A 68-year-old Nevada man accused of killing one person and wounding five others in a Taiwanese congregation in Orange County, California, was allegedly motivated by anti-Taiwan sentiment in what law enforcement is calling a politically motivated hate crime.
Investigators are pursuing federal hate-crime charges against the suspect, identified as David Chou of Las Vegas. Chou already faces one felony count of murder and five felony counts of attempted murder for the Sunday shooting.
Chou is a Chinese-born United States citizen who has lived in the U.S. for “many years” and was “upset by political tensions between China and Taiwan,” Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said during a Monday news conference.
For more than half a century, China and Taiwan for have been locked in conflict over the island’s political status. China regards Taiwan as one of its provinces, while Taiwan functions as an independent nation.
Barnes said notes written in Mandarin were found in Chou’s vehicle that supported “his hatred [of the] Taiwanese people.”
Barnes and other officials described a dramatic scene of terror met with bravery, particularly hailing the actions of Dr. John Cheng, who was identified Monday as the lone person killed in the shooting at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church. The small congregation worships in the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods.
“Dr. Cheng is a hero in this incident,” Barnes said. “Without the actions of Dr. Cheng, there is no doubt there’d be numerous victims in this crime.”
Cheng, a 52-year-old sports medicine doctor, spent the final moments of his life trying to protect fellow congregants after the shooter opened fire and struck several elderly churchgoers, Barnes said.
Cheng was shot, but the shooter’s pistol jammed before he could fire additional rounds; the delay gave the pastor enough time to swing a chair at the gunman, knocking him down as other members of the congregation moved to hogtie his legs with an extension cord until police arrived.
Cheng, of nearby Laguna Niguel, was pronounced dead at the scene. He is survived by his wife and two children, officials said.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said Cheng was one of the youngest congregants in attendance and he rushed to help, “understanding that there was elderly [people] everywhere and that they couldn’t get out of the premises because the doors had been chained.”
“After others had been shot, he charged across the room and did everything he could to disable the assailant. He sacrificed himself so others could live,” Spitzer said. “That irony in a church is not lost on me.”
Officials said there is no clear link between the shooter and the congregation, which may have been targeted because it appeared to be closest “manifestation” of Taiwan or Taiwanese identity to the suspect’s home in Las Vegas, Barnes said.
Authorities say the suspect on Saturday left his home in Nevada, where he worked as a security guard, and drove some 270 miles to Laguna Woods, where officials said he carried out his attack with chilling forethought.
After slipping into the church’s social hall during an afternoon luncheon honoring a former pastor, the man chained several of the exits shut and superglued the locks, Barnes said. He also placed four “Molotov cocktail-like incendiary devices” inside the church and attempted to nail doors shut, the sheriff said.
The former pastor, Billy Chang, had recently returned from Taiwan and was at the church to give a guest sermon that was attended by about 150 people, Jerry Chen, a member of the congregation who was at the church on Saturday, told The Washington Post in a text message.
Shortly after the service started, a man wearing a black shirt with white writing on it entered the sanctuary and identified himself to the receptionist as “Da-Wei Chou.” He reportedly refused to fill out a form providing his personal information, telling the receptionist – in Taiwanese – that he had already been to the church before. He then sat at the back of the sanctuary reading a Chinese-language newspaper, Chen said.
The gunman remained at the church for two more hours, through the adults’ Sunday school, then for a lunch banquet the congregation was having for Pastor Chang inside Simpson Hall, a section of the church.
Police later said it was unclear if Chou shared a meal with the congregation before he opened fire.
“Near the end of lunch, church members took turns taking pictures with Pastor Chang, and some people left after their pictures were taken,” Chen said in a statement provided by his family. “As they walked through the doors, they saw Chou applying iron chains to start locking the doors shut.”
Members of the congregation assumed Chou was a security guard working with the church, Chen said. Another church member later told Chen that he saw the man nail shut two exit doors.
Shortly afterward, the visitor began shooting.
He first fired a bullet toward the ceiling, a sound that several church members would say they thought was a large balloon popping, Chen said.
“Some church members then fell to the floor, and a few escaped through a door through the kitchen that Chou did not lock,” Chen said. “One of the church members who escaped through the kitchen door then called 911” – but was too shaken to tell the dispatcher the church’s address or the shooter’s physical description.
The injured victims included a 66-year-old man, a 75-year-old man, an 82-year-old man, an 86-year-old woman and a 92-year-old man – all of Asian descent, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. Four suffered critical injuries in the shooting.
Stephen Galloway, the assistant special agent in charge at Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms Bureau said the suspect legally obtained the two 9-millimeter handguns used in the shooting in Nevada in 2015 and 2017.
Spitzer, the district attorney, said that behind a curtain in the social hall, the suspect hid “explosives, magazines and other tools [he] was planning on using later on.” For that, his office was pursuing special circumstances of “laying in wait” to add to the murder and attempted murder charges. If convicted, Chou could face the death penalty, though California Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, has had a moratorium on capital punishment since 2019.
Chou is being held on a $1 million bond and is scheduled for his first court appearance Tuesday, according to court records.
Houses of worship have been a recurring target for shootings over the past decade, including a 2012 shooting a Sikh temple in Wisconsin; a 2015 shooting at a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina; and a 2018 shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. A 2017 shooting at a church service in Texas that killed 26 people remains the worst mass shooting in the state’s history.
Sunday’s shooting in Orange County added to a deadly weekend for mass shootings in the United States after 10 people were killed during a rampage at a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Buffalo by a gunman who police said had long espoused racist and White supremacist views.
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Meghann Cuniff contributed reporting from Laguna Woods and Reis Thebault contributed reporting from Washington.
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