Devin Aryal's dreams were in the stars, picturing himself as an astronaut exploring the mysterious reaches of space.

But on an ordinary Monday night, in a minivan on the same old Oakdale streets he always traveled with his mother, the chatty, happy-go-lucky 9-year-old's immediate objective was simply to get home and play with his dog Niko.

As the van headed east on 7th Street just after 6 p.m. and was poised to turn left on Hadley Avenue, a heavily armed stranger who lived just half a block away raked the vehicle with gunfire, killing Devin and wounding his mother.

Police said 34-year-old Nhan L. Tran then turned the gun on three other vehicles, injuring a woman in another minivan before surrendering to a Washington County deputy.

"It appears it was completely random," said Oakdale Police Chief Bill Sullivan, who was at a loss to explain the burst of deadly violence from a man who had no criminal record and lived with his parents.

Tran was in the Washington County jail on suspicion of second-degree murder and felony assault Tuesday night and likely will be arraigned Wednesday morning.

Melissa Aryal recalled the shooting Tuesday morning, her wounded arm bandaged in a sling and hospital slippers still on her feet.

"We were just leaving day care," she said. "He was so proud because he did all of his homework at day care. He wanted to come home and play for the evening."

Then she and Devin heard a sound that they'd never heard before. Near a snowbank, she caught something out of the corner of her right eye.

"Just as we stopped, he had time to reload," she said.

As she turned the minivan, she felt her right arm go numb and saw blood. Stunned, she pulled into the parking lot of Rainbow Foods and dialed 911.

"And then I looked and saw him slumped over," she said.

Store workers and customers ran out. "My baby! My baby! Help!" she screamed.

"I dropped my phone and went and hugged him. He was still breathing at that time," she said, burying her face in her hands.

Devin had been shot several times, including in the head, and she knew it was bad. They were rushed to Regions Hospital in St. Paul in separate ambulances. Her son died soon after arriving, she said.

Also shot was Karen L. Knoblach, 68, of Oakdale. Knoblach and her three granddaughters were singing, on their way to a birthday celebration, when they heard shots and glass shattering. Knoblach was shot in the leg and in a finger, which had to be amputated. Chyriese Knoblach, 20; Chaketra Knoblach, 15; and Alexis Knoblach, 15, were unhurt.

My "heart and prayers go out to the family who lost a small child," Karen Knoblach said in a statement. She was listed in good condition after surgery at Regions, a hospital spokeswoman said.

In Brooklyn Park, Devin's father, Dibakar Aryal, was unable to talk about his son. "We've suffered a great loss," said Devin's stepmother, Mamata Aryal.

On Tuesday morning, rather than see Devin off on his school bus as she ordinarily would have done, Melissa Aryal had a tearful conversation with officials at Oakdale Elementary School, where Devin was a fourth-grader who loved math and science.

"The kids are having a hard time because he was just a lovable little boy," she said. "Everybody knew him and loved him. He would talk to anyone and everyone."

About 300 people, including some of Devin's family, attended a candlelight vigil Tuesday night at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Oakdale.

The Rev. John Stiles, pastor at the church, had been at Oakdale Elementary School earlier Tuesday. While Devin's family does not attend the church, many fourth- and fifth-graders at the school do.

"The people who were in his class were really, really sad," said Kayla Dornburg, 11, and a year ahead of Devin in school.

Stiles said he had heard two questions over and over on Tuesday: "How could this happen in Oakdale?" and "Why did this happen?"

But he said the bigger question is: "What now?"

The community's sense of safety "will come together one piece at a time," he said. "God will see you through even your most darkest time."

Accounts varied

Witnesses gave varying accounts of Tran's actions, one saying he appeared calm and another describing him as paranoid.

Cheryl Russell, who lives across the street from the suspect's home in the 600 block of Guthrie Avenue N., said she looked out a window from her home and saw a man with a backpack shooting at vehicles at two locations, firing about 15 shots. He was "very nonchalant, just very calm."

Russell said she does not know the Tran family, only that there are three adult sons who live there. According to police reports, there has been only one call to the home.

Derek Lowen was playing video games at home when he heard the first round of shots. A hunter, Lowen wanted to believe the shots were firecrackers, but something told him they weren't. Minutes later, after hearing more shots, he spotted the shooter on 7th Street.

"He was walking very erratically," Lowen said. "He kept doing full 360s looking behind him, looking very paranoid. He was making sure no one saw him, is what it looked like."

Investigators and prosecutors were meeting Tuesday, trying to reconstruct events.

Four vehicles were hit by many rounds of gunfire, Sullivan said, and it's possible one home also was struck. Two vehicles ended up in the grocery store parking lot. Police have no evidence that Tran "had any knowledge of the identities of the victims prior to the shootings."

Sullivan declined to confirm what type of handgun was used, but it's believed to have been a 9-millimeter semiautomatic. "He had a substantial number of rounds with him," the chief said.

Sullivan said state law bars gun permit information from being disclosed, but he added, "We are comfortable that Tran was not in possession unlawfully."

It's unclear whether Tran was employed and there is no indication he had mental health issues.

Tran's motive and intent will guide the charges and prosecution, said Pete Orput, Washington County attorney.

"It's everybody's nightmare: I can't go to Rainbow without taking a bullet?" he said, adding it's difficult to fathom. "It appears to have been so random, we all think 'It could have been me.'"

At Rainbow Foods on Tuesday, it didn't feel like another ordinary day.

"It's very emotional for me. I have kids and grandkids," said Lona Jaworski of Oakdale. "More than anything, I'm just wondering why was he standing there shooting at people? What was in his mind? ... We don't know anything about him. But he has a gun. What makes him even think of taking a gun out and shooting people? ... There are just so many questions."

Staff writers Paul Walsh, Kevin Giles and Andrew Krammer contributed to this report • 651-925-5038 • 651-735-1762 • 651-735-0999