The first court appearance Wednesday of Nhan L. Tran on charges he killed a 9-year-old boy during a shooting spree in his Oakdale neighborhood Monday night quickly focused on Tran's mental health.

Tran, 34, who came to the United States with his family as a 10-year-old refugee from Vietnam in 1989, appeared pale and bewildered at his arraignment Wednesday morning, less than 48 hours after a random spray of bullets took the life of fourth-grader Devin Aryal. Devin had been riding in the back seat of his mother's minivan near the corner of Hadley Avenue and 7th Street N.

On Wednesday, Tran was charged with six felony counts. Washington County District Judge Ellen Maas set bail at $2 million, and he remained in the Washington County jail. It will probably be months before a trial is set, likely in 2014, said Washington County Attorney Pete Orput.

"It's going to come down to whether he knew right from wrong," said Fred Fink, who will prosecute the case with Jessica Stott, assistant county attorney.

The court accepted a motion Wednesday that initiated efforts to establish Tran's state of mind at the time of the shooting and whether a lack of competence will keep him from effectively participating in his legal defense.

"In my view, that's going to be the crux of the case," Orput said.

The initial mental health evaluation will likely take several weeks, and Orput cautioned that it will not likely answer the question preying on grieving families and a quiet suburban community set reeling: Why?

"People want some kind of understanding, and unfortunately, they're not going to get it from the court," Orput said. "We can't answer the 'Why?' We can only say 'Who did it, and what did they do?' ... Some of these cases make us sick."

The most serious charges against Tran are two counts of second-degree murder: one with intent but no premeditation; and the other without intent while committing a felony. He was also charged with second-degree attempted murder for wounding Melissa Aryal, who was shot in the arm.

Tran also was charged with first-degree assault and causing great bodily harm in the wounding of 68-year-old Karen Knoblach, who was struck in the leg and lost part of a finger in the attack as she was driving with her three grandchildren. Two charges of second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon stem from the shooting at the other vehicles.

In the complaint, a 28-year-old woman described a man standing in the middle of the street shooting a handgun, later confirmed as a 9-millimeter, as she drove toward him. When bullets struck her windshield, she ducked -- and one struck the passenger seat headrest. Another driver, a 54-year-old-man, had his windshield hit as well as a front tire, and was likely spared further harm as the shooter stopped to reload.

Tran admitted to shooting at two vehicles, the complaint says, telling investigators he might also have hit other vehicles traveling behind them. He said he reloaded at least once, and was carrying extra ammunition in a backpack and fanny pack, along with two large sheathed knives. The shootings were first reported to Oakdale police about 6:10 p.m., and Tran surrendered without incident at 6:32 p.m., dropping the gun and putting his hands in the air.

Roots as a refugee

Tran has no criminal record and lived with his parents and siblings in the 600 block of Guthrie Avenue N., a short distance from where the shootings took place.

A man who is close to the family, but asked not to be identified, described the Trans as hard-working and law-abiding Vietnamese emigrés who built a life in the United States. They arrived in 1989, sponsored by a St. Paul church, after spending six months in a refugee camp in the Philippines. While Tran's mother and siblings pressed forward to their new home, his father had to stay behind for another four years because of immigration complications.

"They don't drink, they don't smoke, they don't gamble," the source said, and he is certain nobody in the family had owned a gun. He also said the family didn't know Tran had a weapon.

When he saw Tran in news reports, "nobody believed it -- I don't," he said. "[Tran] doesn't understand what he did, I tell you, he doesn't know."

Still, Tran stood out as being troubled, the man said. He was introverted to the point of not being able to order for himself at restaurants, and often withdrew to his room in solitude. He was never married. "I always called him the 'home boy' because he never left home," the man said.

The man also recalled that Tran was obsessed with violent video games, playing them not just for hours, but days on end. He worked briefly at Andersen Windows, and for about a month last summer at 3M Co. But he only worked long enough to save money to buy new games when they came out, the source said. "The games control him, he doesn't control the games. He played the games too much."

Still, family members tried to help, encouraging him to get a job, though the situation was at times frustrating. Though police say Tran owned the handgun legally -- the source did not know of any diagnosed health issues or prescription drugs he might have been taking -- the fact he even had a gun was stunning.

"Why did he do this stupid thing?" the man said. "Why did he find people he didn't know, and why did he shot them? Why? Why? Why?"

Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson