Investigators in California are searching for answers as to why a 72-year-old man gunned down patrons at a ballroom dance hall on Saturday night, a venue he is said to have frequented.
The community of Monterey Park continues to reel from a weekend massacre that killed 11 people and wounded nine. The gunman, identified as Huu Can Tran, attacked the Star Ballroom Dance Studio then drove to another nearby dance hall where an employee wrestled a weapon away from him, preventing an even greater tragedy.
Tran later killed himself as police closed in.
Robert Luna, the Los Angeles county sheriff, said investigators have not yet established a clear motive and are looking into whether Tran had relationships with the people he shot at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio. Tran was previously arrested for illegally possessing a firearm, had a rifle at home, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and appeared to be manufacturing gun silencers. Investigators are also honing in on the possibility he was motivated by jealousy or other personal animus, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“What drove a mad man to do this? We don’t know, but we intend to find out,” Luna said.
A man who said he had been a longtime friend of Tran told the Associated Press that the gunman had been a regular patron at the Star Ballroom and the Lai Lai Ballroom and Studio, the second venue he targeted, and that he griped about the way he thought people treated him there.
The shootings during lunar new year celebrations sent a wave of fear through Asian American communities, dealing another blow to a community that has been the target of high-profile violence in recent years and cast a shadow over festivities nationwide.
The death toll rose to 11 on Monday after health officials announced that one of the 10 people wounded had died, officials said. The names of the six women and five men killed – all but one of whom were in their 60s and 70s – were released Tuesday.
The women killed were: Diana Tom, 70, Muoi Ung, 67, My Nhan, 65, Lilian Li, 63, Hong Jian, 62 and Xiujuan Yu, 57, according to Los Angeles coroner’s office. The men were: Chia Yau, 76, Ming Ma, 72, Yu Kao, 72, Valentino Alvero, 68, and Wen Yu, 64.
Nhan’s family said in a statement that she was a loving person whose kindness was contagious, and loved to dance.
“Unfairly, Saturday was her last dance,” the family said. “We are starting the lunar new year broken. We never imagined her life would end so suddenly.”
Authorities have shared little about Tran, who owned a trucking company in Monterey Park from 2002 to 2004, according to California business records. He was once arrested for unlawful possession of a firearm in 1990 and had a limited criminal history, Luna said.
Tran’s ex-wife told CNN they married soon after they met at Star Ballroom, where he offered her free lessons. She said he would become upset if she missed a step dancing, but was never violent toward her. They divorced five years later, citing irreconcilable differences, Los Angeles superior court records show.
His ex-wife’s story was echoed by a friend who told AP that Tran offered to teach new women at both clubs how to dance for free so that he would have a partner.
But Tran was perpetually distrustful and paranoid and would regularly complain that people at the clubs didn’t like him, according to the former friend who requested anonymity to speak about Tran because he wanted to avoid the media spotlight.
“He always cast a dubious eye toward everything. He just didn’t trust people at all,” the friend said. “He always complained to me that the instructors … kept distance from him, and according to what he said, many people spoke evil of him.”
Tran eventually moved from the San Gabriel Valley, a melting pot for Asian immigrants, and settled in Hemet, a lower-income community of many retirees 75 miles (120 kms) east of Los Angeles in Riverside county.
A neighbor, Pat Roth, told KNBC-TV that Tran said he was a ballroom dance instructor in the past and would sometimes show up to dances at the senior community.
“Didn’t seem like he’d harm a fly, you know. He wasn’t a big guy,” Roth said. “He’d pet your dog when you walked by.”
Hemet police had no records of any incidents involving Tran in the community or calls for service at his home, Reyes said.
Sheriff’s deputies from Los Angeles county searched Tran’s home in a gated senior community in the town of Hemet, a little over an hour’s drive from the site of the massacre.
Luna said his officers found a .308-caliber rifle, an unknown amount of bullets and evidence he was making homemade firearm suppressors that muffle the sound of the weapons.
Tran had visited Hemet police twice this month to report he was the victim of fraud, theft and poisoning by family members a decade or two ago in the LA area, Hemet police spokesperson Alan Reyes told the Associated Press. Tran said he would return to the station with documentation but never did.
The Associated Press contributed reporting