A Las Vegas man suspected in Sunday’s shooting that left one person dead and five others injured at a meeting of Asian churchgoers in Southern California was motivated by political tensions between China and Taiwan, authorities said Monday.
David Chou, 68, has been booked into jail on recommended charges of one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement.
Kristi Johnson, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, said at a news conference Monday afternoon that a federal hate crimes investigation had been opened against Chou to determine whether additional charges can be brought.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said the briefing that the was shooting “a politically motived hate incident." Barnes said Chou, an U.S. citizen from China, "was upset about political tensions between China and Taiwan."
Chou traveled to Southern California on Saturday before the attack Sunday on the church, where he is accused of securing doors with chains and using glue to disable locks. No connection has been established between Chou and the church or any of its parishioners, Barnes said.
The victim killed in the attack, Dr. John Cheng, 53, of Laguna Niguel, charged the gunman and tried to disarm him, which led to his being fatally shot, Barnes said.
Cheng was a married father of two who was well respected in the field of sports medicine, Barnes said.
"Dr. Cheng is a hero," he said. "It is known that Dr. Cheng charged the individual, the suspect, attempted to disarm him, which allowed other parishioners to then intercede, taking the suspect into custody."
The shooting targeted members of Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, Barnes said, which shared a space with Geneva Presbyterian Church.
Congregants were celebrating the return of a pastor from a mission to Taiwan, Barnes said.
Barnes added that other congregants, who were elderly, also risked their lives and confronted the gunman, including a pastor who threw a chair at him.
"They acted spontaneously, heroically, and if not for their quick action, the way that this individual set up that environment, to kill many more people, there would have been many, many more lives lost," Barnes said.
Investigators found several bags of ammunition in the church, as well as four Molotov cocktail-type incendiary devices, Barnes said.
Chou has lived in Texas and worked security jobs in Las Vegas, Barnes said. Search warrants have been served at his residence in Nevada and at a vehicle in the church's parking lot, he said.
After Cheng charged him, the gunman was detained by members of the church, who hogtied him with electrical extension cords, the sheriff’s department said.
Stephen Galloway, an assistant special agent in charge with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said two 9 mm semi-automatic pistols were found. Chou bought the guns in Las Vegas in 2015 and 2017.
Investigators said there is no evidence, at this point, that the gunman was working with others. Barnes said Chou had a personal grievance with the Taiwanese community.
Sheriff’s officials said about 40 people who belong to the Taiwanese church were at the facility when gunfire broke out.
The gunfire was reported at 1:26 p.m. in the retirement city of Laguna Woods, about 20 miles southeast of Anaheim, the sheriff’s department said.
Four victims suffered critical injuries, they said.
The sheriff’s department identified the injured victims Sunday night as Asian Americans ages 66 to 92. Four are men.
The victim’s body was discovered at the scene, sheriff’s officials said. All of the surviving victims, including a person with minor injuries, were hospitalized.
Two people admitted to Providence Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo on Sunday were reported to be in good condition Monday, the hospital said in a statement.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said Monday at the news conference that he walked through the crime scene — a social hall set up with tables and plastic cups — after the carnage.
He said "evil was in the church" Sunday.
"It was obvious from the scene that they had to get out of there as quickly as possible in an utmost panic," Spitzer said.
Tom Cramer, a co-executive at a network of Orange County Presbyterian churches, the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, said the violence took place during a luncheon honoring a former pastor of the congregation.
The organization “is deeply saddened by a fatal shooting that occurred at a lunch reception,” he said in a statement.
“Please keep the leadership of the Taiwanese congregation and Geneva in your prayers as they care for those traumatized by this shooting.”
Laguna Woods and Laguna Woods Village are relatively exclusive communities for people 55 and older and their companions or loved ones. Large parts of it, including the village, are gated.
The city is composed of single-family homes, town houses and apartment-style residences. It opened as Leisure World in 1964 and became the county’s 32nd city in 1999.
On Friday, police in Dallas said they were looking for a person who might be targeting people of Asian background in a series of shootings.
Three Korean women were injured in a shooting at a hair salon Wednesday. Police Chief Eddie Garcia said the department was investigating the shooting as a hate crime.
Attacks against Asian Americans have skyrocketed in recent years.