Shooter targets 'establishments of joy' in Monterey Park Lunar New Year mass shooting

Investigators are seen outside Star Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023. A mass shooting took place at the dance club following a Lunar New Year celebration, setting off a manhunt for the suspect. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Law enforcement officials investigate the scene at Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park on Sunday. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Star Ballroom Dance Studio is where international ballroom competitors teach their moves. Where retirees learn how to waltz, tango and samba. Where elderly and middle-aged couples while away Saturday nights.

Where they feel safe. And happy.

“They’re mainly just there to enjoy life and hang out and have fun," said 40-year-old Elizabeth Yang, who has taken ballroom classes at the studio for a year.

All that changed late Saturday night on the eve of the Lunar New Year, a time to welcome prosperity, health and good luck.

The studio had scheduled a Lunar New Year’s Eve party for 8 p.m. Saturday. It was supposed to end at 12:30 a.m. Sunday. A message in the dance studio’s WeChat group advertised a "Chinese New Year Countdown Dance Party," with games and a photo booth.

But around 10:20 p.m., 72-year-old Huu Can Tran, armed with a semiautomatic pistol, stormed into the studio. The shooting began. The celebration stopped.

And moments later, 10 people were dead. At least 10 others were injured.

The community was left reeling as the motive for the violence remained unclear.

“These dance clubs are such establishments of joy for people," said U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), who has lived in the city for 37 years and previously served as mayor three times. "These are folks who are getting their exercise, they’re developing their skills. ... They just enjoy coming."

Dariusz Michalski, who has taught private and group lessons at the dance studio for 12 years, said he believes the studio’s community of teachers and students will find the strength to carry on, despite the tragedy.

“It’s going to take time to heal,” Michalski said. “But the love for dancing will bring us back together. We won’t let anything like this happen again to take our happiness away."

Star Ballroom Dance Studio, founded 30 years ago, is a fixture in the city.

Monterey Park Mayor Henry Lo and Councilman Thomas Wong haven't been to the ballroom, but both said it's a popular dance hall for Chinese American immigrants.

"It's been there for years," Wong said. "It's been well-known in the community for a while."

Although the demographic of the ballroom skews older, Lo said, the place attracts young and old alike — as people look for a place to socialize, especially in a group setting.

International ballroom competitors teach waltz, tango and Chinese dance classes. Instructors described a spacious studio, which — along with dancing — offers party room rentals and karaoke happy hour.

More than 10,000 square feet of floor space make it "one of the largest dance studios in town," according to Star's website, which estimates that the studio has served more than 10,000 students.

Here, Michalski, 50, teaches ballroom dancing styles five days a week. Originally from Poland, he said he felt welcomed by his students, who are mostly Chinese American.

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.

“Star Ballroom is where people go to de-stress from daily routines and from work,” Michalski said. “The studio owner always smiled and welcomed everyone. We felt like a very big Monterey Park dance family."

Walter Calderon, a dance teacher in L.A. and Orange counties, said the crowds on Saturdays are a mix of seniors and middle-aged people. The playlist would include many songs in Chinese, he said.

Around 10:22 p.m. Saturday, the Monterey Park Police Department responded to a "shots fired" call at the studio, officials said. When officers arrived, there were victims in the parking lot and patrons trying to flee.

Inside, they found numerous gunshot victims. Firefighters pronounced 10 people dead at the scene, L.A. County Sheriff Robert Luna said. He said the victims, five men and five women, were probably "in their 50s, 60s and some maybe even beyond there."

As of Sunday afternoon, seven victims were still hospitalized.

Authorities believe that, after opening fire at the Monterey Park studio, the gunman went to Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, about two miles north. Two community members disarmed the suspect there, Luna said. He called them “heroes."

On Sunday, Torrance police officers located a white van matching the description of the suspect's vehicle. As they pulled behind it, the driver entered a shopping center parking lot, Luna said. As the officers exited their vehicle, they heard a gunshot from inside.

Tran was pronounced dead at the scene of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. A search of the van turned up evidence linking him to the locations in Monterey Park and Alhambra, Luna said. He did not share what that evidence was.

"We still are not clear on the motive," Luna said. "We want to know how something this awful can happen."

Yang, who owns a law office building across the street from the studio, has been taking ballroom dancing lessons at Star on Monday nights.

She was celebrating Lunar New Year's Eve, exchanging red envelopes and eating dinner with family at home when she started receiving texts from friends who were worried about her after news of the shooting broke.

David DuVal, who has taught at the studio for 10 years, said one of his students was there during the shooting and hid under a table. His student said she saw a man with a "long firearm." She doesn't know what he looked like.

"It’s just hard to imagine," he said. "It’s such a safe place."

DuVal taught samba and tango at the studio Thursday. Many of his students are older. He said there are couples that have been going to the studio for a decade or more. Retirees taking classes to stay healthy. Some are in their 90s, he said, "and still dancing."

“It’s old people dancing to music for fun," he said. "It’s their exercise."

He called Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio the "sister studio" of Star. He said the same people go to both dance halls.

On the night of the shooting, Michalski was in Garden Grove for a gala dinner dance he had organized with his wife.

Star's owner joined them at the event, along with others from the studio. But some studio members stayed behind in Monterey Park. They wanted to celebrate Chinese New Year at the countdown dance party in the place they loved.

Michalski didn’t learn of the mass shooting until the morning after, when he awoke to messages on his phone about the tragedy from the dance community across the nation, whose members wondered if he was safe.

He had to stop to compose himself when speaking about a student he had taught for several years, a man believed to be one of the 10 people slain. His former student helped manage Star and was affectionately known by all as “Mr. Ma.”

“It was heartbreaking,” Michalski said. “We are just speechless and cannot find the words to describe how we feel right now."

In a Facebook post, Lauren Woods, another dance instructor, called "Mr. Ma" the heart of the studio. She wrote, "Ma was everything at Star and we were always so connected with him."

When Ma would see her, she wrote, he'd say, "my teacher," kiss her cheeks and say, “Love you! Love you!”

"He was so adorable to me and I could tell he was the heart of Star Ballroom," she said. "So many dancers, teachers and organizers were connected with Ma and I personally will miss him dearly."

A screenshot of the studio WeChat shared with The Times included comments from Maria Liang, who is described as the owner on the Star website. Liang said she was not present.

She acknowledged Ma's death and said she was talking with his children “about a grand farewell.”

Times staff writers Jeong Park, Richard Winton and Julia Wick contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.