Calif. church shooting was hate crime against Taiwanese, police say

The suspect, a Chinese-born U.S. citizen, tried to disable locks with superglue and used chains to secure the doors

By Hannah Fry, Richard Winton, Anh Do and Luke Money
Los Angeles Times

LAGUNA WOODS, Calif. — The suspect in the Laguna Woods church shooting Sunday appeared to be motivated by political hatred directed at the Taiwanese community, Orange County Sheriff’s officials said Monday.

While investigators provided few details, they said their investigation suggests the deadly attack was a politically motivated hate incident.

Orange County Sheriff's Sgt. Scott Steinle displays a photo of Dr. John Cheng, a 52-year-old victim who was killed in Sunday's shooting at Geneva Presbyterian Church, during a news conference in Santa Ana, Calif., Monday, May 16, 2022.
Orange County Sheriff's Sgt. Scott Steinle displays a photo of Dr. John Cheng, a 52-year-old victim who was killed in Sunday's shooting at Geneva Presbyterian Church, during a news conference in Santa Ana, Calif., Monday, May 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

“We believe, based on what we’ve discovered so far, that he specifically targeted the Taiwanese community, and this is one representation of that Taiwanese community,” said Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, referring to the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which was the target of the attack.

The suspect in the shooting — which left one dead and five injured — has been identified as David Wenwei Chou, 68, of Las Vegas.

Among the evidence recovered, Barnes said, were notes written in Chinese that Chou left in his car showing he did not believe Taiwan should be an independent state from China. Law enforcement sources said investigators recovered a handwritten note in his car setting out his motivations and thinking for the attack.

Chou was born in mainland China and at some point relocated to Taiwan before moving to the United States, according to Barnes. The sheriff said it appears Chou had an issue with Taiwanese people because of the way he said he was treated while living there.

It is not clear how long Chou lived in Taiwan, but Barnes said he has been in the United States for years and is a U.S. citizen.

The FBI has opened a federal hate crime investigation into the shooting, according to Kristi Johnson, assistant director in charge of the bureau’s Los Angeles office. That would be in addition to any local charges filed in Orange County.

Chou was arrested Sunday and is being held in lieu of $1 million bail at the Orange County Intake Release Center, jail records show. He is scheduled to appear in court Tuesday.

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun said he was booked on one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder.

The shooting occurred Sunday at the Geneva Presbyterian Church. The congregants in attendance were members of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which has been holding services at Geneva for years.

The man killed in the shooting was identified Monday as John Cheng, 52, of Laguna Niguel. He leaves behind a wife and two children.

Five others — four men ages 66, 92, 82 and 75, and an 86-year-old woman — were shot and wounded. As of Monday afternoon, two of those individuals were hospitalized in good condition, with two others in stable condition, according to the Orange County Fire Authority. The status of the fifth victim was not immediately available.

Officials praised Cheng as a hero, saying his selfless actions gave other congregants the opportunity to subdue the shooter.

Cheng charged the suspect and attempted to disarm him, “which allowed other parishioners to then intercede,” Barnes said.

“He sacrificed himself so that others could live,” Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said.

Officials alleged that the suspect secured church doors with chains and tried to disable locks with superglue. He also attempted to nail at least one door shut, Barnes said. Bags containing magazines of ammunition, as well as four Molotov-cocktail-like incendiary devices, were found at the scene.

Barnes praised the actions of parishioners, saying the shooting “could have been much, much worse.”

“The majority of the people in attendance were elderly, and they acted spontaneously, heroically. And 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,” he said.

Louis M. Huang, director general at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles, said his office has reached out to family members of all victims.

Four of the five victims, including Cheng, held Taiwanese citizenship, Huang said. The remaining victim was born in the Philippines but spoke Taiwanese because of their heritage, Huang said.

Cheng came to the United States at a very early age. Other victims were senior citizens who mostly came to the U.S. to study three or four decades ago, Huang said.

Regarding the evidence recovered by law enforcement indicating the shooter was motivated by the political divide between China and Taiwan, Huang demurred, saying he was just hearing the information as well. But he strongly defended Taiwan as a free, democratic country.

“I want to call on anyone, anywhere ... any people in this country to respect the core values of freedom,” Huang said. “Freedom of speech is something that we have to respect, but we have to abide by the law.”

“Anyone sharing different views have to respect each other. Simply, that’s what democracy is all about,” he said. “People might hold different views ... but it doesn’t mean they have the right to attack anyone.”

The shooting occurred during a lunch in a hall after a worship service. The event was honoring Billy Chang, who had served as pastor for 21 years until leaving in 2020 to head a congregation in Taiwan.

The 100 or so members of Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, most of whom are senior citizens, worship in their native language — not Mandarin but Taiwanese, a dialect that was once suppressed by the Kuomintang regime.

In an account relayed by his son, Stanley, Billy Chang said he “was confused at first. At first he thought it was a balloon popping or a joke, that it was just meant to scare people. But after seeing that everyone had crouched down, he knew something was wrong.”

“He thought, ‘I have to do something,’ so while the gunman was not looking, he sneaked on the side of the room, grabbed a chair and was able to hit the gunman while he was reloading,” Stanley Chang wrote in a text message. “He’s not sure if the gun fell out of the shooter’s hand at that point or after the gunman lost his balance after being hit. My dad pinned him on the floor before asking for help restraining his arms and legs from other members.”

The gunman “didn’t say anything before he started shooting during the luncheon,” Stanley Chang added, “so there was a lot of confusion.”

Authorities said other members of the congregation tackled the suspect and hogtied him with an extension cord, a move officials think likely saved many lives.

Officials recovered two firearms at the scene. According to an official with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, both were 9 mm semi-automatic pistols purchased lawfully in Las Vegas in 2015 and 2017.

Shortly after Sunday’s attack, authorities reached out to the Metropolitan Police Department and federal agents in Las Vegas to help with the investigation. Investigators were searching Chou’s Las Vegas home Monday, according to law enforcement sources.

At Gate 7 to Laguna Woods Village on Monday, a handful of locals gathered, cellphones poised to videotape any comings and goings across the street at the church. People at the retirement community and their friends were abuzz about the tragedy.

Hannah Young posted some video online, wanting to share with family members curious about the latest headlines emerging from “quiet” Orange County.

“When we get visitors, they think it’s a calm area, beautiful green area and we have plenty of water on tap and in the ocean. You don’t expect peace to be disturbed like this — and with death,” the retired nursing assistant said.

She spent several hours on the phone before heading out for her usual walk, updating her circle on the latest news and logging into Taiwanese sites to soak up chatter.

“This is global now,” she said. “We have people calling us from China trying to figure out what happened.”

Caretaker Samuel Nganga was cleaning a coffee thermos in the kitchen Sunday afternoon when he heard what he thought were two gunshots.

A co-worker burst through the doorway yelling, “Sam, there’s a shooting, shooting, shooting!” and asked him for the church address to give to a 911 operator.

Nganga, a 10-year employee and Geneva church member, said he crawled outside on his hands and knees to avoid being spotted.

“The trauma,” he reflected. “You know when the shooting is next to you — there’s trauma.”

Four church members weaved through the kitchen, set apart from Simpson Hall where shots were fired, to escape, and Nganga remembers law enforcement rushing to the site “so quick.”

Afterward, he attended to churchgoers by passing out water and helping them to their seats. He described Geneva as “a place where we all know one another” and said while being scared, he’s eager to resume working.

Beneath a church sign promoting Sunday worship, small blooms emerged — a token from grieving residents. Irvine homemaker Ilene Feng stopped by Monday afternoon to add a bouquet of sunflowers to the mix.

“I was shocked, torn apart that this would touch our community, the Taiwanese community,” she said. “We want the church members to know we’re mourning with them.”

Atop the stems, one of Feng’s three daughters had written the words: “To our Taiwanese family: We love you.”

Feng, who has been scrolling through TV and newspaper websites to absorb the twists and turns of the shooting, said she talked to her own family about its implications. “We’ve been trying to teach our children about their heritage and to be proud of it. This is a time for standing together.”

His head bowed and hands clasped, “Diamond” Mike Watson stood at the edge of the church parking lot reflecting on the “countless years” he, his wife and daughters were Geneva members and how worship leaders created a youth ministry that gathered members for a weekly dinner.

Watson, owner of a Santa Ana diamond gallery, used to wash pots and pans after eating.

“I found it so ironic how this event revolves around a meal — similar to the fellowship meal we all enjoyed so often,” he said. “This was a chance to get to know one another.”

He bowed again, adding: “I see slices of life as a learning experience. I’m still trying to understand what the lesson from tragedy is here.”

Before Sunday’s service, members greeted the suspect — whom they had never seen before — and welcomed him. He told them he had attended services several times, but the members were doubtful because no one recognized him, churchgoer Jerry Chen said.

Chen, who was inside the church at the time of the shooting, said the suspect spoke to parishioners in Taiwanese.

Peggy Huang, a Yorba Linda City Council member whose parents belong to the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, said some members told her the man opened fire as churchgoers were taking photographs with the pastor.

She added that many church members had served in the Taiwanese military, which is required for young men.

The Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church started in 1994 in borrowed space in another church in its namesake city. It eventually moved to another borrowed space in a Tustin church before settling at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods in 2012.

On Sundays, the Taiwanese group worships at 10 a.m.; the Geneva group gathers separately at 10:30.

In a statement posted online, the pastor of Geneva Presbyterian Church — the Rev. Steven M. Marsh — asked community members to “please keep the leadership and congregation of ITPC in your prayers as they care for those traumatized by this shooting.”

“The Geneva Church family will support the ITPC congregation through this traumatic experience. We will listen to this community and follow their lead,” he wrote.

Michael Downing, a former deputy chief of counterterrorism and top national security expert, said that “churches and places of worship are such an open system. They are particularly hard to protect.”

“We do really want to see magnetometers outside churches,” he said.

Downing said suspects like the one in Orange County often reveal their intent in unintended ways prior to carrying out their plans, and that, “The best thing you can do is train your security people to recognize behavior.”

Places of worship need to beware “if there is intelligence or chat around social media” of a potential threat, he said.

Cynthia Conners, a Geneva church member and mayor pro tem of Laguna Woods, said about 150 people usually attend the Taiwanese Sunday service, often gathering afterward for lunch.

“We considered it really lucky that they came to us,” Conners said. “We have tried to be inclusive and share many activities.”

(Times staff writer Jeong Park contributed to this report.)

©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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