LOS ANGELES – Authorities said Monday that a deadly shooting at a Southern California church was a “politically motivated hate incident” against the Taiwanese community.
At least one person was killed and five people were injured when the shooter opened fire Sunday afternoon at the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, which was hosting a Taiwanese congregation.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department identified the suspect Monday as David Chou, 68, of Las Vegas. Chou was booked on one felony count of murder and five felony counts of attempted murder, the sheriff’s department said in a tweet.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a hate crime investigation into the shooting.
Authorities said Chou drove to the church Sunday morning and entered during a luncheon, firing on a group of largely elderly congregants. Chou secured the doors of the church with chains and attempted to disable the locks with superglue, according to Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes.
Police discovered several bags around the church containing magazines of ammunition as well as Molotov cocktails, Barnes said Monday.
Chou, a Chinese immigrant, targeted the church in an “isolated incident” because of frustration over political disagreements between China and Taiwan, Barnes said. It is not clear why that specific church was targeted.
Police identified the victim who died as John Cheng, a congregant at the church who was shot after charging the suspect and attempting to disarm him. His “heroic actions” allowed other individuals to subdue the suspect and hogtie his legs with an extension cord and take away his weapons, Barnes said.
Cheng was pronounced dead on the stage.
“Dr. Cheng is a hero in this incident,” Barnes said. “Without the actions of Dr. Cheng, it is no doubt that there have been numerous additional victims in this crime.”
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How did the Laguna Woods church shooting unfold?
Police said the shooter was armed with two handguns when he entered the church around 1:30 pm PDT Sunday.
About 50 people inside, most of whom were of Taiwanese descent, had just finished morning services and gathered for an afternoon luncheon, officials said. They ranged in age from 66 to 92 years old, according to Barnes.
Chou, who had driven into Orange County on Saturday, drove to the church parking lot that morning with two pistols he had legally purchased in Nevada, authorities said. After attempting to secure the doors with chains, nails and superglue, Chou fired into the building, according to police.
When deputies arrived, they found the suspect hogtied and took him into custody. He was not injured.
“The majority of the people in attendance were elderly, and they acted spontaneously, heroically,” Barnes said Monday. “If not for their quick action, the way that this individual set up that environment to kill many more people, there would have been many, many more lives lost if not for the concerted effort of the members of that church.”
Jerry Chen, 72, told The Associated Press he was inside the church’s kitchen when he heard gunshots. Congregants had been taking photos with a former pastor for whom the lunch was held before the shooting began, he said. Chen saw churchgoers running and screaming.
“I knew someone was shooting,” he told the news agency. “I was very, very scared. I ran out the kitchen door to call 911.”
Chen said he called 911 in the church parking lot and had to ask someone for the address because he was in shock.
“This is just so sad. I never, ever thought something like this would happen in my church, in my community,” Chen said.
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What motivated the shooter?
Authorities said the shooter targeted the Taiwanese community at the church over political grievances on tensions between China and Taiwan.
“This was a politically motivated hate incident, a grievance that this individual had between himself and the Taiwanese community at-large,” Barnes said.
Chou was a security guard from Las Vegas who was not associated with any specific religion, Barnes said Monday. Police said there were “no known ties” between Chou and the Geneva Presbyterian Church or any individual congregants. They said Chou acted alone.
Chou, a Chinese immigrant who has lived in the USA “for many years,” has a wife and son who does not reside in the country, according to Barnes.
The FBI opened a hate crimes investigation into the shooting, said Kristi Johnson, assistant director in charge of the bureau’s Los Angeles field office.
“We have discovered evidence that the individual was motivated by some kind of hate,” Johnson said.
Chou’s family was among many that were apparently forcibly removed from China to Taiwan sometime after 1948, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said.
Collected hand-written font notes from the suspect’s vehicle as supporting evidence that the suspect targeted the Taiwanese congregation based on their background, Barnes said.
“I believe his hatred of Taiwan manifested when he was residing there in previous years, possibly in his youth,” Barnes said.
Tensions between China and Taiwan are at the highest in decades, with Beijing stepping up its military presence 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.
A former neighbor said 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 suffered a head injury and serious bodily 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.
Chou is expected to appear in state court Tuesday. It was not immediately clear whether he had an attorney who could speak on his behalf.
The afternoon lunch reception was to honor a former pastor of a Taiwanese congregation that has services at Geneva, according to a statement from the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, a church administrative body.
Chen said former Pastor Billy Chang had served the church for more than 20 years but moved back to Taiwan. This visit was his first time back, he said.
“Please keep the leadership of the Taiwanese congregation and Geneva in your prayers as they care for the those traumatized by this shooting,” the presbytery’s Tom Cramer said in a statement on Facebook.
Who were the victims?
Cheng, 52, who died, was a doctor from Laguna Niguel who specialized in sports medicine and was married with two children, according to Barnes.
Barnes said Cheng 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 gunfire.
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.
They were all taken to hospitals for treatment, the sheriff’s department said. Two victims were in “good condition” and two were “stable,” according to Mike Contreras with the Orange County Fire Authority.
A verified GoFundMe webpage had raised more than $20,000 for the victims as of Monday.
Contributing: The Associated Press