Authorities Ask Why Gunman Attacked California Ballroom He Once Enjoyed

The authorities did not specify a motive in attack that killed 11, but investigators were focusing on the theory that the gunman was driven by personal grievances.

A woman kneels and places her arm around a small child in front of bouquets of flowers, resting against a brown gate.
A makeshift memorial outside the Star Ballroom Dance Studio where 11 people were killed in Monterey Park, Calif.Credit...Alisha Jucevic for The New York Times

MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — On Monday, the police tape had been taken down and the parking lot outside the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park had become an achingly familiar scene in a nation where mass gun violence is a constant drumbeat. News trucks and cameras were clustered near the brick-lined entrance to the studio as community members and mourners left flowers and candles.

The grieving families were struggling with news from the coroner about loved ones lost in a massacre at the popular dance hall that killed 11. At the same time, investigators were looking into whether Huu Can Tran, the 72-year-old suspect, was driven by personal animosities when he entered a place he knew so well and began shooting on Saturday night.

The authorities did not specify a motive on Monday, but as investigators continued interviewing witnesses, they were focusing on the theory that Mr. Tran had gone to the studio to target specific people, according to a law enforcement official briefed on the matter. Some of those killed or wounded were likely people he knew, while others could have been shot randomly, according to the official who requested anonymity to discuss the early stages of the investigation.

Detectives are focusing on the theory that Mr. Tran was “looking out for specific people for a specific reason,” the official said. The gunman killed himself on Sunday as the police approached his white van after a long manhunt in Southern California.

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Credit...Alisha Jucevic for The New York Times
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The Lai Lai Ballroom & Dance Studio in Alhambra, Calif., on Monday.Credit...Mark Abramson for The New York Times

Investigators are also examining whether Mr. Tran visited a second location, the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio, in search of people he wasn’t able to find at the Star, the official said. The two studios draw from the same cohort of dance enthusiasts, most of them middle-class immigrants from Asia, and investigators believe some people visited both dance halls on Saturday night. The attacks immediately halted Lunar New Year celebrations this weekend in Monterey Park, an Asian American enclave east of Los Angeles.

Mr. Tran had recently visited the police station in the city of Hemet — where Mr. Tran was living in a mobile home park, roughly 80 miles east of Monterey Park — to say that his family was poisoning him and orchestrating a scam to steal money from him, said Alan Reyes, the spokesman for the Hemet Police Department. He said Mr. Tran had visited twice to make the allegations — on Jan. 7 and Jan. 9 — and was told to come back with evidence. He never returned.

Police searched Mr. Tran’s home on Sunday and seized a rifle, several electronic devices, a large amount of ammunition and items that led detectives to believe he was manufacturing firearm silencers, Sheriff Robert Luna of Los Angeles County said on Monday. The sheriff also said that Mr. Tran was arrested in 1990 for unlawful possession of a firearm.

Sheriff Luna said investigators were still trying to determine the motive, and that they were looking into the possibility Mr. Tran was motivated by personal animosities or jealousy. He said it remained unclear if Mr. Tran had connections to the victims. “We’re hearing there were possible relationships there, but I’m not going to confirm that yet,” he said.

Mr. Tran, who was born in Vietnam, according to an immigration document, appears to have emigrated to the United States in the late 1980s. He was naturalized in 1990 or 1991, according to the document. Mr. Tran was married in June 2001 and divorced in May 2006, according to court records.

Mr. Tran several years ago had been a frequent presence at the dance studio where the killings occurred and often clashed with people there, nursing grievances that lasted for years, according to a man who once befriended him and joined him some nights at the Star Ballroom.

“I was surprised,” the man, Adam Hood, said, describing his reaction when he heard of the massacre. “But in the same token, I was not surprised. I was surprised, you know, this is such a horrible massacre, that someone would have done this. When I say I’m not surprised, because if I know him well enough, this would have happened sooner or later.”

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Credit...Alisha Jucevic for The New York Times
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Credit...Alisha Jucevic for The New York Times

Mr. Hood said that he rented a small house for seven or eight years in nearby San Gabriel from Mr. Tran, who also lived on the property in a “free-standing cabin” in the back. When Mr. Hood moved out, around 2014, he wound up suing Mr. Tran in an effort to recover his security deposit.

Mr. Hood said that Mr. Tran found work cleaning carpets at local restaurants and was a frequent patron of both dance studios, where he frequently became enmeshed in disputes with other patrons and dance instructors. He said Mr. Tran was a volunteer instructor, offering dance lessons for free.

Mr. Tran often complained about other instructors and would often boast that he danced better than them, his former tenant recalled. “When he came back, many times he would complain about this instructor or that instructor, or this boss or that boss,” Mr. Hood said. “He kept complaining. He just didn’t have friends there.”

Mr. Tran lived in a mobile home park for residents aged 55 and over, called the Lakes at Hemet West, located across the street from an agricultural field and a shopping center. Television crews had set up beyond the residential area on Monday, and reporters were kept outside by a security guard. Dee Costello, a neighbor of Mr. Tran’s, said she often saw him riding a bicycle or motorcycle, and regarded him as easygoing and someone who largely kept to himself.

On Sunday evening, neighbors watched detectives search Mr. Tran’s residence, while a helicopter hovered overhead.

The killings in Monterey Park were the worst mass shooting in America since the massacre last year at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, that claimed the lives of 19 schoolchildren and two teachers. As horrifying as the attack was in Monterey Park, it could have been even worse, as authorities say Mr. Tran planned to kill more people at the second dance studio in nearby Alhambra.

About 20 minutes after leaving the Star Ballroom, Mr. Tran emerged at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio, the authorities said. He was confronted by Brandon Tsay, who was in the office of the ballroom that his family owns. After struggling with the gunman, Mr. Tsay was able to wrest the weapon away from him, saving an untold number of lives.

“He was looking at me and looking around, not hiding that he was trying to do harm,” Mr. Tsay said in an interview at his home in San Marino on Sunday night. “His eyes were menacing.”

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Credit...Mark Abramson for The New York Times
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Credit...Mark Abramson for The New York Times

Adele Andrade-Stadler, the mayor of Alhambra, said she was told by patrons of the dance studios that they knew of Mr. Tran and that he was a volunteer at the ballrooms. Ms. Andrade-Stadler said she had spent Monday weighing whether to go forward with her community’s Lunar New Year celebration and decided to proceed after learning that Mr. Tran was dead and being assured there were no ongoing threats to such gatherings.

Sheriff Luna on Monday said Mr. Tran fired 42 rounds at the Star Ballroom from a MAC-10, which he previously described as a magazine-fed semiautomatic pistol with an extended capacity magazine. He said the gun was likely not legal in California.

Separately, a law enforcement official on Monday said investigators believe the suspect purchased it out of state, likely in Nevada, but they were still looking at the possibility he acquired it illegally in California.

Authorities recovered two weapons on Sunday: the semiautomatic weapon used in the shooting, and the handgun the suspect used to kill himself in the van, after a dramatic manhunt whose last moments were broadcast live on television from a helicopter video feed, as a SWAT team approached the vehicle in a parking lot in Torrance, about two dozen miles south of Monterey Park. “Straight out of a movie is the best way to describe it,” a news anchor for Spectrum News 1 told viewers.

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Credit...Alisha Jucevic for The New York Times
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Credit...Ryan Young for The New York Times

California, because of its size, tends to have more mass shootings than other states, despite its strict gun laws; last year, only Illinois and Texas had more than California’s total of 49, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research group that tracks gun violence and defines a mass shooting as four or more people being shot or killed.

As Monterey Park grieved on Monday, a familiar American pattern of recriminations and anguish played out, just like it has in countless other communities upended by gun violence. Politicians called for stricter gun laws. Community members planned vigils. Many offered prayers and flowers.

Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, stood outside a tea and herb shop across the street from the Star Ballroom Dance Studio on Monday morning and spoke to reporters, inveighing against an unwillingness at the federal level to enact meaningful gun control. He blamed conservative media and the gun industry for drumming up hate and fear. “Rinse and repeat,” he said, referring to the deadly shooting in Uvalde, and the others that have occurred since.

Victoria Kim contributed reporting from Monterey Park, and Vik Jolly from Hemet. Reporting was also contributed by Soumya Karlamangla and Shawn Hubler. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.