Laguna Woods church shooting suspect charged with murder

The Orange County district attorney on Tuesday filed a murder charge that could carry the death penalty against a man accused of fatally shooting one man and wounding five other people at a Taiwanese church in what authorities have characterized as an apparent political hate crime.

David Wenwei Chou, 68, of Las Vegas, is accused of shooting six people at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which rents space at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods.

One of the victims — John Cheng, a 52-year-old doctor — died from his wounds. Five others, ranging in age from 66 to 92, were taken to hospitals.

In addition to the murder charge, Chou faces five counts of attempted murder as well as murder with the special circumstance of the use of a gun and lying in wait, Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer said. The special circumstances enhancement means that if convicted, Chou would face life in prison without parole or the death penalty.

Chou was also charged with four counts of possession of destructive devices with intention to kill or harm.

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes on Monday characterized the shooting as a “politically motivated hate incident,” and said authorities think Chou “specifically targeted the Taiwanese community.”

The FBI has also opened a federal hate crime investigation into the shooting.

Prosecutors have not yet filed a hate crime sentencing enhancement in the case, but Spitzer said his team is working with the FBI to probe that evidence.

“While there’s very strong evidence right now that this was motivated by hate, we want to make sure that we have put together all the evidence that confirms that theory,” Spitzer told reporters during a briefing Tuesday.

Barnes said Chou left notes in Chinese in his car stating he did not believe Taiwan should be independent from China, and apparently had an issue with Taiwanese people because of the way he was treated while living there.

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has grown increasingly aggressive about reclaiming the democratic, self-ruled island. Within Taiwan, a majority of people favor maintaining the status quo, with some wanting to openly declaring independence and a small minority wanting to someday unify with China.

Accounts of Chou’s background differ. Barnes said he was born in mainland China and relocated to Taiwan at some point before moving to the United States. But an official from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles — Taiwan’s de facto embassy, since the island is not officially recognized by the U.S. and most other countries — said Chou was born in Taiwan.

In the months leading up to the shooting, Chou also dealt with upheaval in his personal life. His wife had returned to Taiwan in December, to seek treatment for cancer but also to leave him in the midst of a divorce — according to Balmore Orellana, their former neighbor in Las Vegas.

Chou and his wife owned the building they lived in, one of about a dozen shabby stucco four-plexes that line a cul-de-sac about a mile west of the Las Vegas Strip. The pair sold the building around the time she left for Taiwan, Orellana said, and Chou later complained to him that the new owners raised the rent to an unaffordable level.

Orellana said Chou was evicted from the building in February. The last time Orellana saw Chou was when he helped him carry trash out of his unit to the dumpster.

“He was just a homeless old man,” Orellana recalled. While Chou didn’t voice thoughts of suicide explicitly, Orellana said: “He told me, ‘I just don’t care about my life anymore.’ ”

According to Orellana, Chou said he was born in Taiwan but considered himself Chinese and believed China and Taiwan were one country.

In a letter released Monday, the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church alleged Chou arrived at the church around 10 a.m. Sunday, before the morning service. He was wearing a black shirt that some parishioners believed said “Security,” the church said. Chou worked intermittently as a security guard in Las Vegas, according to Orellana.

He apparently stayed in the church area until the early afternoon, when he emerged at a banquet hall where the church was honoring longtime Pastor Billy Chang, who had just returned after two years in Taiwan. After the lunch, some churchgoers ran into Chou, whom they saw “applying iron chains to start locking the doors shut,” the church said in the letter.

Other church members saw him hammering shut two other doors with nails, the letter said. Authorities also allege the suspect tried to disable locks with superglue.

The church said Chou then fired a shot into the air; some in the room assumed the sound was balloons popping.

“Dr. John Cheng saw Chou with the gun and immediately took action to try to stop him. Chou shot Dr. Cheng dead with three bullets. Some church members then fell to the floor,” the church said.

Cheng’s actions have widely been praised as heroic — with officials saying his intervention gave other parishioners the opportunity to subdue the suspect.

“Without the actions of Dr. Cheng, it is no doubt that there would be numerous additional victims in this crime,” Barnes said.

After Cheng attempted to stop the gunman, Chang, the former pastor, ran up to him with a chair as his weapon.

“He got scared. I don’t think he expected someone to attack him,” Chang said in an interview with The Times.

Chang said he pushed the gunman to the floor, after which he and other parishioners hogtied him with an electric cord, according to officials and eyewitness accounts.

Bags containing additional ammunition, as well as four Molotov cocktail-like incendiary devices, were found at the scene, authorities said.

Times staff writers Gregory Yee, Jeong Park, Anh Do, Hailey Branson-Potts and Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.

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