MONTEREY PARK, Calif. – The police chief in the California city where 20 people were shot — 11 fatally — at a ballroom dance hall defended his decision not to warn the public for hours that a killer was on the loose, saying Wednesday he didn’t have enough information to effectively alert residents.
Monterey Park Chief Scott Wiese said police in the region were alerted and it didn’t make sense to send out a warning at night to residents in the predominantly Asian American city even after learning the suspect may have targeted a nearby dance club after the massacre.
“I’m not going to send my officers door to door waking people up and telling them that we’re looking for a male Asian in Monterey Park,” Wiese told The Associated Press. "It’s not going to do us any good.”
The shooting at Star Ballroom Dance Studio at 10:22 p.m. Saturday occurred just an hour or so after tens of thousands of people attended Lunar New Year festivities in the city. The public wasn't notified of the mass shooting for five hours, raising questions about why an alert wasn't sent to people in the area.
Huu Can Tran, 72, who was said to frequent the dance hall and fancied himself as an instructor, carried out the shooting with a submachine gun-style semi-automatic weapon with large capacity magazine, authorities said.
Tran fled in a white van before officers arrived at the scene of chaotic carnage and about 20 minutes later he entered another dance hall in nearby Alhambra, where an employee confronted and disarmed him during a brief struggle.
Chris Grollnek, an active shooter expert, said police never should have waited so long to warn the public about the possible threat posed by a gunman at large. The city had access to an automated alert system and even putting out a little information would have been better than nothing.
“They should have gotten the word out sooner,” Grollnek said. “I think everybody’s lucky he didn’t make it to a third location.”
Wiese, who had been sworn in as chief two days before Saturday's shooting, said he quickly learned about the second incident at the Lai Lai Ballroom but it wasn't immediately clear the two were connected.
Patrol officers in Monterey Park and Alhambra traded details of their two incidents, prompting investigators to look into a potential connection, Wiese said.
“We put that together pretty quickly but we still had very limited information,” he said.
Wiese said they were piecing together information from some 40 witnesses — many of whom didn't speak English — and didn't want to broadcast incorrect information. He said that notifying other local, state and federal agencies gave them the ability to get the word out.
A sheriff’s official confirmed the fatalities to the AP shortly before 2:36 a.m. Sunday but it wasn’t until roughly an hour later — some five hours after the shooting — that law enforcement first mentioned a suspect was at-large.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said his department’s decision to release information was “strategic” but promised a review of the timeline.
“When we started putting out public information, the priority was to get this person into custody,” Luna said Monday. His department, which is handling the investigation, hasn't released information about the shooting since Monday.
The first news conference about the shooting was held Sunday morning by a sheriff's captain. Several hours later, Tran was found dead in his van from a self-inflicted gunshot, authorities said. A handgun was found in the vehicle.
The slayings during what should have been joyful Lunar New Year celebrations sent ripples of fear through Asian American communities that were already dealing with increased hatred and violence directed at them.
Less than 48 hours later, a gunman in Northern California shot eight fellow farmworkers — killing seven — at mushroom farms in Half Moon Bay. The shooter was of Chinese descent and most of the victims were Asian.
Outside the locked gates of Star Dance Studio, a popular venue for older Asian Americans, a memorial grew higher Wednesday with mounds of bouquets and balloons. Hundreds of people carrying flowers, candles and incense showed up for a vigil.
Marlene Xu gathered with fellow dancers by a row of flower-framed photos of the victims. Xu said she danced at Star Dance Studio four times a week and when she heard about the shootings, spent an entire day and night in tears.
“It’s hard for us because it’s a part of my life — it’s like a part of your life is gone,” she said.
Sabine Slome, who works as a pharmaceutical representative in the city, wept after paying her respects and leaving behind flowers.
“I just pray that we will learn from this,” she said. “It’s just heartbreaking. How many more shootings?”
Hearts were scribbled in pink and red chalk in the parking lot where the first victim was killed in her car.
“Monterey Park I hope you know how loved you are,” a message read.
Vice President Kamala Harris, dressed in black, visited the memorial in the dance studio parking lot Wednesday before heading to a senior center to talk to relatives of the victims.
Harris paused in front of each of the large, rose-framed placards that contained photos or names of the victims. She placed a large bouquet of yellow and white flowers alongside scores of others.
Speaking briefly to reporters, Harris relayed sentiments on behalf of President Joe Biden and called for stricter gun control laws.
“Tragically we keep saying the same things,” Harris said. “Congress must act."
“Can they do something? Yes. Should they do something? Yes. Will they do something? That is where we all must speak up,” Harris said.
Pope Francis was among those offering condolences, saying in a message to the Los Angeles archbishop that he “implores the divine gifts of healing and consolation upon the injured and bereaved.”
Wiese said he's seen a lot during his three decade career, but some of the first officers on the scene were rookies who had never faced such carnage and the trauma will be hard to forget.
Paramedics were loading the wounded into ambulances and treating others inside when the chief arrived. There were bodies every 10 feet: some slumped over tables, others sprawled on the dance floor.
“It’s hard to put words to it,” he said. “It takes your breath away when you see it. And it kind of burns the image into your brain.”
Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press journalist Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.