LAGUNA WOODS, Calif. — A gunman in a deadly attack at a Southern California church was a Chinese immigrant motivated by hate for Taiwanese people, authorities said.
The shooter killed Dr. John Cheng, 52, and wounded five others during a lunch held by Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which worships at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, authorities said at a Monday news conference.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said the motive of the shooting was a grievance between the shooter, identified as a Chinese immigrant and U.S. citizen, and the Taiwanese community. China claims Taiwan is a part of its national territory and has not ruled out force to bring the island under its rule.
Barnes said the suspect drove to the Orange County church, where he was not a regular attendee, secured the doors and started shooting. The gunman had placed 4 Molotov cocktail-like devices inside the church, the sheriff said.
Barnes said Cheng, survived by a wife and two children, heroically charged at the shooter and attempted to disarm him, allowing others to intervene. Cheng probably saved the lives “of upwards of dozens of people,” the sheriff said.
A pastor hit the gunman on the head with a chair and parishioners hog-tied him with electrical cords. But Cheng was hit by gunshots.
“Understanding that there was elderly everywhere and they couldn’t get out of the premises because the doors had been chained .. he took it upon himself to charge across the room and to do everything he could to disable the assailant,” said Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department tweeted that David Chou, 68, of Las Vegas has been booked on one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder. The suspect lawfully purchased the two 9mm pistols in Las Vegas, said Stephen Galloway, ATF Los Angeles assistant special agent in charge.
The suspect made brief comments when he was taken into custody and then asked for an attorney, Barnes said.
A former neighbor, meanwhile, says Chou’s life unraveled after he was nearly beaten to death several years ago.
Chou had been a pleasant man who used to own the Las Vegas apartment building where he lived, Balmore Orellana told The Associated Press.
But Orellana said Chou received a head injury and serious body injuries in an attack by a tenant and he sold the property. The neighbor said that last summer Chou fired a gun inside his apartment. No one was hurt but he was evicted.
Orellana says Chou’s mental ability seemed to diminish in recent months, he was angry that the government didn’t provide comfort in his retirement, and he may have been homeless.
At the California church, Jerry Chen had just stepped into the kitchen of the church’s fellowship hall around 1:30 p.m. Sunday when he heard the gunshots.
Chen, 72, a longtime member of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, peeked around the corner and saw others screaming, running and ducking under tables.
“I knew someone was shooting,” he said. “I was very, very scared. I ran out the kitchen door to call 911. "
Four of the five people wounded suffered critical gunshot injuries. Orange County Fire Authority official Michael Contreras said two of the wounded were in good condition, two were in stable condition and the status of the fifth patient was undetermined.
“I will tell you that evil was in that church yesterday,” Spitzer said.
There is a lot of evidence that the suspect “had an absolute bias against the Taiwanese people, its country, as a Chinese or mainland national,” Spitzer said.
The suspect left notes in his vehicle concerning “his hatred of the Taiwanese people,” the sheriff said.
Jail records show Chou is being held on $1 million bail. It’s not immediately known whether he has a lawyer who can speak on his behalf.
The church was cordoned off Monday with yellow police tape and several bouquets of flowers were left outside the church grounds.
But on Sunday afternoon, Chen said he was in such a state of shock that he was unable to tell the operator his location when he called 911 from the church’s parking lot.
“I had to ask someone else for the address,” he said.
Chen said a group of about 40 congregants had gathered in the fellowship hall for a luncheon after a morning service to welcome their former Pastor Billy Chang, a beloved and respected community member who had served the church for 20 years. Chang moved back to Taiwan two years ago. This was his first time back stateside, Chen said.
“Everyone had just finished lunch,” he said. “They were taking photos with Pastor Chang. I had just finished my lunch and went into the kitchen.”
That was when he heard the gunshots and ran out.
“It was amazing how brave (Chang) and the others were,” he said. “This is just so sad. I never, ever thought something like this would happen in my church, in my community.”
Most of the church’s members are older, highly educated Taiwanese immigrants, Chen said.
“We’re mostly retirees and the average age of our church is 80,” he said.
Orange County Undersheriff Jeff Hallock praised the parishioners’ quick work to detain the gunman.
“That group of churchgoers displayed what we believe is exceptional heroism and bravery in intervening to stop the suspect. They undoubtedly prevented additional injuries and fatalities,” Hallock said. “I think it’s safe to say that had people not intervened, it could have been much worse.”
The shooting came a day after an 18-year-old man shot and killed 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.
As news of the shooting broke on the heels of the racist rampage in Buffalo — where the white gunman allegedly targeted a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood — fear spread that the Taiwanese congregation had also been targets of a hate crime.
Laguna Woods was built as a senior living community and later became a city. More than 80% of residents in the city of 18,000 people about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles are at least 65. The shooting was in an area with a cluster of houses of worship, including Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist churches and a Jewish synagogue.
Those wounded by gunshots included four Asian men, ages 66, 75, 82 and 92, and an 86-year-old Asian woman, the sheriff’s department said.
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It was not immediately clear whether all of the victims were of Taiwanese descent.
Tensions between China and Taiwan are at the highest in decades, with Beijing stepping up its military harassment by flying fighter jets toward the self-governing island. China has not ruled out force to reunify with Taiwan, which split from the mainland during a civil war in 1949.
Taiwan’s chief representative in the U.S., Bi-khim Hsiao, offered condolences to the families on Twitter.
“I join the families of the victims and Taiwanese American communities in grief and pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded survivors,” Hsiao wrote on Sunday.
The deadliest shooting inside a U.S. church was in 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A gunman opened fire during a Sunday service at First Baptist Church and killed more than two dozen people.
In 2015, Dylann Roof fired dozens of bullets during the closing prayer of a 2015 Bible study session at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina. Nine members of the Black congregation were killed in the racist violence and Roof became the first person in the U.S. sentenced to death for a federal hate crime. His appeal remains before the Supreme Court.
Bharath reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press journalists Stefanie Dazio and John Antczak in Los Angeles also contributed to this story. News Researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed from New York.