A 68-year-old Chinese immigrant accused of opening fire on a Taiwanese congregation inside a Laguna Woods church, killing one person and injuring five others in an attack allegedly motivated by hatred for Taiwan, was charged Tuesday with capital murder and nine other felonies.
David Wenwei Chou, of Las Vegas, made a brief appearance in court Tuesday afternoon on the charges stemming from the shooting, which occurred around 1:25 p.m. Sunday at the Geneva Presbyterian Church, 24301 El Toro Road. Chou’s arraignment, however, was delayed until June 10.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said Chou was charged with 10 counts, most notably murder for the killing of Dr. John Cheng, who authorities said was killed when he charged the gunman and attempted to disarm him — likely saving the lives of countless others inside the church at the time.
The murder charge includes a special circumstance allegation of lying in wait, which opens Chou to a possible death sentence or, in the alternative, life in prison without the possibility of parole. Spitzer noted that Chou “did everything he could to fit in” as he mingled with parishioners before pulling out a pair of semi-automatic handguns and firing into the crowd during a post-services luncheon to honor a visiting pastor.
“This case is about a person concealing themselves in plain view,” Spitzer said.
The murder charge also includes a sentencing enhancement of personal use of a firearm. Spitzer said “these are very, very serious charges,” so his office will conduct a thorough review of the case before deciding whether to seek the death penalty.
Chou was also charged with five counts of attempted murder for the other parishioners who were injured in the shooting, with sentencing enhancements for premeditation and deliberation, which also open him up to life sentences. He was also charged with four felony counts of possession of an explosive device. Sheriff’s officials said Chou was carrying a incendiary devices similar to Molotov cocktails.
Spitzer said earlier he believes that Chou intended to kill everyone inside the church, then burn the building to the ground.
In announcing the charges, Spitzer highlighted the special circumstance allegation and sentencing enhancements, saying, “We still file enhancements in Orange County.” The comment was a veiled dig at Los Angeles County District Attorney George GascÃ³n, who has eschewed the filing of special circumstance and other enhancements.
Investigators suspect Chou drove from Las Vegas and arrived in Southern California on Saturday before going to the church sometime Sunday morning. He is accused of walking into the church during the luncheon by the Taiwanese congregation, barricading multiple doors so those inside could not escape, then initially mingling with parishioners before opening fire.
Chou allegedly chained some doors, tried to nail one shut and put super glue in the locks of others, all while the congregants were eating lunch, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said. In addition to the incendiary devices, Chou was also carrying additional ammunition, the sheriff said.
Barnes said Cheng, 52, a physician with South Bay Medical Group in Aliso Viejo, was “a hero in this incident,” hailing him for rushing the gunman, essentially sacrificing his life while buying time for other parishioners to descend on the suspect. The pastor struck the gunman with a chair, and other parishioners held him down and hog-tied him with electrical cords, authorities said.
“Without the actions of Dr. Cheng, there is no doubt there would be additional victims in this crime,” Barnes said.
Spitzer said it appears that after Chou shot Cheng, his gun jammed, giving congregants more time to subdue the suspect.
Barnes said investigators have determined the shooting was an isolated incident carried out solely by Chou, and the shooting was a “politically motivated hate incident.” Barnes said the suspect “was upset about political tensions between China and Taiwan.”
Investigators found a note in Chou’s car in the church parking lot that indicated his animosity toward Taiwan. Spitzer said it appears Chou’s family was forced to move from China to Taiwan and that Chou complained he was treated poorly as an outsider over the years. Investigators have multiple translators going over the note to interpret it correctly, Spitzer said.
Investigators were still working to determine why Chou, who was a licensed security guard in Nevada, chose the Orange County congregation to target, since he had no known ties to anyone connected with it. Barnes said there is no similar congregation in Las Vegas and the one in Orange County may have been the closest one for the suspect.
In addition to Cheng, five other people were shot:
— a 66-year-old man;
— a 92-year-old man;
— an 82-year-old man;
— a 75-year-old man;
— and an 86-year-old woman.
None of their names have been released. Two of the victims have been upgraded to good condition and two others were also expected to survive, authorities said Monday. The condition of the fifth one was not immediately available.
According to the South Coast Medical Group website, Cheng was certified in family and sports medicine, the son of a physician and an “accomplished martial arts instructor.” He grew up in Texas, studied at Texas Tech School of Medicine and did his residency at UCLA.
Spitzer said a Mass in honor of Cheng would be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
Federal officials said Monday that Chou legally purchased his two weapons in Las Vegas, one in 2015 and the other in 2017. Barnes said the magazines the gunman brought with him in one of two bags were legally obtained in Nevada.
In addition to the state charges, the FBI has also opened a hate crime investigation, meaning he could potentially face federal counts.
Spitzer said he wants to work collaboratively with federal investigators, and his office could file further hate crime charges without affecting any federal complaint. But Spitzer said he wanted to see more evidence before making a decision on hate crime charges.
“While there’s very strong evidence he was motivated by hate we want to make sure we put together all the evidence first,” Spitzer said.
“This is a case I’m definitely looking at for death,” Spitzer said. “I’m not prejudging it and I’m going to keep an open mind. … It will be deliberative and won’t be rushed.”
Spitzer said Chou’s wife is terminally ill and lives with one of their two sons in Taiwan. Another son lives elsewhere in the United States.
Spitzer said it’s possible Chou “didn’t care what happened to him because she was terminally ill.”