Months before police say he opened fire inside a Laguna Woods church, killing a parishioner and wounding five others in what authorities have called a politically motivated attack, David Wenwei Chou’s life in Las Vegas was unraveling.
His wife had returned to Taiwan in December, to seek treatment for cancer but also to leave Chou in the midst of a divorce, according to their next-door neighbor, Balmore Orellana.
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. They lived in a unit on the ground floor, Orellana said.
He described Chou as a considerate landlord: He never raised the rent in the five years that Orellana and his family lived there, and when the COVID-19 pandemic swept into Las Vegas, Chou often asked if they needed a break with the rent. He tended a small garden on the side of the building, and he’d regularly bring fruit, vegetables and cookies for Orellana’s family.
But he was “verbally aggressive” toward his wife, Orellana said, and he’d hear Chou yelling through the walls. By the time she left for Taiwan, diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, “you could tell she was just tired of him.” With her gone, “he took it pretty hard,” Orellana said.
Orange County Sheriff’s officials said Chou’s wife is living in Taiwan. Records of their divorce weren’t immediately available.
Chou told Orellana he was born in Taiwan but considered himself Chinese. He believed China and Taiwan were one country, Orellana said.
“To him, there’s no border,” he added.
At 10 a.m. on Sunday, Chou showed up to an Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church service in Laguna Woods, police say. After reading a Chinese-language newspaper in the back of the church for several hours, he chained its doors shut and tried to jam the locks with glue, then opened fire with a handgun, according to authorities and an account by churchgoers.
Chou killed Dr. John Cheng, 52, who had tried to stop him, and wounded five others before the pastor and several congregants managed to subdue him and hogtie him with an extension cord, authorities say. Inside the church investigators found two handguns, purchased legally in Nevada, and several improvised incendiary devices.
Chou is being held in an Orange County jail, scheduled to appear in court Tuesday.
Authorities said they have found notes in Chou’s car stating his belief that Taiwan should not be independent from China. The FBI is investigating the attack as a hate crime.
Authorities have offered differing accounts of Chou’s background: Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said he was born in mainland China and at some point relocated to Taiwan, but an official from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles said Chou was born in Taiwan, holds a Taiwanese passport and completed compulsory military service there.
Chou worked as a journalist in Taiwan before coming to the United States, Orellana said. In his adopted country, he said, he served in the Marines and was “very proud” of it, Orellana said, recalling how Chou draped some 20 American flags throughout his property.
Chou and his wife sold the building around the time she left for Taiwan, Orellana said. After the sale, Chou complained to him that the new owners — a group of investors from California — set the monthly rent on the two-bedroom apartment where Chou had lived for the last decade at $1,400. Unable to afford it, he applied for government assistance, Orellana said, but was unsuccessful.
This, he said, seemed to anger Chou, who believed he was too old to find the type of work upon which he could support himself. He was also frustrated that, at 68, the government wouldn’t provide him housing or an income, Orellana said.
By then Chou was living solely on Social Security and intermittent work as a security guard, Orellana said. He worked for a company that provided security at the Sands and Venetian casinos, according to Orellana; public records show he was employed by various security firms and licensed to carry a firearm. Chou was lucky to get a job once a week, Orellana said.
“Sometimes they wouldn’t call him for three months,” he added.
Orellana recalled Chou saying he’d asked several churches in the Las Vegas area if they had some place for him to stay, but he was rejected by all of them. He seemed embittered by this, Orellana said.
In February, Chou was evicted from the apartment building he had once owned, Orellana said. He helped Chou carry trash out of his unit to the dumpster. It was the last time he’d see him.
“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.’”
Orellana said the tenants who moved into Chou’s old unit found “horrible pictures” that he’d left behind: photographs of Chou posing with a gun, including one that appeared to have been taken at a memorial to a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas. The image, as described by the tenants, showed Chou with a gun and an expression as if he were “laughing hysterically,” Orellana said. The tenants threw the photographs away, he said.
In hindsight, Orellana believed that Chou showed signs of mental instability. Chou described to him an incident that he said deeply affected his physical and mental well-being: About six years ago, Chou was managing a different apartment complex when he told a tenant who was three months behind on rent to move out. Instead, the tenant beat Chou, fracturing his skull and breaking his arm.
Chou still has the scars, according to Orellana.
“He said, ‘My body is getting worse, my back is getting worse.’”
The beating also left Chou with serious anxiety, he said.
About a month after Chou was evicted, Orellana said he heard from neighbors that he was spotted “lingering around” his former property and had been caught breaking into his old mailbox.
Orellana did not know what, if any, connection Chou had to California.
He arrived at the church around 10 a.m. and lurked around for two hours before the shooting, according to an account released by the church. After the luncheon for the former pastor, attended by about 140 people, some parishioners witnessed Chou locking the doors with chains and assumed he was a security guard, according to the account.
One church member saw Chou seal two exit doors shut using a hammer and nails.
Then, the account says, he opened fire.