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Monterey Park police chief defends delayed warning of suspect at large

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MONTEREY PARK, Calif. (AP) — The police chief of the California town where 20 people were shot — 11 fatally — in a dance hall has defended his decision not to warn the public for hours that a killer was at large, saying Wednesday he didn’t have enough information to effectively alert residents.

Monterey Park Chief Scott Wiese said area police were alerted and it didn’t make sense to issue a warning at night to residents of the predominantly Asian American city, even after learned that the suspect may have targeted a nearby dance club after the massacre.

“I’m not going to send my agents door to door to wake people up and tell 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.”

Filming at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio at 10:22 p.m. Saturday came barely an hour or so after tens of thousands of people attended Lunar New Year festivities in the city. The public was not notified of the mass shooting for five hours, raising questions about why an alert was not sent to people in the area.

Eric Sham visits a makeshift memorial for those killed in a mass shooting at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park on Tuesday.

Sarah Reingewirtz/The Orange County Register via AP

Huu Can Tran, 72, who attended the dance hall and believed himself to be an instructor, fired a semi-automatic submachine gun with a large 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 near the Alhambra, where an employee confronted and disarmed him during a brief struggle.

Chris Grollnek, an active shooter expert, said police should never have waited so long to warn the public of the possible threat posed by a gunman on the loose. The city had access to an automated alert system and even giving a little information would have been better than nothing.

“They should have spread the word sooner,” Grollnek said. “I think everyone is lucky he didn’t get to a third place.”

Wiese, who was sworn in as chief two days before Saturday’s shooting, said he quickly learned of the second incident at the Lai Lai Ballroom, but it wasn’t immediately clear the two were related.

Patrol officers from Monterey Park and Alhambra exchanged details of their two incidents, prompting investigators to search for a potential link, Wiese said.

“We put this together pretty quickly, but we still had very limited information,” he said.

Monterey Park Police Chief Scott Wiese speaks to reporters near a memorial outside the Star Ballroom Dance Studio on Tuesday in Monterey Park, Calif.

Monterey Park Police Chief Scott Wiese speaks to reporters near a memorial outside the Star Ballroom Dance Studio on Tuesday in Monterey Park, Calif.

Wiese said they were gathering information from around 40 witnesses – many of whom did not speak English – and did not want to spread incorrect information. He said notifying other local, state and federal agencies gives them the opportunity to spread the word.

A sheriff’s official confirmed the deaths to the AP shortly before 2:36 a.m. Sunday, but it wasn’t until about an hour later — about five hours after the shooting — that law enforcement mentioned for the first time a suspect was at large.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said his department’s decision to release information was “strategic” but promised a review of the timing.

“When we started releasing public information, the priority was to get this person into custody,” Luna said Monday. His department, which is handling the investigation, has not released information about the shooting since Monday.

The first press conference on the shooting was held Sunday morning by a sheriff’s captain. Several hours later, Tran was found dead in his van from a self-inflicted gunshot, authorities said. A handgun was found in the vehicle.

The killings during what should have been joyful Lunar New Year celebrations struck fear into Asian American communities that were already grappling with heightened hatred and violence against them.

Less than 48 hours later, a Northern California gunman shot and killed eight more farm workers – killing seven people – at mushroom farms in Half Moon Bay. The shooter was of Chinese descent and most of the victims were Asian.

Outside the locked doors of Star Dance Studio, a popular venue for older Asian Americans, a memorial rose Wednesday with mounds of bouquets and balloons.

Sabine Slome, who works as a pharmaceutical representative in the city, wept after paying her respects and leaving flowers.

“I just pray that we learn from this,” she said. “It’s just heartbreaking. How many more shootings?”

Hearts have been scribbled in pink and red chalk in the parking lot where the first victim was killed in his car.

“Monterey Park, I hope you know how much you are loved,” read one post.

Large photos of seven of the victims were propped up and framed in white roses. Flowers framed the names of the other four dead.

“It’s where we go out to eat,” said Ryan Yamada, who was with his 74-year-old mother. “We can’t just pretend it’s other people’s problem.”

On Wednesday, Vice President Kamala Harris toured the memorial in the dance studio parking lot, stopping as she passed each of the large rose-framed photos and the names of the victims. She placed a large bouquet of yellow and white flowers next to dozens of others.

Speaking briefly to reporters, Harris shared his feelings on behalf of President Joe Biden and called for tougher gun control laws.

“Tragically, we keep saying the same things,” Harris said. “Congress must act.”

“Can they do anything? Yes. Should they do something? Yes. Will they do something? This is where we all need to talk,” Harris said.

On Wednesday, Vice President Kamala Harris lays flowers at a makeshift memorial at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, California.
On Wednesday, Vice President Kamala Harris lays flowers at a makeshift memorial at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, California.

Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Pope Francis was among those offering condolences, saying in a message to the Archbishop of Los Angeles that he “implores the divine gifts of healing and consolation for the wounded and bereaved.”

Wiese said he had seen a lot in 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 injured into ambulances and tending to others inside when the chief arrived. There were bodies every 10 feet: some sprawled on tables, others sprawled on the dance floor.

“It’s hard to put words to it,” he said. “It takes your breath away when you see it. And it kind of etches the image into your brain.

Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press reporter Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.

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