LAGUNA WOODS, Calif.
A gunman motivated by hatred against Taiwan chained the doors of a California church and hid firebombs before shooting into a gathering of mostly elderly Taiwanese parishioners, killing a man who tackled him, authorities said .
David Chou, 68, of Las Vegas – a US citizen who authorities say grew up in Taiwan – traveled to Orange County on Saturday and the next day attended a luncheon hosted by the church Presbyterian Irvine Taiwanese, who worships at the Geneva Presbyterian Church in the community of Bois de Lagune. Although he didn’t know anyone there, he spent about an hour mingling with about 40 attendees and then carried out his plot, authorities said at a news conference.
He chained the doors and put super glue in the locks. He had two 9mm handguns – bought legally years ago in Las Vegas – and three bags, containing among other things four Molotov cocktail-type incendiary devices and additional 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.
Cheng died and five people were injured, the oldest being 92 years old. Sheriff Don Barnes called Cheng’s heroism a “combination of good versus evil” that likely saved the lives “of more than dozens of people”.
Chou was arrested on suspicion of murder and attempted murder and jailed on $1 million bail. He was scheduled to appear in state court on Tuesday. It was not immediately clear if he had an attorney who could speak on his behalf. A federal hate crimes investigation is also underway.
Chou had worked as a security guard in Las Vegas, authorities said.
It was not immediately clear why Chou chose to target the church in Laguna Woods, a scenic coastal area populated mostly by retirees and near a large gated community.
Barnes said the motive for the shooting was Chou’s hatred of Taiwan, documented in handwritten notes found by authorities. Chou’s family was apparently among many forcibly deported from mainland China to Taiwan shortly after 1948, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said.
Relations between mainlanders forced to flee a communist takeover and ethnic Taiwanese were often strained as newcomers crowded into slums and military communities. Separated by language and lifestyle, bullying and confrontations were common as President Chiang Kai-shek severely curtailed civil liberties under nearly four decades of martial law.
The Presbyterian Church is the largest of the Christian denominations in Taiwan and has been closely identified with the pro-democracy movement during the martial law era and later with the cause of Taiwan independence.
Barnes called Chou an immigrant from China, but Taiwan’s Central News Agency said it interviewed Louis M. Huang, general manager of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles, and he confirmed that Chou was born in Taiwan in 1953.
Barnes said Chou acted alone and was “not believed to be associated with any specific church or religion, and there is no direct connection to the church or any member of the church to our knowledge”.
Balmore Orellana, a former neighbor, said Chou’s life fell apart after his wife left him last year. Before, Chou was a nice guy who owned the Las Vegas apartment building where he lived until he was evicted in February, Orellana told The Associated Press.
Records show the four-unit property sold last October for just over $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 suffered a head injury and other serious injuries in an attack by a tenant, the neighbor said. More recently his sanity has declined and last summer a gun was fired inside Chou’s apartment and the bullet entered Orellana’s apartment, although no one been injured, Orellana said.
Police reports of the assault and shooting were not immediately available Monday.
Tensions between China and Taiwan are at their highest in decades, with Beijing stepping up its military harassment by flying fighter jets to the self-governing island. China has not ruled out the force to reunite with Taiwan, which broke away from the mainland in a civil war in 1949.
Taiwan’s Chief Representative to the United States, Bi-khim Hsiao, offered his condolences to the families who fired on Twitter.
“I join the families of the victims and the grieving Taiwanese American communities and pray for the speedy recovery of the injured survivors,” Hsiao wrote on Sunday.
Chinese embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu told the AP by email that the Chinese government has “constantly condemned incidents of violence. We express our condolences to the victims and our sincere condolences to the bereaved families and the injured.
Among the gunshot wounds are an 86-year-old woman and four men, ages 66, 75, 82 and 92, the sheriff’s department said. Authorities said Monday that two of the injured were in good condition, two were in stable condition and the status of the fifth patient was undetermined.
Jerry Chen, a longtime member of the church, said a group of about 40 congregants gathered in the communion hall for lunch 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 returned to Taiwan two years ago. It was his first time returning to the United States, Chen said.
Everyone had just finished lunch and were taking pictures with Chang when Chen walked into the kitchen. It was then that he heard the gunshots.
Barnes said Cheng, a sports medicine doctor who is survived by a wife and two children, blamed the shooter and tried to disarm him, allowing others to intervene. Chang hit the shooter in the head with a chair before other parishioners overpowered him.
“I’ll tell you the evil was in that church,” said Spitzer, who added that Chou was “absolutely biased” against Taiwan and its people.
The shooting came a day after an 18-year-old man shot and killed 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, in a racist rampage where the white shooter allegedly targeted a supermarket in a predominantly black neighborhood.
Associated Press reporters John Antczak in Los Angeles, Ken Ritter in Las Vegas and Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this story. News researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed from New York.
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