LAGUNA WOODS, Calif. — A 68-year-old Nevada man accused of killing one person and wounding five others in a Taiwanese congregation in Orange County, Calif., was allegedly motivated by anti-Taiwan sentiment in what law enforcement is calling a politically motivated hate crime.
Officials have offered differing accounts on Chou’s background. A representative from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles told The Washington Post that Chou was born in Taiwan in 1953. During a Monday news conference, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes originally described Chou as a Chinese-born U.S. citizen who has lived in the United States for “many years” and who was “upset by political tensions between China and Taiwan.” However, late Tuesday, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office clarified that Chou had told them he was born and raised in Taiwan.
Barnes said notes written in Mandarin were found in Chou’s vehicle that supported “his hatred [of the] Taiwanese people” and his beliefs that Taiwan should not be an independent country. Barnes said he believed that hate manifested when Chou was living as a youth in Taiwan, where he was “not well-received.”
China claims Taiwan, a self-governing democracy, as its own and has asserted it could one day use force to take control of Taiwan.
Barnes and other officials described a dramatic scene of terror met with bravery, particularly hailing the actions of 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.”
Johnna Gherardini, executive director of South Coast Medical Family and Sports Medicine in Aliso Viejo, where Cheng practiced, said he was a family-oriented man who was passionate about the community and “protected everybody.” He was also adamant about the importance of self-defense and operated his own martial arts studio, she said.
“When they had said that he had gone across the room and charged [the shooter], I can see him doing that. And that’s what he did,” Gherardini said. “He knew how to do it, and he always made sure we knew how to defend ourselves here at the office.”
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 glued 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, S.C.; 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.
Grace Chen, who was among those who jointly started a GoFundMe page for victims of the shooting, said her parents are part of the Taiwanese congregation but had stayed home Saturday because they had tested positive for the coronavirus last week.
“It kind of saved their life,” she said. “Otherwise, they would have definitely been there.”
Chen described the congregation as close-knit. Afterward, news of the shooting spread among the now-adult children of many of the congregants, who had grown up together and remained in close contact on a Facebook Messenger group chat, she said.
“I would say all of us are in complete disbelief that this would happen to us,” she said.
Bellware reported from Chicago, and Wang reported from Washington. Reis Thebault in Washington contributed to this report.