fun, entertainment, shopping, and dining…”
– City of Monterey Park’s online promotion for its 2023 Lunar New Year Festival
Between 17 and 20 minutes after he left Star, Tran walked into the lobby of the Lai Lai Ballroom.
Brandon Tsay, the 26-year-old grandson of the couple who founded Lai Lai, told ABC News that the man in the odd hat was carrying a large handgun and “seemed like he was looking for targets – people to harm.”
Tsay also said he realized that he, or somebody, needed to get the gun out of the older man’s hands.
Video of the encounter that followed shows Tran walking through the main lobby into a smaller room, carrying what authorities later said was a Cobray M11 9mm semiautomatic, a handgun capable of shooting multiple rounds between reloading. Video from the smaller room shows Tsay, who was unarmed, rushing at the older man and grabbing the weapon.
They struggled for about 30 seconds. The video shows the older man repeatedly hitting Tsay and lunging at him in an effort to regain control of the gun. Eventually, Tsay gained the upper hand and pointed the gun at Tran.
But Tsay did not yet know what had happened in Monterey Park. He ordered Tran to “get the hell out,” keeping the gun as he called the police. The last Tsay saw Tran, the older man was jogging toward his white van.
But police – who arrived within minutes – said the encounter was key to the investigation. The weapon was registered to Tran, and because of that investigators soon had a name for who they believed was the Monterey Park shooter.
Later, L.A. County Sheriff Luna said it was likely that Tsay’s heroism prevented more bloodshed.
“The suspect walked in there, probably with the intent to kill more people,”
After Tran drove out of the Lai Lai parking lot, two things were clear: A mass shooting had taken place in Monterey Park, and the killer was not in police custody, potentially able to kill again.
But for several hours the possible danger to the public – the fact that someone who killed and injured many somewhere in Monterey Park, the vague information known in the early hours, was still at large – was conveyed only by some news outlets, not by Monterey Park police or the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.
A look at how the information spread:
• “The suspect is still loose according to PD on the scene,” reads an 11:53 p.m. Saturday tweet from RMG News, a Marina del Rey-based video news service.
• At 12:10 a.m. Sunday, the Southern California News Group posts its first story with what little information is available, and other news organizations do as well around that time.
• At 2:36 a.m., Jan. 22, the Associated Press publishes a news alert saying there are nine dead at the ballroom based on information the news agency received from the Los Angeles County Sheriff Dept.
• Minutes later, at 2:49 a.m., the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Information Bureau issues a news advisory confirming the fatalities and adding that the suspect is male. But the agency does not say the gunman is at large.
• Finally, during a 3:30 a.m. news conference, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Capt. Andrew Meyer, says the death toll is 10 and confirms that the suspect “remains outstanding.”
The delay quickly drew criticism from public officials and others. And Luna said later that his department plans to investigate:
“Nobody is as critical as ourselves as to what worked and specifically what didn’t work, and evaluate that, and see what the wait was in determining what the public risk was at that time.”
The City of Monterey Park is saddened to announce that there was a shooting incident that occurred at 122 West Garvey in the City of Monterey Park late on Saturday, January 21. The City expresses condolences to the individuals, families, and friends who were injured in this tragic incident…. As a precaution and for the safety of everyone, the City regrets to announce the cancellation of the second day of the festival…
– City of Monterey Park news release
During pre-dawn hours mourners and others began to gather outside Star. So did news crews. Local and regional reporters set up a forest of equipment, and some national correspondents – including one who arrived in a limousine – prepped for their Sunday morning stand-ups. Soon, trauma services were established. Hospitals shifted to higher alert. Families were notified.
The White House reported that President Joe Biden was briefed about the shooting.
Soon, elected officials – city, county, state, congressional – started to weigh in. All expressed condolences. All denounced mass shootings. Many expressed frustration that hundreds of mass shootings now punctuate American life each year.
And though it was not yet known if race is a factor, some noted that hate crimes have soared in the past seven years and that the biggest jump has involved incidents and crimes targeting Asian people.
And police continued to hunt Tran.
By 9 a.m., in Torrance, about 30 miles south of Monterey Park, police were searching for a white van that might match the shooter’s. Torrance police officials said later that the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department told them what vehicle to look for, but that actions on the scene were “good, proactive police work.”
At 10:20 a.m. officers were following a white van on Hawthorne Boulevard. When they got information that the plates on the van didn’t match DMV records for that vehicle, they pulled the van over for a traffic stop in a strip mall parking lot.
As they approached, officers heard a single gunshot from inside the van.
Police didn’t move to open the van. It’s unclear if the now-silent vehicle contained explosives or chemicals or anything that might pose a threat to police or the public. Torrance police called for reinforcements. A possible stand-off began.
At 11:38 a.m. members of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and Hawthorne Police Department arrived, and the perimeter around the van was expanded. Dozens of onlookers were pushed back. When the bomb squad arrived, at 12:04 p.m., the perimeter was expanded even further.
Finally, at 12:52 p.m. the Sheriff’s SWAT team approached and clears the van.
Within minutes they determined that a single man inside is deceased.
Around 5:20 p.m., 19 hours after the terror began, the dead man in the van is identified by Luna as Tran, the shooting suspect.
Over the next hours and days, police, journalists and those who once found Monterey Park a safe haven tried to understand what happened and why, only to learn two more mass shootings happened the next day in Northern California.
Reporting for this article was done by: staff writers Josh Cain, Ryan Carter, Jordan Darling, Mona Darwish, Yusra Farzan, Ruby Gonzales, Chris Haire, Clara Harter, Sarah Hoffman, Emily Holshouser, Jeff Horseman, Kristy Hutchings, Lisa Jacobs, Roxana Kopetman, Hunter Lee, Donna Littlejohn, Hanna Lykke, Andre Mouchard, Nathaniel Percy, Erika I. Ritchie, Javier Rojas, Brian Rokos, Tony Saavedra, Steve Scauzillo, Kaitlyn Schallhorn, Scott Schwebke, Monserrat Solis, Linh Tat, Georgia Valdes and Allyson Vergara; contributor Anissa Rivera; and photographers Keith Birmingham, David Crane, Hans Gutknecht, Will Lester, Brittany Murray, Leonard Ortiz, Sarah Reingewirtz, Mindy Schauer, Andy Holzman Axel Koester and Trevor Stamp.