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Murder-Suicide Creates Frenzy at High School

Shooting: As students watch on Norwalk campus, honor student is slain by ex-boyfriend.

October 23, 1997|JEFF LEEDS and NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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.

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