LAGUNA Woods, CA (May 16, 2022)—The suspect in the Laguna Woods church shooting Sunday appeared to have been motivated by political hatred directed at the Taiwanese community, Orange County Sheriff’s officials said Monday.
While investigators provided few details, they said what they’ve found so far suggests the deadly attack was a “politically motivated hate incident.”
“Evidence was collected linking him to this crime based on preliminary information in the investigation, it is believed the suspect involved was upset about political tensions between China and Taiwan,” Sheriff Don Barnes said.
The FBI has opened a federal hate crime investigation into the shooting, according to Kristi Johnson, an assistant director with the bureau. That would be supplementary to any local charges filed in Orange County.
Officials have identified the suspect as David Wenwei Chou, 68, of Las Vegas.
Chou was arrested Sunday and is being held in lieu of $1-million bail at the Orange County Intake Release Center, jail records show. His initial court appearance is scheduled for 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 10 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.
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 others could live,” Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer said.
Officials alleged that the suspect secured church doors with chains and tried to disable locks with superglue. The suspect also attempted to nail at least one door shut, according to Barnes. Bags containing magazines of ammunition, as well as several 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 and 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,” 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 citizenships, 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 suspect 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.”
Investigators were searching Chou’s Las Vegas home Monday morning, according to law enforcement sources. Shortly after Sunday’s attack, authorities reached out to the Metropolitan Police Department and federal agents in Las Vegas to help with the investigation.
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, reeling off questions: Why was the suspect speaking Taiwanese? Why would he bounce from Vegas to Orange County, and for what reason? What other groups worship at this place?
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 yesterday, he’s eager to resume working.
The shooting occurred during a lunch in a hall after the 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. He had returned to the church in Laguna Woods on Sunday for the luncheon in his honor.
Before the 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.
The son of a churchgoer said his mother was leaving the luncheon early to go to a friend’s house, when she saw a few exits locked from the outside. As she left she saw a man chaining the last door, the son recalled his mother telling him.
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.
Chen, 72, was in a nearby kitchen just before 1:30 p.m. Sunday when he heard the shots.
The pastor hit the suspect with a chair when he paused to reload his weapon, Chen said, and other members of the congregation tackled him.
Authorities said they hogtied him with an extension cord, a move officials think likely saved many lives.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department recovered two handguns from the scene, officials said. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said the weapons recovered at the scene are commercially available. The exact types were not released.
The injured — four men ages 66, 92, 82 and 75, and an 86-year-old woman — were all Asian, officials said. All five were shot, and four sustained critical injuries.
The shooting came less than a day after a racist massacre in Buffalo that left 10 dead. Orange County authorities said it’s too early to determine whether hate was a motive in this attack.
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.”
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.
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 writers Jeong Park and Andrew J. Campa contributed to this report.