A man who opened fire inside a Laguna Woods church, killing one person and injuring five others, had no connection to the Taiwanese congregation or anyone in it, but was a Chinese immigrant motivated by hate due to political tensions between China and Taiwan, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said Monday.
David Wenwei Chou, 68, of Las Vegas, Nevada, remains jailed on suspicion of one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder stemming from the 1:25 p.m. Sunday shooting at the Geneva Presbyterian Church at 24301 El Toro Road. Prosecutors plan to file charges on Tuesday.
He is accused of walking into the church as a Taiwanese congregation was holding a post-services banquet to honor a visiting pastor, barricading multiple doors so those inside could not escape, then initially mingling with parishioners before opening fire, killing one person and injuring five others. He allegedly chained some doors, tried to nail one shut and put super glue in the locks of others, all while the congregants were eating lunch, Barnes said.
Barnes said Chou also placed four incendiary devices inside the church, similar to Molotov cocktails. Investigators also found bags that Chou brought to the church containing additional ammunition.
Dr. John Cheng, 52, a physician with South Bay Medical Group in Aliso Viejo, was killed when he charged the gunman and attempted to disarm him, Barnes said. Cheng is survived by a wife and two children.
“Dr. Cheng is a hero in this incident,” Barnes said, adding that the doctor’s actions bought time for other parishioners to subdue the suspect and eventually hogtie him.
“Without the actions of Dr. Cheng, there is no doubt there would be additional victims in this crime,” Barnes said.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said it appears that after Chou shot Cheng, his gun jammed, giving congregants time to subdue the suspect, including slamming a chair over the gunman’s head.
Barnes said investigators have determined the shooting was an isolated incident carried out solely by Chou, and the shooting was a “politically motivated hate incident.” Barnes said the suspect “was upset about political tensions between China and Taiwan.”
Investigators found a note in Chou’s car in the church parking lot that indicated his animosity toward Taiwan. Spitzer said it appears Chou’s family was forced to move from China to Taiwan and that Chou complained he was treated poorly as an outsider over the years. Investigators have multiple translators going over the note to interpret it correctly, Spitzer said.
Investigators were still working to determine why Chou, who was a licensed security guard in Nevada, chose the Orange County congregation to target, since he had no known ties to anyone connected with it.
Barnes said there is no similar congregation in Las Vegas and the one in Orange County may have been the closest one for the suspect.
When the shooting erupted, parishioners took quick action. Cheng charged the gunman when he paused to reload his weapon. The pastor also threw a chair at the gunman, Barnes said, and others advanced on him, held him down and hogtied him with electrical cords.
Four of the victims remain hospitalized in critical condition, authorities said.
“That group of churchgoers displayed what we believe is exceptional heroism and bravery,” Orange County Undersheriff Jeff Hallock said from the scene, adding, “It’s safe to say that had they not intervened, this situation could have been much worse.”
According to the sheriff’s department, the five wounded victims were described as:
- a 66-year-old man;
- a 92-year-old man;
- an 82-year-old man;
- a 75-year-old man;
- and an 86-year-old woman.
The deceased victim was described only as a man.
None of their names have been released, but authorities planned to conduct a news conference at noon Monday to provide an update on the investigation.
The OCSD said the shooting happened around 1:25 p.m. Sunday inside Geneva Presbyterian Church at 24301 El Toro Road.
“Four victims have been critically wounded, one with minor injuries. All victims are adults, and are en route to the hospital. One victim is deceased at the scene,” the department said.
Hallock said a large number of the people inside the church during the shooting were of Taiwanese descent. The attack happened during a banquet following the morning service and churchgoers detained the man, tying him up with an extension cord.
Two handguns were taken from the attacker, now identified as Chou. His motive was not clear, but Chou was taken into custody at the scene, Hallock said.
It was unclear whether Chou had any connections to the church or its congregants, the sheriff’s department said in a press release.
“We are committed to fully investigating and sharing as much information as possible while maintaining the integrity of the investigation,” the sheriff’s department tweeted.
Congregant Jerry Chen, 72, told the Los Angeles Times he was in a nearby kitchen at the church just before 1:30 p.m. Sunday when he heard the shots.
“I heard the gun sounds,” he said. “Then, I heard two or three more gunshots. He was just randomly shooting.”
Chen told the Times he then saw the pastor, Billy Chang, hit the gunman with a chair when the shooter paused to reload his weapon. That’s when other members of the congregation tackled him.
The Los Angeles branch of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sent special agents to Laguna Woods to assist the OCSD with its investigation.
Stephen Galloway, the assistant special agent in charge of the Los Angeles office, said the agency has placed an emergency trace on the handguns recovered at the scene. The trace was sent to the ATF’s office in West Virginia and should return quickly to the ATF’s local field office in Orange County. Once they get the trace information, the next step will be to identify the dealers who sold the man his handguns, Galloway said.
Kristi Johnson, agent in charge of the local FBI office, said the bureau was providing extra resources to assist the sheriff’s department in their investigation. “Right now we are working very hard to provide a motive for the shooting. This is critically important.”
The bureau’s Behavioral Analysis Unit was on scene.
Laguna Woods is a “relatively exclusive (community) for people 55 and older,” according to NBC News. “It opened as Leisure World in 1964. It became the county’s 32nd city in 1999.”
Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett of the Fifth District said the board was making sure mental health professionals would be made available to those impacted by the shooting.
El Toro Road was closed between Calle Sonora and Canyon Wren, and people were urged to avoid the area.
“A shooting at a church in Laguna Woods has left multiple people injured and one deceased. This is upsetting and disturbing news, especially less than a day after a mass shooting in Buffalo,” said Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, whose district includes Laguna Woods. “This should not be our new normal. I will work hard to support the victims and their families.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn also weighed in, releasing the following statement regarding deadly gun violence in both Buffalo, New York and Orange County. “We cannot be a nation where multiple mass shootings in a single weekend is normal, where gun violence and the hate that so often drives it is tolerated. We need Congress to do something and pass the same, commonsense gun laws that every other modernized democracy has in place, and here in L.A. County, I am committed to getting as many guns off the street as I can.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office tweeted the following statement:
“We are actively monitoring the shooting at a church in Laguna Woods and working closely with local law enforcement. No one should have to fear going to their place of worship. Our thoughts are with the victims, community, and all those impacted by this tragic event.”
The shooting came one day after a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, was targeted by a heavily armed shooter who killed 10 people and wounded three others. Authorities arrested an 18-year-old man in that crime, which they said was racially motivated. Eleven of the 13 victims were Black.
Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine, issued a statement extending his “thoughts and prayers,” adding, “It is almost unthinkable that one of the safest places in the country would be hit by the specter of gun violence.”
“We should refuse to accept these tragedies as the new normal in our schools, our houses of worship or anywhere,” Min said.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, issued a statement, saying, “It is horrifying to be grieving yet another tragic shooting in just 72 hours — another weekend in America defined by senseless violence.
“Tonight, my heart is with the congregants of Geneva Presbyterian Church and the entire Laguna Woods community as they mourn and pray for their loved ones. My heart is also with those in Buffalo, in Milwaukee, and every community torn apart by gun violence.”
Schiff concluded by adding, “I will never accept this bloodshed as unavoidable. It can be stopped. But as we’ve seen over the past few days, months and years, unless we take immediate action on gun safety measures, history will repeat itself. Again and again. Enough is enough. We must act.”
Originally posted May 16, 2022 at 09:15 a.m. / Updated May 16, 2022 at 03:33 p.m.