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Asian America

Church shooting suspect was ‘very negative,’ took issue with Taiwan and U.S. governments, acquaintances say

The California shooting suspect’s contacts shed light on his interactions, anti-police stance and beliefs about China-Taiwan unification.
Joanna Garcia, 47, leaves flowers Monday outside Geneva Presbyterian Church to honor victims of the shooting at the church in Laguna Woods, Calif.Jae C. Hong / AP

After the deadly shooting Sunday at a Taiwanese church in Southern California, those who interacted with suspect David Chou are sharing past interactions, trying to make sense of the tragedy. 

Acquaintances who had gathered with Chou, 68, several times over the years reflected on the shooting Sunday, which killed one person and injured five other people in Laguna Woods, California. Members of the Taiwanese Association of Las Vegas described him as “very negative” and recalled his controversial political views and disapproval for law enforcement and the U.S. and Taiwanese governments. 

David Chou at a gathering for the Taiwanese Association of Las Vegas.
David Chou at a gathering for the Taiwanese Association of Las Vegas.Courtesy Esther Pan

Chou, a Las Vegas resident who was born in Taiwan, has been charged with one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder in the shooting at a brunch hosted by Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which law enforcement has described as a “politically motivated hate incident.” Police say investigators found notes in Chou’s car that proved he had “hatred of the Taiwanese people.” They said that Chou — who is accused of attacking churchgoers during a celebration lunch for Pastor Billy Chang, who had just returned from Taiwan — “was upset about political tensions between China and Taiwan.” 

While Chou was mostly friendly with association members, seeking company through them, several of them said that at times he would share thoughts about China-Taiwan unification.

“He would sometimes say he had a different opinion about the government,” said Esther Pan, the association’s president. “But we would never fight with those with different opinions.” 

“He talked to us very nicely, happy to talk to us and to gather for lunch,” a contact said. “But on the inside, he still thinks that Taiwan is China.”

Chou’s public defender, Tania Vallejo, did not respond to a request for comment. 

The issue dates to the Chinese Civil War, a struggle for control of China between Nationalists, known as the Kuomintang, and the Chinese Communist Party. The Communist Party took control of the mainland, establishing the nation as the People’s Republic in China in 1949. The Kuomintang leadership fled to Taiwan, where it installed the Republic of China government-in-exile. The People’s Republic of China deems the Republic of China illegal and has maintained that Taiwan is an inalienable part of its territory, even though the island is self-governed. 

Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in particular has historically been aligned with Taiwanese pro-independence views. In a 1977 Declaration of Human Rights, the church wrote that it hoped that then-President Jimmy Carter would “uphold the principles of human rights” and guarantee “the security, independence, and freedom of the people of Taiwan.” 

Tensions, which have waxed and waned over the years, surged after Taiwan’s 2016 election. China has put increasing pressure on Taiwan to “come back” or unify under its jurisdiction. 

Another member of the association, who asked to be anonymous out of fear of retaliation, added that “this will definitely be in the minds of the elders here.”

“A lot of the participants were very shocked, because it could have happened here, locally,” he said.

Chou was charged with special circumstances murder, meaning that if he is convicted, he could be sentenced to the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office said. He was also charged with five counts of attempted murder and four counts of possessing an explosive device. Due to the special circumstances murder charge, Chou will be held without bail, the district attorney said. His initial bail was set at $1 million.

The association member said he met Chou years ago at a potluck hosted by the organization. The acquaintance said Chou had moved to Las Vegas and bought property to rent to tenants. 

Chou has been to several of the association’s gatherings, the acquaintance said. Most people in the organization identify as “pro-Taiwan independence,” recognizing the island as a separate country from the People’s Republic of China, Pan said. However, Chou has participated in “pro-unification” movement groups to recognize Taiwan as part of China, all three sources said. Those in the pro-unification movement advocate not only for a union between Taiwan and China but also for Taiwan to be under Chinese government rule. 

“That was when I first heard him say he really did not respect police officers. He does not respect the police.”

— Esther Pan, president, Taiwanese Association of Las Vegas

Politics rarely came up at gatherings, where people would more often try one another’s homemade dishes and swap stories about family. While Chou did not actively broadcast his views, there were occasional glimpses of his beliefs, three sources agreed. 

“When we spoke to him, he was very negative about life. He was complaining about the U.S. government, complaining about the Taiwanese government,” an organization member said. 

The acquaintance’s wife, who also belongs to the association and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said Chou grabbed the microphone at a 2020 seminar and, at one point, proclaimed, “We are all Chinese.” The sentiment was abnormal for anyone in the group to say, she said. 

“At that time, I felt it was weird. You came from Taiwan. How could you say, ‘We are Chinese’?” she recalled. “But I didn’t pay too much attention and talk too much about it.” 

Two sources said he also expressed dissatisfaction with the U.S. government, taking issue in particular with law enforcement because of an experience he had about a decade ago. The Las Vegas Chinese News Network, a local news outlet, wrote that Chou had been attacked by tenants, sustaining serious injuries — an event all three sources recounted.

The acquaintances said the experience left him frustrated with law enforcement. The Clark County, Nevada, District Attorney’s Office confirmed that there was a case against two people, in which Chou was named as the victim. The acquaintances said he had been vocal about the interactions he had with law enforcement. Pan similarly said he had mentioned before that he “felt very, very misunderstood.”

“That was when I first heard him say he really did not respect police officers,” she said. “He does not respect the police.”

Despite the differing opinions, the acquaintances all said they tried to make Chou feel welcome, from inquiring about his family life to sitting with him at functions.

“He talked to us very nicely, happy to talk to us and to gather for lunch," a member said. "But on the inside, he still thinks that Taiwan is China.”

Pan, an active member of the local Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, said she invited him to celebrations, adding that he had told her in the past that he identifies as a Christian. Chou went to events several times in years past, sometimes taking his wife.

Pan said Chou appeared to enjoy the events at the church, particularly the musical performances. Chou’s wife, who had been diagnosed with cancer, underwent treatment in Taiwan and remained there, separated from him during much of the coronavirus pandemic, all three mentioned. 

The events have left a scar on the community. 

“Why did this happen to our church?” Pan asked through tears. “We want to pray. We pray for Dr. Cheng, the young doctor who died. We pray for the people hurt. We still search for God’s will. And we hope God will release the burden from those victims. And also David’s children. We pray for them, too. They are also victims.” 

Jessica Drun, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, said tensions persist in Taiwan between its two main parties, the Kuomintang and the Democratic Progressive Party, over Taiwan’s relationship to mainland China.

While engagement across the strait had once increased, the election of President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party triggered animosity from Beijing. Tsai has maintained that Taiwan exists as an independent nation and has said that “there should be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people will bow to pressure.”

Although Tsai said she was willing to continue the positive momentum in communication with mainland China achieved by past administrations, China saw that as insufficient, Drun said.  

“They have since hardened the rhetoric towards Taiwan to say, ‘We’ll do anything to bring you back under our control,’” Drun said, adding that Taiwan has never been under the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China. “That rhetoric has perhaps shaped people’s views.” 

In a tweet Tuesday, Tsai offered condolences to the victims and condemned the shooting, saying, “Violence is never the answer.”  

According to a Brookings Institution analysis, the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese people reject unification. And a vast majority do not support immediate “formal” independence, either. Chou’s acquaintances in the Las Vegas area said those who support unification are similarly in the minority. 

While the community continues to process the shooting, Drun also warned against overpoliticizing the tragedy. 

“I don’t want the narrative to be co-opted and these people’s tragedies to be co-opted for an agenda in general, but also for an agenda that harms Asian Americans,” Drun said. “I think it’s important to focus on the victims.”