MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — A deadly mass shooting inside a Monterey Park dance studio led authorities to Torrance on Sunday, where the suspected gunman died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a strip mall parking lot, law enforcement sources said.
The manhunt began after the shooter opened fire inside Star Dance Studio on West Garvey Avenue around 10:20 p.m. Saturday, killing 10 people and injuring 10 others. It was Lunar New Year’s Eve.
Officials were also investigating an incident at another dance studio that may be related to the massacre, Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said.
About 20 minutes after the shooting in Monterey Park, an armed suspect walked into Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in nearby Alhambra, but “some individuals wrestled the firearm from him, and that individual took off,” Luna said.
Authorities have yet to reveal a possible motive for the shooting, including whether it was a possible hate crime or domestic violence incident.
“Everything is on the table,” Luna said. “Who walks into a dance hall and guns down 20 people?”
An advisory from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department identified the suspect as an adult Asian man, about 5 foot, 10 inches and weighing 150 pounds. An image showed the man in a black leather jacket, beanie and glasses. Witnesses also described a white cargo van that was linked to the shooting.
Around 10 a.m. Sunday, Torrance police officers attempted to stop a vehicle near Hawthorne and Sepulveda boulevards that matched the sheriff’s description, a law enforcement source told the Los Angeles Times. The driver shot himself before officers could approach, the source said.
Images and aerial footage of the scene showed what appeared to be two bullet holes in the drivers-side window of the van and the driver slumped over the steering wheel. A SWAT team swarmed the vehicle around 1 p.m.
“I don’t think anybody that woke up today, myself included, thought it would end up here in Torrance,” L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn said.
The mass shooting, one of California’s worst in recent memory, has left Angelenos — and the nation — struggling to make sense of the violence.
Wong Wei, who lives near the scene of the shooting, had four friends who were at Star Dance Studio on Saturday night, including his sister. He had been invited to go with them but decided not to. Wei said one of his friends was injured in the shooting and was lying on the ground with blood on her face.
The gunman was holding a “long” gun and appeared to be firing indiscriminately, Wei was told. The “boss” of the studio, referred to as Ma, had also been shot and was on the floor.
“She said, ‘Certainly, he was dead. He wasn’t moving,’ ” Wei said. He wasn’t sure about the condition of his friend Sunday morning or whether she had been hospitalized.
Seung Won Choi, who owns a seafood barbecue restaurant on Garvey Avenue across from where the shooting happened, said three people rushed into his restaurant and told him to lock the door.
They said there was a man with a semi-automatic gun in the area. The shooter, they said, had multiple rounds of ammunition, so that once his ammunition ran out he reloaded, Choi said.
The shooting occurred near the site where tens of thousands had gathered Saturday for the start of a two-day Lunar New Year festival, one of the largest holiday events in the region.
Earlier in the day, crowds were enjoying skewers and shopping for Chinese food and jewelry. Saturday’s New Year festival hours were scheduled from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The festival had been scheduled to conclude Sunday, but the day’s events were canceled “out of an abundance of caution and in reverence for the victims,” Monterey Park Police Chief Scott Wiese said.
Winn Liaw, 57, said she lives about two blocks from the studio and was in bed shortly before 11 p.m. on Saturday when she heard what sounded like firecrackers. She assumed they were part of a Lunar New Year celebration until she heard helicopters starting to circle over her neighborhood.
She had awoken early Sunday to check out the set up for the Lunar New Year celebration that had been planned for later in the day when she learned about the shooting. Liaw said she is worried the shooting could have been motivated by anti-Chinese hate — a fear she said has been heightened by anti-Chinese rhetoric during the pandemic.
“This kind of thing doesn’t happen in my neighborhood,” she said, adding that she thought living in a mostly Asian community would insulate her from violence. “It’s starting to get worse and worse.”
Another neighbor who wished to be identified only as John said he got home around 10 p.m. and heard four or five gunshots. Then he heard police cruisers and “smashing” down the street. He went downstairs around 11:20 p.m. to see whether the shooting had been at the festival.
“My first concern was I know they’re having a Lunar New Year celebration,” he said. But he said he saw that the festival had already been cleaned up for the day when he arrived. He went to the scene of the shooting and saw one person being put on a stretcher. Another person had a bandage on their arm.
The violence left many in the area stunned.
Edwin Chen, a 47-year-old delivery dispatcher, rushed over from Woodland Hills to Monterey Park around 12:30 a.m. after hearing the news. Chen said he grew up in the area, and about a dozen of his relatives and friends live there.
He said he was saddened this happened just as the community was celebrating Lunar New Year.
“This is (supposed to be) a happy time,” he said. “I want to find out as much as possible. It’s still shocking.”
“Our hearts go out to those who lost loved ones tonight in our neighboring city, Monterey Park, where a mass shooting just occurred,” Los Angeles City Controller Kenneth Mejia, the first Asian American to hold citywide office in L.A., said on Twitter.
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.
One of the anchor suburbs in the San Gabriel Valley, Monterey Park is a hub of Asian American supermarkets and restaurants.
The Star Ballroom Dance Studio sits behind a Chinese herbal store along West Garvey Avenue. International ballroom competitors teach waltz, tango and Chinese dance classes every day. The dance studio, which opened 30 years ago, offers party room rentals and karaoke happy hour as well.
On Saturday night, the studio listed an event between 8 and 11:30 p.m. as “Star Night, $10.”
Dance instructor David DuVal most recently taught samba and tango there on Thursday morning.
He said the studio has Saturday night parties and that a lot of people who attend are older. “60s would be young.”
“There’s definitely going to be people in their 70s, 80s, people in their 90s,” he said. “A lot of people I teach are older people. I have a feeling it could be one of them or people I know.”
DuVal said he learned what happened Saturday night over WeChat. He reached out to one of his students, who was there and hid under a table. His student said she saw a man with a “long firearm.” She doesn’t know what he looked like.
DuVal said there are couples who have been going there for a decade or more, many who are retired and going there to be healthy; some in their 90s “and still dancing.”
“It’s old people dancing to music for fun. It’s their exercise,” he said.
President Joe Biden was briefed on the shooting Sunday morning.
“Jill and I are praying for those killed and injured in last night’s deadly mass shooting in Monterey Park,” Biden said in a tweet.
L.A. Mayor Karen Bass said her “heart goes out to Monterey Park and the families and friends of those lost.”
“The reports coming out of Monterey Park are absolutely devastating,” Bass said. “Families deserve to celebrate the holidays in peace — mass shootings and gun violence are a plague on our communities.”
The shooting is one of the worst in modern Los Angeles County history. One of the last mass shootings of this scale happened Christmas Eve in 2008, when a man dressed as Santa Claus entered a home in Covina, armed with five handguns. Nine people were killed in that rampage, including the gunman’s former wife and her parents. The gunman took his life hours later.
Other recent mass shootings in California include the massacre at a San Ysidro McDonald’s in 1984, where a gunman killed 21 people; and the terrorist attack that resulted in 14 deaths in San Bernardino in 2015.
In 2018, 12 people were killed during a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks.
Saturday’s shooting comes five days after six people — including a 10-month-old baby, the baby’s 16-year-old mother and a grandmother — were killed in the Central Valley farming community of Goshen in Tulare County.
U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, a Democrat whose district includes Monterey Park, described the Lunar New Year as a time to celebrate with family.
“This tore a hole through all of our hearts,” she said.
Los Angeles Times staff writers Ruben Vives and James Queally contributed to this report.