MONTEREY PARK, Calif. – The man suspected of killing 10 people in a shooting barrage amid Lunar New Year festivities in Southern California appears to have been found dead, according to reports.
Police in tactical gear converged on a white van Sunday in a Torrance parking lot, about 22 miles southwest of where the Saturday night attack took place in a Monterey Park dance studio, after an hours-long manhunt for the gunman. Police had established a link between the suspect, whose photos were released earlier in the day, and a white van.
When officers broke into the vehicle shortly before 1 p.m. PT, they found the driver dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper published a photo of the driver slumped over the steering wheel, at least one bullet hole visible on his window. The Orange County Register also reported the driver was discovered dead.
Authorities did not immediately confirm whether the driver was the suspect. A news conference is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET.
Earlier Sunday, Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said the Monterey Park attacker may have tried to shoot up another dance venue a few miles away but was fought off by patrons. Authorities released photos of the suspect that Luna said were taken at the second studio.
Luna said an Asian man with a gun entered the Lai Lai Ballroom in nearby Alhambra about 20 to 30 minutes after the first shooting at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, a predominantly Asian American community. Patrons at Lai Lai wrestled a gun, which was not an assault rifle, from a suspect who fled in a van, Luna said.
Authorities believe the two events are connected but have offered no details on a motive. The shooting and manhunt sent a wave of fear through Asian American communities in the Los Angeles area and prompted other cities to send extra officers to watch over the celebrations.
“Our priority, beyond taking care of the victims and survivors of this horrible incident, is that we get this man off the streets,” Luna said.
Ten people were hospitalized as a result of the assault at the Monterey Park club, some of them in critical condition.
An Instagram post by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department shows the suspect in glasses and a knit cap, saying he is about 5-foot-10 and about 150 pounds and wearing a black leather jacket.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said the first shooting at Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park was reported at 10:22 p.m. Saturday. Within minutes, police officers from a nearby police station swept into the area. The fatalities included five men and five women, Luna said.
The Monterey Park shooting was the nation’s deadliest since 24 people were killed in a Texas school in May.
►The site of the Alhambra shooting, the Lai Lai Ballroom and Studio, was quiet Sunday. A sign said it was closed in observance of the “Star Dance tragedy.”
►A helicopter was sweeping over the Monterey Park on Sunday amid tight security – a bicyclist tried to ride through the crime scene but police chased and tackled him.
►GoFundMe said its trust and safety team was monitoring the charitable giving platform for verified fundraisers trying to help the victims and their families.
►California Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted that he was monitoring the shooting investigation. “Monterey Park should have had a night of joyful celebration of the Lunar New Year. Instead, they were the victims of a horrific and heartless act of gun violence.”
Monterey Park is a city of 60,000 people about 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The shooting took place shortly after a Lunar New Year celebration brought thousands of people to the city, where many shops feature signs in English and Chinese. A “very preliminary” description indicated the shooter was a male Asian between the ages of 30 and 50, he said, adding that “we’ve gotten different descriptions of one suspect. Please be patient with us.” Luna said officials expect to release a better description of the shooter in the next several hours.
Luna described the case as “one of the county’s most heinous cases.” He was asked whether the case was a hate crime.
“We don’t know if this is specifically a hate crime defined by law, but who walks into a dance hall and guns down 20 people?” Luna said. “The description we have is a male Asian. Does that matter? I don’t know. I can tell you everything is on the table.”
Monterey Park Police Chief Scott Wiese said the second day of the two-day Lunar New Year celebration set for Sunday has been canceled “out of an abundance of caution and reverence for the victims.”
The University of Southern California’s Pacific Asia Museum, a few miles from the shooting site, canceled its Lunar New Year Festival scheduled for Sunday “in light of the devastating news of the deadly mass shooting in neighboring Monterey Park.” USC is less than 15 miles west of the shooting site. The museum, which described itself as a “haven” for the area’s Asian American community, also cited an “abundance of caution.”
“All of us at USC PAM are heartbroken to hear about the horrific violence that happened in our home in the San Gabriel Valley,” said museum director Bethany Montagano in a statement. “Our hearts mourn with the victims’ families and our community members.”
Thomas Ie, a 64-year-old Monterey Park resident, said the studio is popular among older residents in the community who take dance classes there. Ie wore sweats and a baseball cap as he stretched outside the city’s civic center Sunday, less than a mile from the site of the shooting. He was preparing to teach his weekly Tai Chi class and worried that one of his students might have been at the dance studio Saturday night.
“One of our members loves to dance,” Ie said. “So I’m hoping that last night he didn’t show up.”
Many vendors and contractors in town for the Lunar New Year festival were staying at the Lincoln Hotel, said Kevin Chu, 52, who worked the front desk at the nearby Lincoln Hotel on Sunday. Monterey Park canceled the weekend festival following the shooting, and empty vendor tents and an array of carnival rides still lined the city’s main thoroughfare, Garvey Avenue, on Sunday.
“They’re all leaving now,” Chu said, adding “I never imagined in this kind of community such things could happen.”
Ben Wang, a 39-year-old Monterey Park resident who lives near where the shooting took place, said his wife told him what happened Sunday morning and planned to go to the nearby Lunar New Year festival before it was canceled by city officials. He added the area is a quiet, tight knit community.
“The reason we moved here, because it’s so close to authentic Asian food … it’s a very small, little community feel,” Wang told USA TODAY. “It’s one of the Asian cultural epicenters. People travel from all over Southern California to be around here.”
Wang said the shooting is the biggest tragedy to happen in the area since moving here in 2021, and will have ripple effects on the community given it happened near Lunar New Year celebrations.
“It’s going to contribute to the sense of anti-Asian-like fear. Even if it’s proven not to (be a hate crime), people are just going to become more cautious,” he said. “That’s unfortunate. This is the biggest cultural celebration for a lot of people.”
Monterey Park City Councilman Thomas Wong woke up to his radio alarm clock, typically set to news, discussing the shooting in his hometown.There was very little information beyond news of the shooting and a shooter at large, and Wong hurried over to city hall while checking in with family and neighbors.
“You never think it’s going to happen in your city, in your own backyard,” said Wong, whose parents live in the city. As a community, “we’re angry, we’re sad and we’re trying to figure this out. I think healing and mourning is going to take a long time.”
Wong said the city has organized a makeshift memorial outside of city hall given that the shooting site is currently taken up by investigators who are still trying to ascertain details like motive.
Monterey Park city officials issued a statement of condolences for the victims and distanced the tragedy from the festival.
“Even though the incident did not occur at the 2023 Lunar New Year Festival, an active investigation is currently underway and the area near and around the festival is affected,” the statement said. “As a precaution and for the safety of everyone, the City regrets to announce the cancellation of the second day of the festival” scheduled for Sunday.
President Joe Biden has been briefed by Homeland Security Adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall on the shooting, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a Twitter post.
Later, Biden tweeted that “Jill and I are praying for those killed and injured in last night’s deadly mass shooting in Monterey Park. I’m monitoring this situation closely as it develops, and urge the community to follow guidance from local officials and law enforcement in the hours ahead.”
Meyer said investigators were checking reports that an attempted shooting at a ballroom in Alhambra, a couple miles north of Monterey Park, might be related. Investigators were on the scene, he said. No injuries were immediately reported. Alhambra Mayor Sasha Renée Pérez tweeted condolences for victims in the neighboring city.
“To have this tragedy occur on Lunar New Year weekend, makes this especially painful. Monterey Park is home to one of the largest (Asian-American Pacific Islander) communities in the country,” she said. “This is a time when residents should be celebrating with family, friends and loved ones – not fearing gun violence.”
Hours before the shooting, Monterey Park Mayor Henry Lo posted a brief video clip from the opening ceremonies at the festival, which he said had returned after a three year absence. The clips shows hundreds of people gathered in and under a tent in sunshine as people dance in brightly colored animal costumes.
“Monterey Park’s Lunar New Year Festival is back!,” Lo wrote. “It was great to see such a large turnout today at the opening ceremony. This is a two day event that ends tomorrow night in the evening. Come on over … welcome the Year of the Rabbit!”
The club’s website says the owner, Maria Liang, bought it in 2013 “due to her passion for dancing.” The website describes the club as one of the most popular professional ballroom studios in Southern California. Liang graduated from college in China and worked for Nike among other companies. She came to the U.S. in 1987 to study business at Cal State University, Los Angeles. Liang’s past professions included working at East West Bank, described as America’s most popular banking institution for the Chinese-American community.
Kris Brown, president of the gun-control advocacy group Brady United, issued a statement of condolence.
“It is devastating to live in a country where we have to continually wake up to this horrific news. It is even more egregious that it has become normal for people to be gunned down in the middle of a joyous holiday celebration,” the statement said. “There is no place in our country for hate-filled individuals to target others based on prejudice, bigotry and racism. Our deepest sympathies are with the families and individuals impacted by this senseless attack on the Chinese community.”
Meyer said the county homicide bureau was working the case along with Monterey Park Police, the FBI and the California Office of Emergency Services. He said it was too early in the investigation to determine a motive.
“The investigators are working every lead in this case,” Meyer said. “We have all our resources here. … We are reviewing all surveillance video, following all leads. We’re not going to leave anything unturned.”
He said investigators had not determined whether the shooter knew the victims and that it was too early to know whether the shooting was a hate crime.
Meyer said officers responded to a call of shots fired at around 10:30 pm local time.
“When officers arrived on scene they observed numerous individuals, patrons of the location, pouring out of the location screaming,” Meyer said. He said officers immediately entered the building. The wounded were taken to hospitals where their conditions range from stable to critical, Meyer said.
Video from the scene shows ambulances lined up awaiting people being loaded onto stretchers. Other photos showed bloodied and bandaged victims being treated by firefighters in a parking lot.
“The suspect fled the scene and remains outstanding,” Meyer said.
The site of the shooting in downtown Monterey Park is a few blocks from City Hall on the city’s main thoroughfare. Garvey Avenue is dotted with strip malls full of small businesses with signs in both English and Chinese. Cantonese and Mandarin are both widely spoken, Chinese holidays are celebrated, and Chinese films are screened in the city.
Wong Wei, who lives nearby, told the Los Angeles Times that a friend had gone to the dance club that night with a group of friends. His friend was in the bathroom when the shooting started, Wei said. His friend came out and saw a gunman and the bodies of two women and a club manager, Wei said. The group of friends fled to Wei’s home, he said.
The shooter appeared to fire indiscriminately, his friends told him.
“They don’t know why, so they run,” he told the Times.
The tragedy marked the fifth mass killing in the U.S. since the start of the year. It is also the deadliest since May 24 when 21 people were killed in a school in Uvalde, Texas, according to The Associated Press/USA TODAY database on mass killings in the U.S. The database also shows that 2022 was also one of the worst years ever in terms of mass killings: 42 such attacks – the second-highest number since the creation of the tracker in 2006. The database defines a mass killing as four people killed not including the perpetrator.
The latest violence comes two months after five people were killed at a Colorado Springs nightclub.
MASS KILLING DATABASE:Revealing trends, details and anguish of every US event since 2006
Lunar New Year, sometimes called Chinese New Year, is celebrated in several Asian countries, including China, Vietnam, North Korea, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia. Some traditions are shared, others are specific to those nations. It marks the beginning of the Lunar calendar year, and months are moon cycles.
This year the lunar year began Sunday, kicking off the Year of the Rabbit (except Vietnam swaps a cat for the rabbit). Twelve animals take turns claiming the year on a rotating basis. Legend says the animals crossed a dangerous river in the following order: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
Contributing: The Associated Press