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Monterey Park shooter was mad at the world, not just his ex, former friends say

“He was hopeless and desperate,” said a former tenant of the man.
Investigators work at the scene of a mass shooting in Monterey Park
Investigators work at the scene of a mass shooting in Monterey Park, Calif., on Jan. 22, 2023. Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

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The elderly gunman responsible for the dance hall massacre in Monterey Park was out of step with other Asian immigrants who found joy and companionship in venues like the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, former friends said.

Huu Can Tran, 72, was an angry loner who appeared to have a grudge against the world — not just his ex-wife — people he crossed paths with said Tuesday.

“I think his whole life was going down,” said a man who used to rent an apartment from Tran and asked that his name not be used because he did not want to be associated with the gunman.

“He had no job, he sold his property, very few friends, and I believe that he had no close friends,” said the man, who added that he spoke with Tran daily at the time. “No family, no kids, no job, no money. He was hopeless and desperate.”

While police have struggled to come up with a motive for the bloodshed, they speculated that Tran may have been gunning for his ex-wife when he barged into the Star Ballroom on Saturday and opened fire. The former tenant said he doubts Tran was targeting her.

“They have been divorced for nearly 20 years,” the friend said. “His ex-wife also likes to dance, so, many times, they would bump into each other in the party or at events. I don’t think his ex-wife was the cause of his massacre.”

Nevertheless, Tran often blamed his ex-wife for the demise of his trucking business. Records show that Tran registered a business called Tran’s Trucking in Monterey Park in 2002 and that it was dissolved two years later. 

“His ex-wife talked him into closing the business, and he sold the truck,” the man said. 

Tran died by suicide as police were closing in on his getaway van 12 hours after he fatally shot 11 people and wounded nine more at Star Ballroom. He later invaded the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in nearby Alhambra but was disarmed by Brandon Tsay, 26, and fled.

Tran, the friend said, was also on the outs with the dance hall patrons at both venues and especially with some of the dance instructors.

“He always complained that instructors were speaking evil about him or trying to do something bad about him,” the friend said. “I’m not quite sure if those things were true, but he always complained. He thought those instructors were not friendly to him, tried to sort of expel him from the group.”

The man said he had lived in an apartment complex owned by Tran for seven to nine years. He said they stopped speaking in 2015 when he moved out and Tran refused to pay back the man’s security deposit.

The dispute was settled in small claims court, where the judge sided with the tenant, court records show. 

Most recently, Tran lived in the Los Angeles exurb of Hemet, but he previously called San Gabriel home. The mostly Asian city is about a 10-minute drive from Monterey Park.

A former neighbor, who also asked not to be identified by name, said they lived across the street from each other for about two decades on a modest street in a neighborhood that was once predominantly Italian and is now largely Asian and Latino.

Tran, the person said, was quiet and polite and mostly kept to himself. At the time, Tran went by “Andy” and ran a rug-cleaning business, sometimes cleaning his neighbors’ carpets for free, the former neighbor said.

While he was not wealthy, Tran was able to afford an old Rolls-Royce that he kept parked in his driveway, the person said. He also recalled seeing a white van parked on the modest property, not unlike the one in which Tran died.

But his clearest memory of Tran was waking up 15 years ago to the sounds of Tran and a woman he knew only by sight arguing in the street.

“You could see the plates flying,” the neighbor said. “The plates were crashing into the street, and he was yelling at her.”

And every weekend, Tran could be seen coming out of his house dressed in his finest clothing, the former neighbor said.

“He was always going out to dance,” he said. “Otherwise, we didn’t see him much.”

Tran’s latest address was at The Lakes at Hemet West, a gated “active living community” for people over age 55.

Police have been searching the property for clues since Sunday and have not come up with an explanation for Tran’s turn to violence.

“What drove a madman to do this? We don’t know, but we intend to find out,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said earlier.

Tran was once arrested for unlawful possession of a firearm in 1990, Luna said, but otherwise his record was clean.

He also contacted Hemet police this month, alleging his family tried to poison him 10 to 20 years ago. The allegation was never investigated, police said, because Tran never presented any proof to back up his claims.

Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Temple University in Philadelphia, said Tran does not fit the typical profile of a mass shooter.

“We know from FBI data that the peak age for violent crime in the U.S. is around 19 or 20, and that has stayed pretty constant over the years,” Steinberg said in a statement. “So this seems to be a period of development when there is a greater risk for people to commit violent acts.”

Alicia Victoria Lozano reported from San Gabriel. Marlene Lenthang and Corky Siemaszko reported from New York City.