Monterey Park shooter: Glimpses into a ‘miserable’ life

Two weeks before he went on a rampage at a Monterey Park dance studio, Huu Can Tran showed up in the lobby of a police station 80 miles away to report some far-fetched allegations.

The 72-year-old man told police in Hemet, a small town east of Los Angeles where he lived in a trailer park, that family members tried to poison him many years ago. He also claimed to have been a victim of fraud and theft, according to a police report on the meetings. He promised to return with evidence but never did.

The strange visits he made two days apart earlier this month offer a glimpse into the troubled mind of the man who opened fire on a festive crowd at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park on Lunar New Year’s Eve, killing 11 people and nine others wounded. After the shooting, Tran drove to another nearby studio, apparently anxious to continue his killing spree, but a man there snatched his gun and chased him away.

On Monday, investigators continued to work to understand what drove Tran to such 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, law enforcement sources said .

Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna provided some new details Monday about the dark world that Tran inhabited. During a search of his home Sunday night at a trailer park in Hemet, Luna said police found hundreds of rounds of ammunition and uncovered evidence that Tran “made home-made firearm silencers” that deaden the sound of a gun being fired. Tran, he added, appears to have been arrested only once – in 1990 on suspicion of unlawful possession of a firearm.

And at the scene of the shooting, investigators recovered 42 cartridge cases — one for each of the bullets Tran fired in his grenade — a Chinese-made handgun and a large-capacity magazine, Luna said.

What else is known about the shooter comes from scant paper evidence left over from a small court battle over bail and a divorce, as well as accounts from some neighbors and friends. Together they offer a fragmented portrait of a lonely, embittered man for whom dancing may have been a rare respite from an otherwise empty life.

A former friend of Tran’s, who was also his tenant for years and eventually sued him in 2014 when Tran refused to pay his deposit back in full, described Tran as a loner who rarely had visitors and was usually alone except when dancing at the Star Studio or the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio, where he went after filming.

“Two simple words that cover it all. He is a person of distrust. He distrusts the people around him. The second word is hate. He hates the people around him, especially when he thought someone was hurting him,” said the former tenant, who asked not to be named. “He’d say, ‘One day I’m going to get back at you, get revenge, get revenge.’

“I think his life was so miserable and desperate that he chose that day to end his life and in the meantime he wanted to get people he didn’t like or hated to go with him,” he said the man.

After their court battle, the men remained friends and moved into apartments in the same complex, the man said. Aside from dancing, Tran liked to get food. The two went to restaurants for lunch, never dinner, and ate classic Chinese staples like dumplings.

He knew that Tran only worked as a restaurant carpet cleaner for a very short time. “I rarely saw him go to work,” he said. “It was the only job he had. He led a very simple life.”

Their once warm relationship soured when he went to Taiwan for a month, which upset Tran for no apparent reason. When he came back, Tran gave him the cold shoulder.

The former boyfriend said Tran occasionally spoke of an ex-wife and complained that she misled him by persuading him to close a truck shop he owned and sell his truck.

Police at the scene of the mass shooting

Officers secure the scene where a gunman opened fire at a dance studio in Monterey Park.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Business documents filed with the state show Tran formed Tran’s Trucking Inc. in 2002 and incorporated the company in San Gabriel. He broke it up two years later.

He married his wife in June 2001 and the couple filed for divorce in December 2005, court documents show. The woman could not be reached for comment.

Tran only seemed happy when he was dancing, the former boyfriend said.

“Those are the only two places he went almost every night,” the man said, referring to the studio in Monterey Park and the second studio in Alhambra, where he went immediately after filming.

A Monterey Park resident who would only identify herself as Grace said she last went to the dance studio in December and knows many people who go regularly.

In a WeChat group, she said, the studio’s customers shared unconfirmed reports that Tran had been jealous, that a woman he knew went dancing without him on Saturday night, and that he angrily went to the studios to look after to look for her.

Tran had lived in the Lakes of Hemet West, an RV park whose sign said “active residential community over 55,” according to public records and law enforcement sources. A security guard turned a Times reporter away at the front gate Sunday night.

A resident, Karen Howard, said Tran “seems like just a normal neighbor.”

“I didn’t know him well,” she said. “I don’t think anyone did that.”

For many years before moving to Hemet, Tran lived in a small white stucco house in San Gabriel with bars over the doors and windows and an orange tree in the front yard, according to a neighbor.

The man lived across the street from Tran, whom he knew as Andy, and described him as a polite neighbor who helped him jump-start his car.

“He was nice to us but he was very private,” said the neighbor, who declined to give his name because he didn’t want to be associated with Tran. He never revealed much of his background and kept his private life to himself, the neighbor said.

A woman appeared to live in the home with Tran at times, but “he was alone most of the time,” the neighbor said. Police have been called to the home several times over the years for unknown reasons, he added.

He believes that Tran owned a carpet cleaning business. He recalled driving a white van that looked similar to the one Tran was driving when police pulled him over in Torrance the day after the shooting, although that van looked newer. Tran was found dead at the wheel from a self-inflicted gunshot.

Tran didn’t appear to be a wealthy man, but he parked an old beige Rolls-Royce behind his house and drove a Mercedes-Benz that ran on biodiesel, the neighbor said. “Every now and then he would pull it out,” he recalled of the Rolls-Royce.

James Densley, president of the nonprofit Violence Project, which tracks mass shootings, said Tran is the oldest shooter in the organization’s database, which dates back to 1966. It was determined by suicide, death or eventual imprisonment.

“I think that’s perhaps the biggest takeaway here: What would be enough to induce a 72-year-old man to commit a crime like that?” Densley said. “I think what really matters is that they’ve reached their ultimate breaking point and they don’t care if they live or die anymore.”

Times contributors Summer Lin, Terry Castleman, Hayley Smith, and Anh Do contributed to this report. Monterey Park shooter: Glimpses into a ‘miserable’ life

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