How the Lunar New Year massacre unfolded: A night of ballroom dancing, terror, manhunt

Monterey Park, CA - January 22: After police tape was taken down, curious bystanders view the crime scene inside the Star Dance Studio Ballroom where Huu Can Tran, a 72 year old Asian male, is accused of shooting and killing 10 people and injuring 10 during the Monterey Park mass shooting that took place Saturday night. Photo taken Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
After police tape was taken down, bystanders view the crime scene inside the Star Dance Studio Ballroom. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

The burst of pops sounded, at first, like the firecrackers expected to cap a day of celebration.

It was late Saturday night in Monterey Park, and the city's Lunar New Year festival had ended an hour earlier. People were still strolling through downtown when the noise echoed from a ballroom dance studio tucked into a strip mall.

Three people sprinted across Garvey Avenue and into the Clam House, a seafood restaurant, where they begged owner Seung Won Choi to barricade the door. They said they just escaped from a class at Star Ballroom Dance Studio, where a gunman had opened fire.

Their faces were pale with terror — “hot white,” Choi recalled.

The mass shooting — one of the worst in the modern history of Los Angeles County — left 10 people dead and at least 10 more wounded in a storied hub of Southern California's Chinese community during a weekend of celebration, now truncated by terror and grief. Monterey Park canceled the second day of its festival and, instead, on Sunday morning police officers with long guns stood guard beneath a string of red lanterns and a big banner.

“Happy Year of the Rabbit!” it proclaimed — a year of peace shattered before it even began.

It was late Saturday when Monterey Park police officers — including some rookies who had been on patrol for only a couple of months — rushed to the bloody scene, but the suspect was gone. About 20 minutes later, the gunman barged into another dance studio, the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in nearby Alhambra, but two people managed to wrestle the gun away from the suspect, who fled in a white cargo van, according to witnesses.

Alerts went out and authorities across the region searched for the vehicle. Sheriff’s officials put out a bulletin identifying the suspect as an adult Asian man and asking anyone who recognized the man pictured wearing a black leather jacket, beanie and glasses to contact investigators.

Sunday midmorning law enforcement vehicles surrounded a white 1999 Chevy Express in a Torrance parking lot, where officials said the gunman fatally shot himself as officers approached the vehicle.

Authorities later identified the shooter as Huu Can Tran, 72, who, according to public records and law enforcement sources, had been living at a trailer park in Hemet, described by its sign as an “A 55+ active living community.”

Images and aerial footage of the Torrance parking lot showed what appeared to be two bullet holes in the driver's-side window of the van. A SWAT team swarmed the vehicle around 1 p.m.

“I can confirm that there are no outstanding suspects,” L.A. County Sheriff Robert Luna said at a news briefing Sunday evening, adding that seven victims remained hospitalized with injuries.

The shooter's motive, Luna said, remained under investigation.

“We want to know how something this awful can happen," he said.

Using evidence found inside the van, investigators tied the suspect to both the Star Ballroom Dance Studio and the Lai Lai, where patrons stopped him.

“He was disarmed by two community members who I consider to be heroes," Luna said, adding that authorities later recovered a semiautomatic assault pistol with an extended magazine, which is illegal to possess in California.

By Sunday morning, a sign scrawled in red marker had been affixed to the front door of the Alhambra studio.

“Closed, in observance to Star Dance tragedy,” it read.

On Sunday, U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) reflected on the particular pain of when and where the massacre had occurred.

“These dance clubs are such establishments of joy for people,” Chu said.

She described the Lunar New Year as a cherished time to celebrate with family, saying, “This tore a hole through all of our hearts."

In a statement, President Biden called the massacre a “senseless attack” and noted that it had happened during Lunar New Year.

“Even as we continue searching for answers about this attack, we know how deeply this attack has impacted the AAPI community,” Biden said.

The president issued a proclamation ordering flags to be flown at half-staff at the White House and all public buildings until sunset Thursday. He said that he had also directed his Homeland Security advisor to mobilize full federal support to help with the investigation.

Although the gunman’s motive remained unclear, the shooting in Monterey Park — a hub of Chinese tourism and culture in suburban Los Angeles — stoked fears about a disturbing trend of racially targeted violence, particularly before the suspect was identified Sunday evening.

Hate crimes against Asian Americans in California increased by 177.5% from 2020 to 2021, according to a state report, and a recent poll showed that two-thirds of Asian Americans in L.A. County worry about being a victim of a racial attack.

That fear gnawed at Winn Liaw after she learned of the shooting.

The 57-year-old, who lives two blocks from the studio, heard the gunshots Saturday night but assumed they were part of the celebration until she noticed the steady hum of helicopters hovering overhead.

On Sunday morning, after she learned the first scant details, Liaw immediately thought of the pervasive anti-Chinese rhetoric during the pandemic and worried that the shooting had been motivated by hate. In the San Gabriel Valley, she said, she had sometimes felt insulated from violence.

“This kind of thing doesn’t happen in my neighborhood,” she said.

Eric Ching felt equally stunned.

The Monterey Park resident said that, before this weekend, he felt free to go outside at any hour of the day or night without thinking twice about his safety.

“Now that’s just kind of been shattered,” Ching said, his voice quivering as he described the shooting.

"I've never seen a freaking gun in Monterey Park," Ching said. "But it was here, and it took the lives of 10 people, and another 10 are in the hospital right now fighting for their lives."

Eager to help in some way, Ching spent some time Sunday at the Langley Senior Center, which was converted into an assistance center for loved ones of the victims.

On Sunday afternoon, a woman marched quickly toward the building. Her fiance was injured in the shooting, she said, and she didn’t know which hospital he’d been taken to.

“We lost contact," she said as she crossed the yellow police tape around the entrance.

A sign outside the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, which shares a plaza with a Chinese herbal store and a Bank of America, advertises tango, waltz, cha-cha and salsa lessons.

The studio, which opened 30 years ago, listed the Saturday event as "Star Night" — the fee would be $10, and, according to an invitation shared on WeChat, the “Chinese New Year Coundown Dance Party” would include a photo booth and games. The message was peppered with emojis —a firework, champagne, confetti.

One of the studio's instructors, David DuVal, who teaches samba and tango, said that the Saturday night parties are popular with older clients.

“Sixties would be young," he said. “There’s definitely going to be people in their 70s, 80s, people in their 90s."

DuVal said he learned what happened Saturday night over WeChat and reached out to a student who told him she was there and had hid under a table. His student said she saw a man with a “long firearm.”

After the gunman opened fire, people fled from the studio, seeking shelter in nearby businesses and hitching rides from passersby.

A man who wished to be identified only as Bill said he was at the Bank of America ATM when about half a dozen people hopped into the bed of his Toyota truck.

Many didn’t speak fluent English, but they sounded panicked. One person, Bill said, repeated a single word.

Drive. Drive. Drive.

As he drove, Bill said he heard gunshots. He dropped the people — all Asian and ranging in age from 20s to 60s — at a nearby CVS. No one appeared to be injured, and he said one of the men thanked him and told him there had been a shooting.

Bill, who lives in Arizona and was visiting his girlfriend, said he started carrying a gun with him after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last year — but he didn’t use it Saturday night.

David Zhang, who lives a few blocks from the dance studio, learned about the shooting by scrolling on Instagram on Sunday morning.

The 22-year-old UCLA student moved to the United States from northeast China more than seven years ago, saying he chose to live in Monterey Park after learning about the "gem of a city" known for its safety and good food. Living in a close-knit Chinese community, he said, helped him feel connected to home.

Elizabeth Wang, a pastor who was staying in the San Gabriel Valley for the weekend, said she had noticed a lot of anticipatory excitement leading up to the Lunar New Year.

“This year has been the first year people felt like, ‘Oh, yay, now we're more out of the pandemic,’” Wang said. But many of these families who had been eagerly awaiting the return of bustling festivals awoke instead to news of horrific violence.

“It’s like if a mass shooting happens on Christmas Eve,” she said.

Sun Luu, a 26-year-old performing arts teacher who lives down the street from the dance studio, said he looked forward to the local Lunar New Year festival every year.

He had planned to spend Sunday strolling the festival with his younger brother but woke up to a deluge of calls and texts asking if he was safe.

“It had perverted what was meant to be a sacred, holiday gathering,” he said, adding that it was painful to learn that the suspect was Asian. “That’s just something I haven’t quite grappled with yet.”

Times staff writers Debbie Truong, Rebecca Ellis, Nathan Solis, Matthew Ormseth, Ruben Vives, Brittny Mejia and Erin B. Logan contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.