The Rev. Billy Chang was only about a dozen steps away from the gunman when shots erupted Sunday, he recalls in a group message.
Some 140 members of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which holds services at the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California, had gathered for a luncheon to honor Chang, a beloved former pastor who had just returned from Taiwan.
Chang, 68, described standing on a podium and watching the gunman “randomly aim at the crowd and shoot,” he said Monday in a message sent to a seminary group on Line messaging app, shared with and verified by NBC Asian America. “At first, I thought it was a toy gun, and it was a prank. At that time, I didn’t even know I should hide.”
Chang ran down the stage, grabbed a chair and threw it at the shooter. When the gunman fell and dropped the weapon, Chang and other congregants subdued him until police arrived. Chang’s wife, Yu Ling, told the Los Angeles NBC News affiliate that she threw the gun in the fridge and tied up the shooter’s legs with an orange electrical cord.
John Cheng, a doctor who helped tackle the gunman, was fatally shot in the attack. Five people were wounded. The heroism of the group of elderly parishioners, authorities say, likely saved dozens of lives.
Southern California’s Taiwanese American community is reeling after the shooting in the retirement neighborhood of Laguna Woods.
The man accused in the attack, David Chou, 68, of Las Vegas, was charged Tuesday with special circumstances murder, meaning that if convicted, he can be sentenced to the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s office. 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 DA said. His initial bail amount was $1 million. A public defender was expected to be appointed to Chou at his arraignment Tuesday.
Orange County police said Monday the shooting was likely a “politically motivated hate incident” targeting people of Taiwanese descent. Sheriff Don Barnes said at a news conference that “the suspect involved was upset about political tensions between China and Taiwan,” and that he’d left notes in his car stating he did not believe Taiwan should gain independence from China.
While investigators initially identified Chou as a Chinese immigrant, Taiwan’s Central News Agency, citing the head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles, reported that he was born in Taiwan.
The victims were 66 to 92 years old; four were critically wounded. The FBI says it has opened a federal hate crime investigation into the shooting.
Peggy Huang, a Yorba Linda council member whose parents belong to the church, said she spoke with church elders who witnessed the shooting to piece together what happened.
Huang said she’s acting as the media spokesperson for church leaders for the time being because they’re “overwhelmed, tired and just traumatized.”
“They just want to spend time in prayer right now,” she said. “We’re asking for prayers and guidance from the Lord as only He can take us out of this situation that we’re facing.”
Huang said none of the churchgoers recognized Chou, who entered at around 10 a.m. for morning service. They noted he was carrying newspapers and had lunch with everyone. Witnesses told Huang that Chou blocked off exits with superglue and iron chains before firing the first shots.
Huang said she was saddened and confused upon learning the apparent motive Monday afternoon, and noted that none of the church elders she spoke to had expressed concerns about geopolitical turmoil.
“There’s been political tensions between Taiwan and China since the end of World War II,” she said, “but what does that have to do with any of us living in America? Here, we’re all Americans.”
In the wake of the shooting, Eugene Chang, the youngest son of the reverend, worked with several other adult children of churchgoers to organize a GoFundMe page to raise money for the victims and their families.
Chang, who grew up attending the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, said it was not only a space for religious worship but also a “place of belonging” for the region’s small but tight-knit Taiwanese immigrant community.
“It’s hard to find a group of people you feel so connected to culturally and spiritually,” he said, noting that at services people spoke and worshiped in Taiwanese. “It’s so devastating that it was all taken away yesterday.”
Chang said it was “heartbreaking” that the attack targeted elders, the grandpas and grandmas younger churchgoers refer to as “a-gong” and “āmā.” At the same time, he said, the heroism they displayed in the face of terror did not surprise him.
“When I heard about my dad and the a-gongs and āmās fighting back, I could just picture it so clearly,” he said. “That’s the people they are — people who risk their lives for others.”