MONTEREY PARK, Calif. (Reuters) – A man fatally shot 10 people and injured at least 10 others at a ballroom dance hall during a Chinese Lunar New Year celebration late on Saturday near Los Angeles before fleeing the scene, police said.
The shooter, still at large 12 hours after the attack in the city of Monterey Park, was believed to be an Asian man between 30 and 50 years old based on descriptions from eyewitnesses, law enforcement officials said.
“We need to get this person off the street as soon as possible,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna told reporters at a Sunday morning news conference in Monterey Park, home to one of the largest Asian American communities in the United States.
Earlier on Sunday morning, the sheriff’s department said it did not know whether the attack was racially motivated. Five of the victims were male and five were female, Luna said. Their identities have not been made public.
Luna later released images of the suspect apparently taken from surveillance camera footage showing him wearing spectacles, dressed in a dark jacket and a dark beanie hat with white stripes. The sheriff’s department said it was releasing the images in an attempt to identify the suspect and that he should be considered “armed and dangerous.”
Police about 20 miles (34 km) away in Torrance, California, used armored vehicles to surround a white cargo van that may be connected to the shooting suspect, officials said. Television images showed a body slumped over the steering wheel of that van.
Luna said at a briefing earlier on Sunday afternoon that a man resembling the suspect had been seen in Torrance and police believed there was a person inside the vehicle.
“We don’t know their condition,” he said. “Could it be our suspect? Possibly.”
Officials were investigating whether an incident at another dance venue in the neighboring city of Alhambra about 20 minutes later on Saturday night was connected with the massacre in Monterey Park. At the second venue, witnesses said an Asian man walked in holding a gun that patrons were able to grab. No one was shot and the man fled, Luna said.
When police arrived at the Monterey Park ballroom, people were “pouring out of the location screaming,” department captain Andrew Meyer told reporters at a news briefing.
At least 10 people were taken to local hospitals to be treated for injuries and at least one was in critical condition. Police have not said what kind of gun was used in the attack.
The shooting took place after 10 p.m. PST (0600 GMT on Sunday) around the location of a two-day Chinese Lunar New Year celebration where many downtown streets are closed for festivities that draw thousands of people from across Southern California. Police said the celebrations planned for Sunday were canceled.
A CLOSE-KNIT COMMUNITY
Residents stood gazing at the many blocks sealed off with police tape on Sunday in Monterey Park. Chester Chong, chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles, described the city of about 60,000 people as a quiet, peaceful, beautiful place where everybody knows each other and helps each other.
About 7 miles (11 km) from downtown Los Angeles, the city has for decades been a destination for immigrants from China. Around 65% of its residents are Asian, according to U.S. Census data, and the city is known for its many Chinese restaurants and groceries.
“People were calling me last night, they were scared this was a hate crime,” Chong said at the scene.
Police have not publicly named the dance club, but were seen going in and out of the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, access to which was blocked off by police tape. The club opened in 1990, and its website features many photographs of past Lunar New Year celebrations showing patrons smiling and dancing in party clothes in its large, brightly lit ballroom.
Most of its patrons are middle-aged or elderly, though children also attend youth dance classes, according to a teacher at the studio who asked to not be named.
“Those are normal working people,” the teacher said. “Some are retired and just looking for an exercise or social interaction.”
A flyer posted on the website advertised Saturday night’s new year party, running from 7:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Sunday.
The gunshots were mistaken by some for new year fireworks, according to Tiffany Chiu, 30, who was celebrating at her parents’ home near the ballroom.
“A lot of older people live here, it’s usually really quiet,” she said. “This is not something you expect here.”
Video taken by local news media showed injured people, many of them appearing to be middle aged, being loaded into ambulances on stretchers.
The White House said President Joe Biden had been briefed on the attack and had directed the Federal Bureau of Investigation to assist local police.
Mass shootings are recurrent in the United States, and the attack in Monterey Park was the deadliest since May 2022, when a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at a school in Uvalde, Texas. The deadliest shooting in California history was in 1984 when a gunman killed 21 people at a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro, near San Diego.
(Reporting by Tim Reid in Monterey Park and Jonathan Allen in New York; Additional reporting by Leah Douglas, Kanishka Singh, Gabriella Borter, Mary Milliken and Maria Vasilyeva; Writing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Frances Kerry, Matthew Lewis and Chris Reese)