Why it took police hours to warn the public that the Monterey Park mass shooter was on the loose

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As the investigation into the Monterey Park mass shooting continues, police officials are coming under scrutiny over how long it took them to notify the public that the shooter was still on the loose.

About five hours after 72-year-old Huu Can Tran opened fire at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio on West Garvey Avenue and fled late Saturday night, Monterey Park and Los Angeles County authorities made no announcements about the location of the shooter.

Instead, the death toll and escape of the gunman in the chaos was revealed through government sources in other agencies and radio broadcasts.

Authorities say Tran opened fire at about 10:20 p.m. Saturday at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, killing 11 people and injuring nine other people. The first 911 calls were made at about 10:22 p.m., and police arrived at the studio within four minutes.

About 20 minutes into the Monterey Park rampage, the gunman walked into the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio at nearby Alhambra. Brandon Tsay, 26, confronted him in the studio lobby and wrested the semi-automatic MAC-10 assault weapon from Tran before watching him flee in a white van.

The shooting — one of the worst in Los Angeles County history — occurred on the eve of the Lunar New Year, just hours after the streets in Monterey Park filled with thousands of revelers celebrating one of the region’s largest holiday events. celebrated.

LA County Sheriff Robert Luna said at a news conference Monday that in the hours following the shooting, authorities attempted to assist victims, investigate the crime scene and arrest the suspect.

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“When we started disseminating public information, the priority was to get this person into custody, so we were very strategic in the way we disseminated information,” he said. “In the end it worked out.”

At 2:48 a.m., the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Information Bureau issued an advisory confirming the fatalities and noting that the suspect was male. But the warning did not mention that he was not in custody.

The official report came around 3:30 a.m. — about five hours after Tran opened fire in the dance hall — during a press conference. LA County Sheriff’s Captain Andrew Meyer told reporters the “suspect fled the scene and is still open.”

Horace Frank, a former assistant chief with the Los Angeles Police Department, said an agency’s first inclination is to notify the public when a mass shooter is on the loose.

“It’s a matter of public safety,” he said. “The only time you don’t is when you can reword specific reasons. You always make the mistake of keeping the public informed.”

Frank, who oversaw counter-terrorism and tactical operations at LAPD, said in this case, “If there’s a reason for the delay, I can’t think of one.”

At 11:20 a.m. Sunday, sheriff officials issued a “special bulletin” seeking the public’s help in identifying the suspect with photos of Tran on security camera footage and a warning that “he is to be considered armed and dangerous.” Around the same time, police in Torrance found a white van associated with the shootings.

Authorities later approached the van at a strip mall near Sepulveda and Hawthorne boulevards. Inside, they found Tran dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

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Travis Norton, who leads the After Action Review Team for the California Assn. of Tactical Officers, said the five-hour wait was surprising, but without having all the facts of the case, it’s hard to say why the Sheriff’s Department failed to notify the public.

“It is not usual to wait that long when they have a known suspect. However, there is always the possibility that they have a good reason,” he said.

Norton, who is also a lieutenant in the Oceanside Police Department, added that it is possible in a mass shooting with so many victims that not informing the public could have been a “mistake”.

“These are events that unfold quickly, even after the shooting has stopped. Dealing with multiple victims, crime scene processing, a large number of witnesses, an active manhunt and all the other factors and dynamics involved make these events very complex,” he said.

The sheriff’s department is reviewing the investigation — as usual — Luna said, to determine “what worked and specifically what didn’t work” in the early hours of the investigation and in terms of information disclosure.

Investigators continue to work to try to understand what drove Tran to violence, focusing on his frequent visits to the two dance studios and the possibility that he was driven by jealousy or some other personal grudge, according to law enforcement sources.

Law enforcement sources also believe Tran had unspecified emotional issues that worsened in the weeks leading up to the shooting.

Court documents and bills from neighbors and friends provide a fragmentary portrait of the shooter, a lonely, embittered man for whom dancing may have offered a rare reprieve from an otherwise empty life.

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Before moving to Hemet, Tran lived for many years in a small white stucco house in San Gabriel with bars on the doors and windows and an orange tree in the front yard.

Former neighbor Tony Castaneda, who lived next door to Tran, remembered him as a quiet man. Castaneda and his brother called him “Tango Andy,” a nickname related to his dressing up in a suit on weekends to go out dancing.

But Castaneda also recalled a more disturbing incident about 14 or 15 years ago when sounds of anger from Tran’s house filled the quiet neighborhood.

“It was 3 AM and he was having an altercation with a woman. I don’t know if it was physical or not, but he threw her out of the house, and when she left, he threw a bunch of dishes at her on the street. Made all kinds of noise and woke up the neighborhood,” Castaneda said.

A former friend of Tran, who was also his lodger for many years and eventually sued him in 2014 when Tran refused to repay his bail in full, described Tran as a loner who rarely had visitors and was usually alone except when dancing at star. or the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio, where he drove after the shooting.

“I think his life was so miserable and desperate that he chose that day to end his life, meanwhile he wanted people he didn’t like or hate to come with him,” the man said.

Times staff writer Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.

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