A gunman motivated by hatred against Taiwan chained shut the doors of a California church and hid firebombs before shooting at a gathering of mostly elderly Taiwanese parishioners, killing a man who tackled him, authorities said.
David Chou, 68, of Las Vegas, a US citizen who authorities say grew up in Taiwan, drove to Orange county on Saturday and the next day attended a lunch held by Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian church, which worships at Geneva Presbyterian church in the community of Laguna Woods.
Though he knew no one there, he spent about an hour mingling with about 40 attendees and then executed his plot, authorities said at a news conference.
Chou chained the doors and put super glue in the keyholes, according to authorities. He had two 9mm handguns – legally purchased years ago in Las Vegas – and three bags, containing among other things four molotov cocktail-type incendiary devices and extra ammunition. He opened fire and in the ensuing chaos Dr John Cheng, 52, tackled him, allowing other parishioners to subdue him and tie him up with extension cords.
Cheng died and five people were wounded, the oldest 92. Sheriff Don Barnes called Cheng’s heroism “a meeting of good versus evil” that probably saved the lives “of upwards of dozens of people”.
Prosecutors on Tuesday charged Chou with one count of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder.
Todd Spitzer, the Orange county district attorney, also announced that Chou faces an enhancement for “lying in wait” as well as four counts of possessing destructive devices with intent to kill or harm. Chou’s arraignment is expected later Tuesday.
“We typically think of the person who hides in the bushes,” Spitzer said. “This case is about the person concealing themselves in plain view.”
It was not immediately clear whether Chou had an attorney who could speak on his behalf. A federal hate crimes investigation is also ongoing.
If convicted as charged and a jury finds the enhancements to be true, Chou would face a sentence of either life in prison without possibility of parole or the death penalty, Spitzer said.
Chou had worked as a security guard in Las Vegas, authorities said.
There was no immediate word on why Chou chose to target the church in Laguna Woods, a scenic coastal area about 50 miles south-east of Los Angeles whose population mainly consists of retirees and is near a large gated community.
Barnes said the motive for the shooting was Chou’s hatred toward Taiwan that was documented in handwritten notes that authorities found. Chou’s family apparently was among many forcibly removed from mainland China to Taiwan some time after 1948, Spitzer said earlier this week.
Relations between mainlanders forced to flee a communist takeover and native Taiwanese were frequently tense as the new arrivals crowded into slums and military communities. Separated by language and lifestyle, bullying and confrontation were frequent as President Chiang Kai-shek tightly restricted civil liberties under nearly four decades of martial law.
The Presbyterian church is the most prominent of the Christian denominations in Taiwan and was closely identified with the pro-democracy movement during the martial law era and later with the Taiwan independence cause.
Barnes referred to Chou as an immigrant from China but Taiwan’s Central News Agency says it interviewed Louis M Huang, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles, and he confirmed that Chou was born in Taiwan in 1953. Taiwanese media also said Chou had ties to an organization opposed to Taiwan’s independence from China.
Barnes said Chou acted alone and was “not believed to be associated with any specific church or any religion, and there’s no direct connection to the church or any member of the church that we’re aware of”.
Balmore Orellana, a former neighbor, said Chou’s life unraveled after his wife left him last year and moved to Taiwan. Before, Chou had been a pleasant man who used to own the Las Vegas apartment building where he lived until February, Orellana told the Associated Press.
Chou also received a head injury and other serious injuries in an attack by a tenant, the neighbor said. Last summer, a gun was fired inside Chou’s apartment and the bullet entered Orellana’s apartment, although nobody was hurt, Orellana said.
Police reports about the assault and the shooting were not immediately available on Monday.
Tensions between China and Taiwan are at the highest in decades, with Beijing stepping up its military harassment by flying fighter jets toward the self-governing island. China has not ruled out force to reunify with Taiwan, which split from the mainland during a civil war in 1949.
Taiwan’s president has condemned the deadly shooting. Taiwan’s chief representative in the US, Bi-khim Hsiao, offered condolences on Twitter.
“I join the families of the victims and Taiwanese American communities in grief and pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded survivors,” Hsiao wrote on Sunday.
A Chinese embassy spokesperson, Liu Pengyu, told the AP via email that the Chinese government has “consistently condemned incidents of violence. We express our condolences to the victims and sincere sympathy to the bereaved families and the injured.”
Those wounded by gunshots included an 86-year-old woman as well as four men, ages 66, 75, 82 and 92, the sheriff’s department said. Authorities on Monday said two of the wounded were in good condition, two were in stable condition and the status of the fifth patient was undetermined.
Jerry Chen, a longtime member of the church, said about 40 congregants had gathered in the fellowship hall for a luncheon after a morning service to welcome their former Pastor Billy Chang, a beloved and respected community member who had served the church for 20 years. Chang moved back to Taiwan two years ago. This was his first time back stateside, Chen said.
Barnes said Cheng, a sports medicine doctor who is survived by a wife and two children, charged at the shooter and attempted to disarm him, allowing others to intervene. Chang hit the gunman on the head with a chair before other parishioners subdued him.