In the four days since Huu Kang Tran, 72, opened fire at a dance studio in Monterey Park, fragments of his life and possible motives for the attack have slowly surfaced.
At one time he frequented the ballroom dancing scene, but he seems to have held personal grudges against some in this world. He lived a somewhat isolated life. A law enforcement source confirmed to The Times that Tran was a gun enthusiast who purchased the MAC-10 semi-automatic assault weapon used in the 1999 attack.
But exactly why he killed 11 people in Monterey Park before another attack on the Alhambra dance hall that was thwarted remains a mystery.
And that mystery only seemed to intensify Wednesday night after a hastily called press conference by Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna, who said no one yet remembers Tran attending two dance halls in the past five years or having a personal connection with any of the victims.
“To date, based on interrogations, they have not been able to establish a connection between the suspect and any of the victims,” Luna said.
The investigation is at an early stage and it could take weeks or more to get the full picture of what went wrong. The investigation is also complicated by Tran’s death. About 12 hours after he was disarmed in the lobby of the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio and fled, authorities say he fatally shot himself in his van in Torrance as cops approached him.
“The problem is, when a suspect is dead, you can literally guess what their motives were,” said Billy Hayes, a retired captain who oversaw the Los Angeles Police Department’s Robbery and Homicide Squad. “It’s like you’re trying to put the pieces of a puzzle together and you’re missing one important piece – the suspect.”
Experts say investigators are likely looking for clues in computers and mobile phones seized from Tran’s home, as well as interviews with people who knew him. According to Luna, detectives have yet to find any records that reveal the shooter’s motives.
Monterey Park police found a motorcycle registered to Tran about a block from the crime scene, suggesting he may have kept a spare car if his van was unavailable, Luna said Wednesday night.
“We assume it was an additional getaway vehicle. [to use] if necessary,” the sheriff said. Why else would he put it there?
According to Luna, Tran fired 42 rounds of “spray motion” inside the dance studio and left a 30-round magazine.
Luna also clarified that the gun Tran used in the attack, known as the MAC-10, was a Cobray M11-9 assault pistol that was purchased in Monterey Park in February 1999 and is not registered with the State of California. According to Luna, a Norinco 7.62x25mm pistol was used in the suicide. Police also found a Savage Arms .308 bolt-action rifle at Tran Hemet’s home.
Investigators continue to comb through electronics, documents, and other items found at Tran’s home.
“We look at everything, by all means, but again, with the goal of trying to find a motive,” Luna said. “And hopefully we can. Sometimes it’s frustrating when something like this happens. It’s so tragic because we’re trying to figure it out. And it doesn’t make sense. It really isn’t.”
Det. Sal Labarbera, former head of homicide for the LAPD South Bureau, said: “Why is this always a question that the family desperately needs to get answered along with the public through the media.”
But Labarbera, who left the department in 2015, said motives are hard to determine when a suspect is dead and hasn’t left a paper or electronic trail detailing his thoughts.
Even if the case does not go to court, determining what led someone to violence can be a personal task for investigators.
“Although it may not have been possible to use it in court, I needed it, I wanted to understand why,” Labarbera said of the cases he worked at the time. “Investigators want to learn from every case…if there is a way to nip this in the bud from future cases, and that is something that can be shared and taught to other agencies and the public.”
There’s a chance the public will never know why Tran committed the murders.
Authorities are also likely trying to collect enough evidence to prove that Tran was indeed the shooter and that there were no accomplices. No motive required, but that’s what investigators want to find if they can, Orange County Sheriff’s Homicide Sergeant. Jack Ackerman said.
“I believe that in some way human nature wants to know why something happened or why someone acted in a certain way,” Ackerman said. “Unfortunately, in many cases, we really can never give a satisfactory answer to make someone feel at peace with what happened, or close.”
After the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, investigators spent more than a year poring over evidence before closing the case without finding a clear motive. The shooting, which killed 58 people attending the Route 91 festival, remains the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
According to the FBI’s report on the case, there was “no single or clear motivating factor” that led to the shooter’s rage. But this is not unusual, the report says.
“Active shooters rarely have a single motive or reason for engaging in mass killings,” the report says. “More often, their motivations are a complex confluence of developmental issues, interpersonal relationships, clinical issues, and contextual stressors.”
In some mass shootings, the assailant provides a detailed, often insane explanation.
David Wenwei Chow, the man charged with killing one person and injuring five at a Taiwanese church in Laguna Woods last year, has left many clues as to his motives.
He mailed seven volumes titled “Diary of an Angel Who Destroyed Independence” to a Chinese-language newspaper. He left notes in his car indicating that he did not believe Taiwan should be independent from China. According to authorities, Zhou apparently had problems with Taiwanese people because of the way he was treated while living in Taiwan. He grew up in Taiwan as weishengren – someone with recent roots in China.
Based on this evidence, the prosecutor’s office brought criminal liability against him for a hate crime.
People who knew Tran described him as a lonely, embittered man who danced at Lai Lai and Star provided respite from an unhappy life. But even that wasn’t entirely happy.
A former friend of Tran, who was also his tenant for many years, said he often complained about the instructors at the studios, who he felt didn’t like him. It was a theory that the man, who did not want to name, called “nonsense.”
“He always complained that the instructors weren’t friendly to him, like he was aloof and they just didn’t like him,” the man said. “That’s what he thought in his mind and I haven’t seen any evidence of it.”
A law enforcement source with knowledge of the investigation told The Times that Tran likely snapped and decided to target those he believed had harmed his well-being over the years. Investigators suspect he had unspecified emotional issues that have escalated in recent times.
Two weeks before the shooting, Tran told police in Hemet that family members had tried to poison him years before. He also claimed to have been the victim of fraud and theft. According to police, he promised to return with evidence, but never returned.
Tran was arrested in 1990 on suspicion of illegal possession of firearms, authorities say.
Authorities have said very little publicly about the shooter’s possible motives.
Luna detailed his questions during Monday’s press conference: “Did he plan this during the day? Was it the week before? What prompted the madman to do this? We don’t know and we’re determined to find out,” he said. “We’re just as curious as you are, because it’s alarming.”
Ultimately, the police may be able to hypothesize Tran’s motives, Hayes said, but they will probably never be certain.
“I always thought that solving cases was like putting together a puzzle. In simple cases, you get all the outer elements and then you start filling them in and you see a clearer picture,” Hayes said. “When you get pieces that are missing due to the suspect’s death, the puzzle is never complete.”
Times Staff Writer Noah Goldberg contributed to this report.