As the US was rocked by deadly gun violence over the weekend, a shooting at an Orange county church on Sunday left southern California reeling when a gunman motivated by hate for Taiwanese people fired on congregants who managed to put a stop to the bloodshed.
Authorities on Monday identified the suspect, who is accused of killing one person and wounding five others at the Geneva Presbyterian church, as David Chou of Las Vegas. The Orange county sheriff’s department booked the 68-year-old on a felony count of murder and five felony counts of attempted murder.
The violence in Irvine, about 50 miles south-east of Los Angeles, unfolded amid a weekend of horrific gun violence across America, including in Buffalo where an 18-year-old white supremacist killed 10 people at a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood. In Los Angeles, a man died in a shooting at Grand Central Market on Saturday. Some of the patrons had been discussing the shooting in New York when the shots started and forced them to flee for cover.
More people could have died in the Laguna Woods church shooting on Saturday were it not for churchgoers, authorities said. The shooter opened fire during a lunch banquet at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian church, which worships at Geneva Presbyterian, but was stopped when a pastor hit him on the head with a chair and parishioners used electrical cords to restrain him until police arrived.
John Cheng, 52, was killed in the shooting, authorities said at a Monday news conference.
Don Barnes, the Orange county sheriff, said the motive of the shooting was a grievance between the shooter, identified as a Chinese immigrant, and the Taiwanese community. China claims Taiwan is a part of its national territory and has not ruled out force to bring the island under its rule.
Barnes said Chou drove to the Orange County church, where he was not a regular attendee, secured the doors and started shooting. He had also placed four molotov cocktail-like devices inside the church, the sheriff said. Chou lawfully purchased the two 9mm pistols used in the shooting in Las Vegas, said Stephen Galloway, ATF Los Angeles assistant special agent in charge.
Barnes said Cheng, survived by a wife and two children, heroically charged at the shooter and attempted to disarm him, allowing others to intervene. A pastor hit the gunman on the head with a chair and parishioners hog-tied him with electrical cords. But Barnes said Cheng was hit by gunshots.
“Understanding that there was elderly everywhere and they couldn’t get out of the premises because the doors had been chained … he took it upon himself to charge across the room and to do everything he could to disable the assailant,” said Todd Spitzer, Orange county district attorney.
Jerry Chen, 72, a longtime member of the church, said he had just stepped into a church kitchen when he heard gunshots and people began screaming. Peeking around the corner, he saw people running and hiding under tables.
“I knew someone was shooting,” he said. “I was very, very scared. I ran out the kitchen door to call 911.” Chen said he was so shocked that he couldn’t tell the operator the church’s location and had to ask someone else for the address.
About 40 people had gathered in the fellowship hall for a luncheon after a morning service to welcome their former Pastor Billy Chang, Chen said, who worked at the church for 20 years. Chang, a beloved and respected community member, moved back to Taiwan two years ago, Chen said, adding that this was his first time back in the US.
“Everyone had just finished lunch,” he said. “They were taking photos with Pastor Chang. I had just finished my lunch and went into the kitchen.”
Then he heard the gunshots and ran out to the parking lot. Fellow congregants told Chen that when the gunman stopped to reload, Pastor Chang hit him on the head with a chair. Others quickly went to grab the shooter’s gun, and subdued him and tied him up, Chen said.
“It was amazing how brave (Chang) and the others were,” he said. “This is just so sad. I never, ever thought something like this would happen in my church, in my community.”
Most of the church’s members are older, highly educated Taiwanese immigrants, Chen said. “We’re mostly retirees and the average age of our church is 80,” he said.
All of those wounded in the shooting were senior citizens and four of them suffered critical gunshot injuries. Those wounded by gunshots included four Asian men, ages 66, 75, 82 and 92, and an 86-year-old Asian woman, the sheriff’s department said. The majority of those inside the church at the time were believed to be of Taiwanese descent, said Carrie Braun, a sheriff’s spokesperson.
Laguna Woods, where the shooting occurred, was built as a senior living community and later became a city. More than 80% of residents in the city of 18,000 people are at least 65.
The shooting took place in an area with a cluster of houses of worship, including Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist churches and a Jewish synagogue.
The sheriff’s office has said the investigation was in its early stages, and that investigators are looking into he was known to church members and how many shots were fired.
The afternoon lunch reception was to honor a former pastor of the Taiwanese congregation, according to a statement from the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, a church administrative body.
“Please keep the leadership of the Taiwanese congregation and Geneva in your prayers as they care for the those traumatized by this shooting,” the presbytery’s Tom Cramer said in a statement on Facebook.
On its website, Geneva Presbyterian Church says its mission is “to remember, tell, and live the way of Jesus by being just, kind, and humble”.
“All are welcome here. Really, we mean that! Geneva aspires to be an inclusive congregation worshipping, learning, connecting, giving and serving together.”
The governor’s office said on Twitter that he was closely monitoring the situation.
“No one should have to fear going to their place of worship. Our thoughts are with the victims, community, and all those impacted by this tragic event,” the tweet said.
The US has seen multiple shootings inside houses of worship in recent years. The deadliest incident was in 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where a gunman opened fire during a Sunday service at First Baptist Church and killed more than two dozen people.
In 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof fired dozens of bullets during the closing prayer of a Bible study session at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina. Roof killed nine members of the Black congregation and was the first person in the US sentenced to death for a federal hate crime. His appeal remains before the supreme court.