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US van standoff ends as police hunt Lunar New Year mass shooter

By Robyn Beck / AFP Published Jan 23, 2023 9:30 am

California police hunting the gunman who killed 10 people at a dance club during Lunar New Year celebrations broke into a van after a lengthy standoff Sunday, Jan. 22, where images showed a body slumped in the driver's seat.

The hunt began 12 hours earlier after a man—described by police as Asian—began firing at a club in Monterey Park, a city in Los Angeles County with a large Asian community.

Witnesses said he had fired indiscriminately, and appeared to be heavily armed.

At least 10 other people were wounded, some of them critically.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said police responded to emergency calls just after 10:00 p.m. and found people pouring out of the premises.

"Unfortunately," he added, paramedics "did pronounce 10 of the victims deceased at the scene."

Five of the dead were women and five men, officials said, without providing ages or names.

Incident nearby

Luna also described a second incident in nearby Alhambra some 20 minutes later, in which an Asian man carrying a gun walked into a dance studio but was tackled and disarmed. The man fled and no injuries were reported.

Alhambra is about two miles (three kilometers) north of Monterey Park. Luna said investigators were probing whether the incidents were related. 

The police stand-off around a van began late Sunday morning in Torrance, south of Los Angeles, with the Los Angeles Times reporting shots had been fired at the scene.

It culminated with heavily-armed officers, supported by armored vehicles, swarming the white panel van, smashing the passenger side window with their weapons raised.

AFP photographs from the scene taken after the operation show the body of a man in the driver's seat. 

The Times, citing law enforcement sources, said the man had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

There was no immediate confirmation from police, and Luna earlier would only confirm that a "tactical incident" was underway.

"Could it be our suspect? Possibly," he said.

Photos released by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department of their key suspect showed an Asian man wearing a beanie hat and glasses.

'Year of the Rabbit'

Monterey Park, only a few miles from downtown Los Angeles, is home to around 60,000 people, the majority of them Asian or Asian American.

"We don't know if this is specifically a hate crime defined by law," Luna said, "but who walks into a dance hall and guns down 20 people?"

Sheriff's deputies in Monterey Park remained at the scene, an AFP reporter said, with decorations erected for the Lunar New Year hanging incongruously by the police tape.

A banner above the street read "Happy Year of the Rabbit."

Monterey Park resident Wong Wei told the Los Angeles Times his friend had been in the dance club's bathroom when the shooting erupted.

When she emerged, she saw a man carrying a long gun and firing indiscriminately. The bodies of two women and a man lay on the floor.

The paper reported that Seung Won Choi, who owns a nearby restaurant, said three people had run into the establishment and told him to lock the door.

The three told Choi there was a man with a semiautomatic gun who had multiple rounds of ammunition and repeatedly reloaded.

Tens of thousands of people had gathered earlier for the two-day Lunar New Year festival, one of the area's largest. Events planned for Sunday were canceled after the attack.

"My heart is broken for the victims, their families, and the people of my hometown," Representative Judy Chu, a former mayor of Monterey Park, said on Twitter. 

Chu had been at the scene, joining the festivities hours before the shooting, when the crowd was still large. "This could have been so much worse," she said. 

Hate crime?

Officials said detectives were reviewing surveillance video and did not yet know whether the suspect was targeting a particular group.

Last year a Chinese-American gunman attacked a Taiwanese church in California, killing one and wounding five others.

The US Department of Justice said there were over 7,000 reported hate crimes in the United States in 2021, two-thirds of them race-related.

The Monterey Park shooting is the country's deadliest since a gunman in Uvalde, Texas killed 22 people at an elementary school last May.

Gun violence is a huge problem in the United States, which last year saw 647 mass shootings, with at least four people shot or killed by a shooter, according to the Gun Violence Archive website.

In addition to the California shooting, 12 more people were injured in a shooting at a nightclub overnight in Louisiana, local media reported.

More than 44,000 people died from gunshot wounds in 2022 across the United States, more than half of which were suicides. (AFP)