LAGUNA WOODS, Calif. – Members of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, who gathered to celebrate a beloved former pastor and snapped photos of their Sunday lunch at church, initially failed to notice the 68-year-old stranger in their midst.
The man assured a receptionist that he had been there before. But only later, when he opened fire with one of his two semi-automatic pistols, did the churchgoers, mostly pensioners, take notice. Only then, scattered with horror, did they discover that the doors to the multipurpose room on the campus in suburban Southern California where they met were locked with chains, nails, and superglue.
On Monday, a day after the attack that killed one person and wounded five others, authorities announced murder and attempted murder charges against David Chou, a Las Vegas man with his wife and child in Taiwan, who is dealing with a complaint Traveled to Orange County was Taiwanese. At a news conference, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes called the mass shooting a “politically motivated hate incident.”
The shooting, the second nationwide in two days to be classified as a hate crime, came as Buffalo authorities were investigating a massacre at a supermarket that killed 10 people; The suspect in New York, a white teenager who live-streamed the attack, is accused of driving across the state to kill black people.
Sheriff Barnes said Mr. Chou appeared to have acted alone and set an elaborate trap, although it was not clear why he targeted this remote church. He said investigators found notes in Mr. Chou’s car parked in front of the church that were evidence of his “hatred of the Taiwanese people.”
A small congregation that never had its own building, Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church is primarily a congregation of elderly Christian immigrants who pray weekly in Taiwanese, their native language. They meet on Sundays on the campus of the larger Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, a suburb dominated by a gated community for residents 55 and older.
The sheriff said Mr. Chou, who immigrated to the United States and is an American citizen, lived alone in a rented room and appeared to have no ties to the community.
Authorities said the shooting broke out around 1:26 p.m. local time on Sunday. Parishioners said they celebrated the return of a former pastor, Rev. Billy Chang, from Taiwan with a luncheon and gathered in the church’s multipurpose room after the morning service.
Most of the victims were from Taiwan and were between the ages of 66 and 92, Sheriff Barnes said. Four were seriously injured but their condition improved on Monday, authorities said. The FBI said it had launched a federal hate crime investigation over the shooting.
Authorities and witnesses said a church member charged the shooter with what appeared to be indiscriminate shooting with two firearms he legally purchased.
John Cheng, 52, of Laguna Niguel, a sports doctor and co-founder of nearby South Coast Medical Group, was shot after attacking the gunman and trying to disarm him, Sheriff Barnes said. Mr. Cheng’s intervention, he added, allowed the visiting pastor – who had led the service that day – to throw a chair at the gunman while others helped restrain him, confiscated two guns and tied him in hogties with extension cords.
“Many, many more lives would have been lost without their quick action, the way that person created this environment to kill more people,” the sheriff said.
Johnna Gherardini, the medical center’s executive director, said that Dr. Cheng, who was not a church member, picked up his mother from her home in the village of Laguna Woods on Sunday and took her to church. Raised in Texas, the doctor was not religious and did not hold strong political views about China, but was there in solidarity with his mother, who was grieving the recent death of his father, she said.
dr Cheng, who is survived by his wife and two teenage children, was also an accomplished martial arts instructor.
“He was there for a reason,” Ms Gherardini said.
The gunman secured the church doors with chains and attempted to disable the locks with glue, Sheriff Barnes said, adding that he also attempted to nail one of the building’s doors shut. Bags full of ammunition magazines and several incendiary devices were found on the church grounds, the sheriff said.
The sheriff said Mr. Chou lived in the United States for many years but also lived in Taiwan at one point. “I think his hatred of Taiwan showed up when he lived there in earlier years, possibly in his youth,” Sheriff Barnes said. “He wasn’t well received living there from what we’ve gathered so far.”
It is not clear when Chou lived in Taiwan. About 70 years ago, during the Chinese civil war against the communists, about a million Chinese retreated there with the nationalists. They encountered islanders who had lived there for centuries, many of whom spoke a different dialect. In recent decades, some mainland Chinese have also moved to Taiwan to work and study.
The sheriff also referred to “current tensions between China and Taiwan.” Beijing has long claimed Taiwan, a self-governing democratic island, as its own territory and has threatened to absorb it by force if it deems necessary.
But Sam Huang, a member of the Taiwanese community in Laguna Woods, said the well-established Chinese and Taiwanese communities in the diverse area showed few tensions. He is a member of the congregation but did not attend church on Sunday.
“We usually try to be friendly,” Mr. Huang said, adding that he occasionally plays table tennis or joins other Chinese residents in line dancing at the community center. He added, “Nobody says you’re Chinese and I’m Taiwanese, so we’re not going to play with you.”
Wei-Ming Tao, 67, a retiree living in Laguna Woods, confirmed that people in the community generally tried to stay away from any politics in conversations. But she added that the confluence of the coronavirus, the rise in racist acts against people of Asian descent and Russia’s war in Ukraine have created a smoldering environment that is inescapable even in an ordinary peaceful haven.
“We don’t need that kind of political agenda,” Ms. Tao said. “The hate crimes – we’ve had enough, we don’t need any more.”
In a series of text messages Sunday, Rev. Albany Lee, the church’s current pastor, said the congregation told him that Mr. Chang and several other men pinned the gunman to the ground “before he loaded another round of bullets, Thank God .”
The shooting was another reminder that religious sanctuaries are not immune to gun violence, which has occurred in virtually every public space from grocery stores to schools. Just 70 miles southeast of Laguna Woods in 2019, a man killed a woman and injured three people at a synagogue in Poway in a shooting incident that was a hate crime.
The sheriff, meanwhile, called the shooting an example of “the ugliest part” of the division that was raging across the country. “At some point, we have to put our differences aside,” he said, “and focus on our humanity.”
Christopher Mele, Vimal Patel and Amy ChangChien contributed reporting.