EDITOR'S NOTE: Multimedia journalist Jada Montemarano spoke with Clay Jones, a patient at South Coast Medical Group, about Dr. John Cheng who was killed in the mass shooting and was his physician. Click the arrow above to watch the video.
SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Prosecutors have charged the suspect in the California church shooting with one count of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer also announced Tuesday that David Chou, 68, of Las Vegas faces an enhancement for “lying in wait,” as well as four counts of possessing destructive devices with intent to kill or harm. 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.”
Authorities have said Chou — a U.S. citizen whom authorities say grew up in Taiwan — was motivated by hatred of Taiwanese people. 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.
“While there’s very strong evidence right now that this was motivated by hate, we want to make sure we have put together all the evidence that confirms that theory in the case,” Spitzer said, when asked whether he would be filing charge of a hate crime.
Chou is accused of opening fire during a Sunday luncheon for members of Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which worships at Geneva Presbyterian Church in the community of Laguna Woods.
Chou drove to Orange County on Saturday and the next day attended the lunch. 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.
He chained the doors and put super glue in the keyholes, authorities said. He had two 9 mm 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, authorities said.
Cheng died and five people were wounded, including 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.
Sheriff Don Barnes called Cheng’s heroism “a meeting of good versus evil” that probably saved the lives “of upwards of dozens of people.”
Investigators are trying to determine if the church in Laguna Woods, a scenic coastal area whose population mainly consists of retirees and is near a large gated community, was a random target, Spitzer said.
“That population in general created a vulnerable environment for him to carry out what I think was his ultimate goal, which was to execute in cold blood as many people in that room as possible,” he said.
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.
Barnes said 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 sometime after 1948, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said.
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.
Chou had ties to an organization opposed to Taiwan’s independence from China, according to Taiwanese media.
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 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.”
Taiwan’s chief representative in the U.S., 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.
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.”
Jerry Chen, a longtime member of the church, said a group of 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.
Everyone had just finished lunch and were taking photos with Chang when Chen went into the kitchen. That’s when he heard the gunshots.
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.
Balmore Orellana, a former neighbor, said Chou’s life unraveled after his wife left him last year. Spitzer said the suspect’s wife is terminally ill and in Taiwan. He could not say whether she was alive or had passed.
Before, Chou had been a pleasant man who used to own the Las Vegas apartment building where he lived until being evicted in February, Orellana told The Associated Press.
Records showed the four-unit property was sold last October for a little more than $500,000. Orellana said Chou’s wife used the money from the sale to move to Taiwan.
Before Orellana moved in about five years ago, Chou received a head injury and other serious injuries in an attack by a tenant, the neighbor said. More recently his mental health declined and last summer a gun was fired inside Chou’s apartment and the bullet entered Orellana’s apartment, although nobody was hurt, Orellana said.
The shooting came a day after an 18-year-old man shot and killed 10 people in Buffalo, New York, in a racist rampage where the white gunman allegedly targeted a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood.