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At least 10 killed in California shooting; police hunt for answers after massacre at suburban LA dance studio

The massacre unfolded just as the Monterey Park community had begun to celebrate the arrival of the Lunar New Year.Philip Cheung/For The Washington Post

MONTEREY PARK, Calif. - Police said the suspect in the killing of at least 10 people at a dance studio in Monterey Park was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound Sunday afternoon as officers closed in on his vehicle following a furious manhunt.

The massacre unfolded just as the Monterey Park community had begun to celebrate the arrival of the Lunar New Year. It sent a wave of fear through this predominantly Asian suburb of Los Angeles, turning a festive occasion into one marked by grief and shock.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna identified the suspect as Huu Can Tran, a 72-year-old of Asian descent. He said the motive for the shooting - which he called "absolutely heartbreaking" and "heinous" - remained unclear.

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"Our job is to collect every shred of this awful puzzle," Luna told reporters Sunday. "We're looking at every angle."

The mass killing took place at about 10:20 p.m. Saturday, police said, at a location on Garvey Avenue that is home to Star Ballroom Dance Studio. Ten people were pronounced dead at the scene, Luna said. At least 10 others were taken to hospitals.

Authorities said the gunman then went to a second dance studio in neighboring Alhambra, where two patrons wrested a gun from him and no one was hurt. The community members who confronted the suspect were "heroes," Luna said. "This could have been much worse."

At the second scene, authorities recovered a semiautomatic pistol with a large-capacity magazine, Luna said, adding that he did not think the weapon was legal in California.

The suspect was seen leaving the Alhambra dance studio in a white van. On Sunday, the vehicle was spotted by police in Torrance, Calif., about 40 minutes away by car. After officers pulled up behind the vehicle, they heard a single gunshot from inside the van, Luna said.

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The shooting in Monterey Park, which is east of downtown Los Angeles, was the country's deadliest mass killing since May, when a gunman entered an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and killed 19 children and two teachers.

President Joe Biden said that he and first lady Jill Biden were "praying for those killed and injured" and that he was monitoring the situation.

He also noted that Monterey Park is home to one of the largest Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the country. "Even as we continue searching for answers about this attack, we know how deeply this has impacted the AAPI community," Biden said in a statement.

"Monterey Park should have had a night of joyful celebration of the Lunar New Year," California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said on Twitter Sunday morning. "Instead, they were the victims of a horrific and heartless act of gun violence."

The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were assisting local authorities in the investigation. The ATF said it had conducted an "urgent trace" on a firearm thought to have been used in the killings.

California is widely considered to have the nation's strictest gun laws. There is a 10-day waiting period for all gun purchases. Background checks are required in nearly all cases, whether a gun is bought from a licensed dealer or from someone posting an ad online.

In Monterey Park, residents were reeling. The city is home to about 61,000 people and at least 65 percent are Asian, according to the latest census figures. The weekend's public Lunar New Year celebrations were taking place for the first time in three years following pandemic-related cancellations.

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"We thought we were finally getting back to normal, and then to have this horrible thing happen - it's shattering," said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), referring to the shooting in her district.

Chu said the violence will deepen a sense of insecurity in the community, which was already grappling with the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic.

Police in cities across the country, including San Francisco, New York, Houston and Washington said they would increase security and patrols at Lunar New Year events.

Also referred to as Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, Lunar New Year is one of the most important holidays in large parts of Asia. This year, the festival is being recognized for the first time as an official state holiday in California.

In Monterey Park, the city had planned a two-day street carnival along Garvey Avenue beginning Saturday to welcome the Year of the Rabbit. There were food stalls, games, dragon dance performers and a large stage decorated with red lanterns. The first day of festivities wrapped up at 9 p.m., just a block away from where the shooting took place.

At 10:22 p.m. Saturday, police began receiving 911 calls from the dance hall on the western end of Garvey Avenue. Officers responded within three minutes, Scott Wiese, the Monterey Park police chief, said at a news conference. Star Ballroom Dance Studio was founded in 1990 and was open seven days a week, according to its website, offering group and private lessons on a large, glossy, wooden dance floor.

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When police officers arrived on the scene, they saw screaming patrons pouring out of the location, some of them wounded. "It was chaos," Wiese said. Some of the responding officers had only been on the job for a few months, he added. They encountered carnage that "none of them had been prepared for."

Authorities did not identify the dead or injured. Luna said he thought five men and five women were killed in the shooting. Four of the victims were taken to LAC+USC Medical Center, according to a statement from chief executive Jorge Orozco. He did not provide additional details on their status.

Dariusz Michalski, a longtime professional ballroom dancer who has taught at Star Ballroom Dance for 12 years, said the community of people connected to the studio was devastated. "We're all a big dance family," he said in a phone interview. Many are simply "speechless - very, very sad in this moment."

As news spread of a gunman opening fire in the studio, the community of dancers was "exchanging information between each other and praying," Michalski said. He had learned of some beloved Star Ballroom Dance community members who were injured and killed, he said, calling the news "just heartbreaking."

The clientele at the studio is largely Chinese, Michalski said, reflecting the neighborhood. Most of the students are middle-aged or older, he said.

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The instructors include award-winning professional dancers from around the world, and Michalski described the studio as a cheerful place to work. "Walking in is just like a home of happy people," Michalski said. He said he did not recognize the suspect shown in a photo distributed by the sheriff's office.

At the time of the shooting, Star Ballroom Dance was hosting its own Lunar New Year party, Michalski said. That evening, he and the owner of the studio, Maria Liang, were attending a dance competition and gala at a hotel in Orange County. He said Liang left the event about 30 minutes before the attack. She found out what happened when she arrived back in Monterey Park, Michalski said, and rushed to try to help.

A longtime resident and shopkeeper who asked to be identified only as Yin said the community is generally safe. He knows the dance studio, where there have been occasional problems - fights, drinking, but "nothing like this," Yin said in Chinese. After the shooting, city authorities canceled the second day of the Lunar New Year festival. On Sunday, some vendors were tearing down their stalls.

The gunman’s second purported destination, the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio, sits across from rows of apartment buildings in Alhambra. On Sunday, the curtains at the studio were drawn. An employee entered and then hurried out without saying anything. No other movement was visible. A handwritten sign on the door said the venue was closed because of the shooting in Monterey Park.