While the suspect in the Laguna Woods church shooting has been charged with multiple felony counts, some key mysteries remain about the attack on a Taiwanese church that left one dead and five wounded.
The attack has left the south Orange County suburb reeling and has also become an international incident because investigators believe the suspect — David Wenwei Chou — was motivated by hatred of Taiwan. The democratic government is in a long conflict with the Communist mainland China.
“We all are praying,” said Leslie Wilson, a member of the Laguna Woods Christian Women’s Connection. “Praying for answers as well as for everyone’s safety.”
Why Laguna Woods?
Authorities allege that Chou, 68, travelled from his home in Las Vegas and on Sunday morning arrived at Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which rents space at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods.
Officials are not sure why he chose that church. Members of the congregation said he didn’t look familiar and didn’t have a connection to the place of worship.
Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer said evidence “could indicate that this church was just random and it could have been any other Taiwanese church,” while stressing that the investigation is still ongoing.
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.”
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, the sheriff said.
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 declare independence and a small minority wanting to someday unify with China.
Officials from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles — Taiwan’s de facto consulate — said Chou was born in Taiwan and was a “second generation waishengren,” meaning his parents were from China.
“According to the suspect’s writings that have been interpreted, he fostered a grievance against the Taiwanese community and he was upset about the political tensions between China and Taiwan,” the Sheriff’s Department said in a statement.
Prosecutors have not yet filed a hate crime sentencing enhancement in the case, but Spitzer said his team is working with the FBI to explore 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.
Spitzer said he wants to “continue to work with our law enforcement partners and the FBI to get all the additional evidence, so that if we file a hate crime enhancement, we’ve done it knowing full well what the evidence is.”
In the months leading up to the shooting, Chou 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.
Officials are still trying to piece together exactly what happened.
Authorities said a gunman opened fire some time after 1 p.m. The church has offered a more detailed narrative, saying the suspect was lurking around the church for several hours before the shooting began.
In a letter released Monday, the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church alleged Chou arrived at the church around 10 a.m., before the Sunday 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 a neighbor.
“The receptionist welcomed him and asked him in Taiwanese to fill out a form providing his personal information. The man refused, claiming that he had attended services at this church twice in the past and had already filled out the form. The man also spoke to her in Taiwanese,” the letter said.
He apparently stayed in the church area until the early afternoon, when he emerged at a banquet honoring former Pastor Billy Chang, who led the church for more than two decades and was visiting from Taiwan.
After the lunch, some churchgoers ran into Chou, the church said in the letter.
“As they walked through the doors, they saw Chou applying iron chains to start locking the doors shut. As Chou had not yet finished, he allowed them to exit. When they asked him about his actions, he refused to answer. They assumed he was a security guard,” the letter said.
Soon, other church members saw him hammering shut two other doors with nails, the letter said.
The church said Chou then fired into the air; some in the room assumed the sound was balloons popping.
John Cheng, a 52-year-old doctor visiting the church with his mother, attempted to tackled Chou and was shot and killed, police said.
The church said a member managed to escape from the room and call authorities just before 1:30 p.m. As Chou reloaded his gun, the letter said, Cheng “struck him with a chair, and other church members confiscated Chou’s weapons and hogtied his limbs.”
Spitzer said Chou set up a scenario in which he made people inside the church feel comfortable.
“This case is about the person concealing themselves in plain view,” he said, adding that the suspect led everyone to believe he was there “to celebrate the life of Jesus and the pastor coming back from Taiwan.”
Officials said the heroic actions of churchgoers saved lives.
Bags containing additional ammunition, as well as four Molotov cocktail-like incendiary devices, were found at the scene, authorities said.
Times staff writer Jeong Park contributed to this article.