LOS ANGELES — Authorities said Monday that a fatal 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 gunman opened fire on Sunday afternoon at the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, which was hosting a Taiwanese congregation.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department on Monday identified the suspect as David Chou, 68, of Las Vegas. Chou was convicted of one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder, the the sheriff’s department said in a tweet.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has opened a hate crime investigation into the shooting.
Authorities said Chou went to the church on Sunday morning and walked into it during a luncheon, shooting a group of largely elderly worshippers. Chou secured the church doors 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 on Monday.
Chou, a Chinese immigrant, targeted the church in an “isolated incident” due to frustration over political disagreements between China and Taiwan, Barnes said. It is unclear why this specific church was targeted.
Police identified the deceased victim as John Cheng, a church worshiper who was shot after charging the suspect and attempting to disarm him. His “heroic actions” allowed other individuals to overpower the suspect and tie up his legs with an extension cord and strip him of his weapons, Barnes said.
Cheng was pronounced dead at the scene.
“Dr. Cheng is a hero in this incident,” Barnes said. “Without Dr. Cheng’s actions, there is no doubt that there were many additional victims in this crime.”
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How did the Laguna Woods church shooting unfold?
Police say the shooter was armed with two handguns when he entered the church around 1:30 p.m. PDT Sunday.
About 50 people inside, most of whom were of Taiwanese descent, had just finished morning services and gathered for an afternoon lunch, officials said. They ranged in age from 66 to 92, according to Barnes.
Chou, who had traveled to 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, police said.
When deputies arrived, they found the suspect tied up and took him into custody. He was not injured.
“The majority of those present were elderly people, and they acted spontaneously, heroically,” Barnes said Monday. “Without their swift action, the way this individual created this 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 this church.”
Jerry Chen, 72, told The Associated Press he was in the church kitchen when he heard gunshots. Congregants had taken photos with a former pastor for whom the lunch had taken place before the shooting began, he said. Chen saw devotees running and shouting.
“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.
“It’s 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 was targeting the Taiwanese church community due to political grievances over tensions between China and Taiwan.
“This was a politically motivated hate incident, a grievance that this individual had between himself and the Taiwanese community as a whole,” Barnes said.
Chou was a Las Vegas security guard who was not associated with any specific religion, Barnes said Monday. Police said there were “no known links” between Chou and the Presbyterian Church of Geneva or individual worshippers. They said Chou acted alone.
Chou, a Chinese immigrant who has lived in the United States “for many years,” has a wife and son who do not reside in the country, according to Barnes.
The FBI has opened a hate crime investigation into the shooting, said Kristi Johnson, deputy director in charge of the bureau’s field office in Los Angeles.
“We found evidence that the individual was motivated by some kind of hate,” Johnson said.
Chou’s family was among many who were apparently forcibly deported from China to Taiwan shortly after 1948, Orange District Attorney Todd Spitzer said.
The police collected manuscripts notes from the suspect’s vehicle as supporting evidence that the suspect targeted the Taiwanese congregation because of his background, Barnes said.
“I believe his hatred of Taiwan showed up when he resided there in previous years, perhaps in his youth,” Barnes said.
Tensions between China and Taiwan are at their highest in decades, with Beijing bolstering its military presence by flying fighter jets to the self-governing island. China has not ruled out the force to reunite with Taiwan, which broke away from the mainland in a civil war in 1949.
A former neighbor said Chou’s life fell apart after he was nearly beaten to death several years ago.
Chou was a nice guy who owned the apartment building where he lived in Las Vegas, Balmore Orellana told The Associated Press. But Orellana said Chou suffered a head and serious bodily injury in an attack by a tenant, and he sold the property.
The neighbor said that last summer Chou fired a gun in his apartment. No one was hurt, but he was kicked out.
Orellana said that the mental capacity to Chou appeared to decrease in recent months: he was angry that the government did not bring him comfort during his retirement, and he might be homeless.
Chou is scheduled to appear in state court on Tuesday. It was not immediately clear if he had an attorney who could speak on his behalf.
The afternoon lunch reception was to honor a former pastor of a Taiwanese congregation who has services in Geneva, according to a statement from the Los Ranchos Presbytery, an administrative body of the church.
Chen said former pastor Billy Chang had served the church for more than 20 years but had returned to Taiwan. This visit was his first time, he said.
“Please keep the leadership of the Taiwanese congregation and Geneva in your prayers as they care for those traumatized by this shooting,” the rectory’s Tom Cramer said in a statement on Facebook.
Who were the victims?
Cheng, 52, who died, was a Laguna Niguel doctor specializing in sports medicine and married with two children, according to Barnes.
Barnes said Cheng heroically charged the shooter and attempted to disarm him, allowing others to intervene. Cheng likely saved the lives of “more than dozens of people,” the sheriff said.
A pastor hit the shooter in the head with a chair and parishioners tied him up with electrical cords. But Cheng was hit by gunfire.
Among the gunshot wounds are 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 of the Orange County Fire Authority.
A verified GoFundMe webpage had raised more than $20,000 for victims on Monday.
Contribute: The Associated Press