A 21-year-old ex-USC student returned to his Norwalk high school Wednesday morning, tracked down the 16-year-old sweetheart who had just broken up with him and, in front of her horrified fellow students, fatally shot her with a volley of handgun fire before taking his own life.
Sheriff's deputies said honor student Catherine Tran died of multiple gunshot wounds where she fell on the campus of John Glenn High School.
Her ex-boyfriend, Khoa Truc "Robert" Dang, described by disbelieving friends as a nice person and a driven student, died at a nearby hospital of a single shot to the head, officials said.
"I saw three gunshots into her, and she fell down and he still kept shooting," said Jose Molina, 16, who came upon the scene on his way to class at 7:45 a.m.
Molina said he turned his back when he saw Dang, looking "confused," put the gun into his mouth.
"I don't even want to go back, but I'm going to have to," Molina said. "My class is right there. It's something you can't keep out of your mind."
The fatal shooting sent the 1,650-student campus into a frenzy as hundreds of frightened and angry parents converged to pick up their children.
"He wasn't a student here. He didn't belong on campus. How in heck did he get in there if the gates were supposed to be closed?" asked an outraged Christina DeSalvo, who heard on television that a girl had been shot and rushed to assure herself that it was not her daughter.
The interwoven threads of the lovers' tragedy were put into high relief moments after the shooting. Junior Albert Dang, who friends said had introduced his older brother Robert to Tran, ran to the murder scene on a tree-shaded corner of the campus where he waded into a terrified crowd of students, including Tran's younger brother, Phillip, 14, who had seen his sister shot down.
Both erupted in helpless shouting and wailing, witnesses said.
Friends of the slain girl said she broke off a two-year relationship with Dang on Friday and went with another boy to the school football game that night.
The relationship had always troubled Tran's friends, who found Dang excessively possessive.
"We always told her that she would be better off with somebody else," said junior Ida Navarro, 17. "We saw she wasn't happy."
Friends said the two had lived together for several months in Dang's Norwalk apartment before breaking up last weekend.
Given lavish gifts by Dang, Tran was sometimes teased for taking on airs, a friend said.
"She was more adult than us. She lived with a more sophisticated person," said Carol Kim, who had exchanged her usual greeting with Tran just before the shooting.
Friends and relatives said Tran, who planned to study pharmacy, was friendly but private, extremely hard-working and a member of a dance troupe at the school.
Recently, she had begun to fear her boyfriend's temper and his violent side, friends said.
"She broke with him because he was beating her," said Christine Ramos, 15.
"Sometimes he got mad at her for no reason," said another friend, Sandra Devicente, 16. "He'd get mad at her for looking at someone."
When she tried to break off the relationship, Dang warned her: "You're going to regret this," Devicente said.
Phillip Tran said that after living eight months with Dang, his sister had "realized my parents were right" last weekend.
She told the family "he was crazy and he wanted to kill himself," Phillip said, adding that his parents helped his sister move.
But a man who identified himself as Dang's uncle told The Times that the youth was a "very kind, nice person" who never lost his devotion for Tran.
Saying he was speaking on behalf of Dang's devastated family, the man, who would not give his name, said, "The only problem he had was loving her too much, not willing to let her go." He denied that Dang had ever beaten Tran.
Dang was a computer and video game enthusiast who had started a data entry business while attending classes at USC, said Kathleen Gutierrez, 21, a friend since they were classmates at Moffitt Elementary School.
"If anything, he was a nerd," Gutierrez said. "Robert was an honor roll student, very smart, extremely gifted. His parents were very strict with him. He was rarely out past 8 at night. He wasn't allowed to receive phone calls either."
Gutierrez said she was never aware of Dang having a girlfriend until she last saw him at a Halloween party a year ago, and was surprised by his attachment to Tran.
"They sat together," Gutierrez said. "He never got up. He didn't speak. When I found out she was still going to high school, that was a big shock to me. That was out of character for Robert.
"To me it sounds like the classic story, 'If I can't have her no one will.' But we can't speak for him now."
Although friends thought Dang was still attending USC, a spokeswoman for the university said he was a biomedical engineering major there from the fall of 1994 to the spring of 1996, but was not currently enrolled.
Dang was listed as "academically disqualified" in spring 1996, the spokeswoman said, meaning he "did not do well in his classes" and possibly failed.
Officials of the 22,000-student Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District said they plan to evaluate safety measures at the high school, but doubted that the shooting could have been prevented.
"If he had a purpose to come in and kill his girlfriend, he would have found a way," said Supt. Ginger Shattuck.
Dang apparently walked onto the sprawling campus through one of the three gates that students enter in the mornings, she said.
Five campus security guards visually check everyone who comes through the gates, but would not have been expected to reject Dang, Shattuck said.
"This was a former student, an excellent student from all reports, who would not have drawn any attention in the 20 seconds it would have taken him to enter campus," she said.
The school has not previously perceived a need to use metal detectors at the gates, a measure that presumably would have prevented Dang from carrying in the 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol he used to shoot Tran.
"We've had safe campuses," Shattuck said. "We've had no need thus far for metal detectors or anything else that inner-city schools have. It's a community school, a family school. We didn't want to make it look like a prison."
In the hour after the shooting, the campus lurched into chaos, with frantic parents crowding around one gate, demanding to have their children released. Confused teenagers meandered just inside the fence, trying to learn details of their schoolmate's death.
After the shooting, school officials decided to dismiss students whose parents came to the campus, but continued classes, making trauma counselors available to those who asked.
"We have tried to maintain order in school rather than release them," said administrative assistant Joan Buescher. "They are probably safer and better off with counselors at the schools than if we just let them all out."
Around noon, some of Tran's friends placed a small paper poster decorated with drawings of butterflies and flowers at the base of the flagpole in front of the school. It read, "In Loving Memory, Ms. Catherine Tran. We Will Miss You!"
Next to it, they laid a pair of yellow flowers and lighted three candles.
Casilto Guerra, a teacher at Jordan High School in Los Angeles, returned Wednesday to the campus where he once taught math and science and had Dang as a student.
Dang's family had called him and asked him to join them at the hospital with their wounded son, Guerra said. When he arrived before 9 a.m., a nurse told him Dang would probably not live through the afternoon.
"I knew he only had a few minutes to live," Guerra said. "I just wanted to talk to him about Christ."
But the deputies at the door would not let him in, he said.
Times staff writers Joe Mozingo, Douglas Shuit and Doug Smith contributed to this story.