Family and friends mourn the loss of 14-year-old boy killed in Silver Spring
by Amber Parcher, Jason Tomassini and Jeremy Arias | Staff Writers
Tai Lam's trademark purple outfit and checkered scarf rested on his bed Monday, two days after a gunman shot and killed the 14-year-old boy. A painting of his name in Vietnamese calligraphy sat near the pillow, while his mother stood at the foot of the bed, weeping.
"Why they took my baby away from me," asked the grief-stricken Vietnamese immigrant. "For 14 years, I care for him by myself."
Tai Lam, a popular Montgomery Blair High School freshman, was slain Saturday night as he rode a Ride On bus home from downtown Silver Spring with a group of 10 to 12 friends. Tai's brother, Lam Cao, was with him when a man who had been taunting passengers got off the bus at a stop in the Long Branch neighborhood of Silver Spring and fired several shots into the bus.
Two bullets wounded two friends, ages 14 and 15, who were treated at a hospital and released. One shot hit Tai in the chest. Lam Cao rode with his brother to the hospital where he died. The shooter and a group of men he was with remain at large.
On Monday, the 16-year-old was in a state of shock, while mourners gathered in the family's Quebec Terrace apartment to comfort his mother, Ngoc Lam, and his sister, Quy Lam. The smell of incense filled the living room where family and friends created a shrine of photographs, notes and some of Tai Lam's favorite foods.
"[The killer] took the life of someone very important," Quy Lam, 24, said through tears, describing her brother as a bright, opinionated person who could have had a future as a lawyer.
Quy Lam said her brothers were like twins because they were so close.
Lam Cao said the shooting, which occurred around 11 p.m., was unprovoked. He was sitting near the front of the bus talking to some friends, while his brother sat in the back. The bus stopped near Sligo Avenue in Silver Spring and three Hispanic men boarded, he said.
At the next stop, another Hispanic man boarded and joined the three men near the back door of the bus. Cao said two of the men were taunting other riders and "trying to start trouble," while the other two remained quiet.
County police say there was a verbal exchange between the men and the teens. Cao said a female friend of his who speaks Spanish translated for him what the men were saying as the bus traveled along Piney Branch Road. She eventually attracted the men's attention and they approached her as the bus came to a stop at the intersection of Piney Branch Road and Arliss Street, Cao said.
When the bus stopped, three of the men exited from the back door but the shooter stayed on the bus. The other men urged the man to get off the bus. But instead of leaving, the man and his companions held the bus door open, Cao said.
Passengers in the back of the bus huddled together as one of the men reached for his hip as if he were grabbing a gun. The man relaxed his arm and didn't show a weapon, Cao said.
But moments later, Cao heard five to six shots and his brother scream "I'm shot!" The bus driver lurched the bus forward about 20 to 30 feet and Cao rushed to the back to help his brother.
"He was just pouring blood," he said. "I couldn't believe it."
Passengers stepped off the bus and began calling police, who Cao said arrived about five minutes later. Cao said he rode in the ambulance with his brother and held him all the way to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead upon arrival.
Police dogs, detectives and patrol officers began canvassing the neighborhood for suspects and witnesses, said Lt. Paul Starks, a spokesman for Montgomery County Police. At one point, a county police SWAT team was called to search an apartment building in the 8900 block of Garland Avenue after a caller claimed to have seen people matching the suspects' descriptions entering the building. The search did not lead to any arrests, Starks said.
Police are interviewing about 25 people who were on the bus Saturday during the shooting. Police believe a black hooded sweatshirt recovered from the scene was worn by the shooter. It is from the "Lot 29" clothing label and features a graphic design of "Marvin the Martian Commanding Tank," a design described by the company as an airbrushed image of Marvin the Martian pointing and commanding a tank into battle.
Police are asking anyone with information about the owner of the shirt or the shooting to call police at 24-773-5070.
Cao's description of the man who shot his brother differs from what the police described. According to a police press release sent out Sunday, the shooter was in his early 20s, 5 feet 4 inches tall to 5 feet 7 inches tall with no facial hair. He was wearing a black hooded jacket and blue jeans and had a tattoo with some type of lettering on the side of his neck.
Cao said the shooter was wearing a white T-shirt and dark blue, almost black pants. He had a full mustache, a slight beard and not much hair on his head. His companion was bald and had on a large black T-shirt with a design on it and a tattoo on his neck. Another man with gelled hair was wearing a black long-sleeved thermal shirt with a red T-shirt over it. Cao said he could not describe the fourth man.
Starks said police continue to investigate the fatal shooting. While the Long Branch neighborhood where the shooting took place has experienced a recent spate of violent crime, Starks said the bus shooting was not common.
"This is a very rare case," he said.
Police believe the group of 12 or so teenagers Tai Lam was with did nothing to provoke the four men, according to Lucille Baur, a county police spokeswoman.
"… It appears that this was a very violent response to a very innocent situation," she said.
Cao said he didn't think the shot fired at his brother was a mistake because it hit him squarely in the chest and was concerned that police took five to six minutes to arrive when there was a substation nearby at Flower Avenue and Piney Branch Road. Baur agreed that five to six minutes would be an "atypical" response time, but said the substation is rarely staffed and she wasn't sure if officers were in the substation at the time of the shooting.
"We're typically on a scene like that in a matter of two or three minutes," she said, noting that Cao's concern is understandable.
"When a tragedy like that occurs, it seems like it takes a long time for police to arrive," she said.
Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said the shooting was rare, even for a designated "crime hotspot" like Long Branch, and there will be continuing efforts to make the community safer.
"Sometimes these horrible incidents bring neighborhoods together," she said.
Victim remembered by friends
Tai was very popular for a ninth-grader, said Montgomery Blair Principal Darryl Williams outside the Lam residence Monday afternoon after visiting Cao and his mother.
The freshman had followed in his brother's footsteps by joining the wrestling team and followed his own interests by joining the fashion club, friends and family said.
He modeled and designed clothes with the club, where he was known for his style, said Edith Verdejo, a ninth-grade administrator.
"He was very stylish, to say the least," she said.
There was no school Monday and Tuesday for professional work days, but Williams said grief counselors would be available today, as would staff members from Eastern Middle School, the school Tai graduated from in the spring.
Several groups have been created on the social networking site Facebook with slide shows and collages to honor Tai. One group titled "R.I.P. Tai. We Love You Man" has nearly 900 members and includes photographs of Tai with friends on the old artificial turf field in downtown Silver Spring.
Blair students have also used Facebook to organize two in-school events to honor Tai. Today, the student body is encouraged to wear all black. On Thursday, students are urged to wear white and purple colors and a scarf, just like the clothes laid out on Tai's bed Monday. More than 750 students are expected to participate.
Ervin said funds could be set up to aid the victim's family and alleviate funeral costs.
The Blair PTSA is still deciding how to respond to the tragedy. A parent meeting is possible and the PTSA's listserv has been discussing options, said PTSA co-president Bob Gillette.
"We haven't really begun to come to terms with it yet," he said.
Blair student-body vice president Jessica Arce said a group of students will meet with Williams and counselors today to coordinate counseling efforts. Vigils were held Sunday night on Flower Avenue and Monday night on Ellsworth Drive (see related story) and a banner to honor Tai Lam will be hung on Blair Boulevard, the main hallway inside Montgomery Blair High School.
"What hits people hardest is he was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Arce said. "… It just made us realize how important life is."
W. Gregory Wims, the president of the nonprofit countywide Victims' Rights Foundation, announced Tuesday he is offering a $5,000 reward fund on behalf of his organization for information provided to Montgomery County Police detectives that leads to the arrest and/or indictment of the people responsible for the shooting of Tai Lam. Anyone who would like to contribute to the fund should make a notation on the check that it is for the Lam homicide. All donations are tax deductible. Send donations to: The Victims' Rights Foundation, 814 West Diamond Ave., Suite 200, Gaithersburg, MD 20878.