MONTEREY PARK, Calif. (AP) — The police chief of the California city where 20 people were shot — 11 of them fatally — in a dance hall defended his decision not to warn the public for hours that a The killer was on the loose, saying Wednesday he did not have enough information to effectively alert residents.
Monterey Park Chief Scott Wiese said police in the region were alerted and there was no point in issuing a warning overnight to residents of the predominantly Asian-American city, even after learning the suspect might have attacked a nearby dance club after the massacre.
“I’m not going to send my officers door to door waking people up and telling them we’re looking for an Asian man 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 about an hour after tens of thousands of people turned out for Lunar New Year festivities in the city. The public was not notified of the mass shooting for five hours, raising questions as to why an alert was not sent to people in the area.
Huu Can Tran, 72, who was said to frequent the dance hall and believed himself to be an instructor, fired with a semi-automatic submachine gun with a high-capacity magazine, authorities said.
Tran fled in a white van before officers arrived at the scene of the chaotic carnage and about 20 minutes later entered another dance hall in nearby Alhambra, where an employee confronted and disarmed him during a brief struggle.
Chris Grollnek, an active shooting expert, said police should never have waited so long to warn the public about the potential threat posed by a gunman on the loose. The city had access to an automated alert system, and even publishing a little information would have been better than nothing.
“They should have spread the word sooner,” Grollnek said. “I think everyone is lucky it didn’t make it to a third location.”
Wiese, who had been sworn in as chief two days before Saturday’s shooting, said he learned quickly about the second incident at the Lai Lai ballroom, but it was not immediately clear if the two were connected.
Patrol officers at Monterey Park and Alhambra exchanged details of their two incidents, prompting investigators to look for a possible connection, Wiese said.
“We got that together pretty quickly, but we still had very limited information,” he said.
Wiese said they were gathering information from about 40 witnesses, many of whom did not speak English, and did not want to pass on incorrect information. He said notifying other local, state and federal agencies gave them the ability to get the word out.
A sheriff’s deputy confirmed the deaths to the AP shortly before 2:36 a.m. Sunday, but it wasn’t until about an hour later, some five hours after the shooting, that police first mentioned a suspect was on the run. .
Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna called his department’s decision to release information “strategic” but promised a schedule review.
“When we started releasing public information, the priority was to stop this person,” Luna said Monday. Her department, which is in charge of the investigation, has not released information about the shooting since Monday.
The first news conference on the shooting was held Sunday morning by a sheriff’s captain. Several hours later, Tran was found dead in his truck from a self-inflicted gunshot, authorities said. A pistol was found in the vehicle.
The killings during what should have been joyous Lunar New Year celebrations sent ripples of fear through Asian-American communities already grappling with rising hate 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 closed doors of Star Dance Studio, a popular hangout for older Asian-Americans, a monument rose taller Wednesday with piles of bouquets and balloons.
Sabine Slome, who works as a pharmaceutical representative in the town, wept after paying her respects and leaving flowers.
“I just pray that we learn from this,” he said. “It’s just heartbreaking. How many more shootings?
The hearts were scrawled 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,” one message read.
Large photos of seven of the victims were supported and framed by white roses. Flowers framed the names of the other four dead.
“This is where we go out to eat,” said Ryan Yamada, who was with his 74-year-old mother. “We can’t pretend this is other people’s problem.”
Vice President Kamala Harris visited the memorial in the parking lot of the dance studio on Wednesday, stopping as she passed each of the large framed photos with roses and the names of the victims. She placed a large bouquet of yellow and white flowers along with many others.
Speaking briefly to reporters, Harris conveyed 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 you do something? Yes. Should they do something? Yes. Will they do something? That’s where we all need to talk,” Harris said.
Pope Francis was among those who offered condolences, saying in a message to the Archbishop of Los Angeles that he “implores God’s gifts of healing and comfort for the wounded and bereaved.”
Wiese said he has 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 when the chief arrived. There were bodies every 10 feet: some slumped over tables, others lying on the dance floor.
“It’s hard to put it into words,” he said. “It takes your breath away when you see it. And it kind of records the image in your brain.”
Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writer Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.