A Las Vegas man accused of killing a man and wounding five other people at a Taiwanese church in California, who is alleged to have been motivated by political tensions between China and Taiwan, was charged Tuesday with murder.
David Chou, 68, faces 10 counts: first-degree murder, five counts of attempted murder and four counts of possessing destructive devices with the intent to kill or harm, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said Tuesday.
Spitzer said at a news conference that the charges carry penalties that could include death or life without the possibility of parole.
"This is not a case that I'm ruling out for death," Spitzer said. He added that the case was about a gunman's concealing himself in plain view before ambushing congregants.
"He did everything he could to fit in, to make himself one of them," Spitzer said.
Chou’s goal was to “execute in cold blood as many people in that room as possible," Spitzer said. "He had the ammunition to do it. He had the weaponry to do it. He had the training to do it.” Spitzer noted that Chou was a licensed security guard in Nevada.
A judge ordered Chou held without bail Tuesday. His arraignment was postponed until June 10.
The FBI said Monday that a federal hate crime investigation has been opened to determine potential additional charges.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said Monday that Chou, a 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 at the church in Laguna Woods, 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 at Chou and tried to disarm him, which led to his being fatally shot, 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.”
Cheng was a married father of two who was well respected in the field of sports medicine, Barnes said.
The violence targeted members of Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which shared a space with Geneva Presbyterian Church Barnes said.
Congregants were celebrating the return of a pastor from a mission to Taiwan, he 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.
The Rev. Bill Chang, who threw the chair, said in a statement provided by Yorba Linda City Council member Peggy Huang that he was at a podium taking pictures when he saw a gunman firing at congregants.
“When he lowered his gun after several shots I rushed down the platform and picked up a chair and threw it at the gunman. The gunman fell to the floor at this time and additional congregant courageously came to help restrain him while others called 911,” Chang said.
Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church said in a statement that the gunman arrived at the church shortly after the beginning of a morning service in which Chang gave a guest sermon after having returned from Taiwan.
A man wearing a black shirt refused to sign a form giving his personal information, telling a receptionist that he had attended services at the church twice and had already filled out a form. The man spoke in Taiwanese and identified himself as “Da-Wei Chou,” the church statement said.
At a banquet after the church service, some congregants saw the same man locking doors. They assumed he was a security guard, the church 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.
Investigators found several bags of ammunition in the church, as well as four Molotov cocktail-type incendiary devices, Barnes said.
Chou has also lived in Texas, Barnes said. Search warrants were served at his residence in Nevada and at a vehicle in the church’s parking lot, he said.
Two 9 mm semi-automatic pistols were found. Chou bought the guns legally in Las Vegas in 2015 and 2017, said Stephen Galloway, an assistant special agent in charge with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Sheriff’s officials said about 40 people who belong to the Taiwanese church were at the facility when gunfire broke out.
The shooting 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.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen condemned the violence.
Tsai “expressed concern” and sent her “sincere condolences” to the victims, said a spokesperson for the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
“We are closely following the latest developments of this case, and we will help the overseas Taiwanese through various channels. At the same time, we hope that the U.S. government make every effort to protect the safety of our people,” the spokesperson said.
The sheriff’s department identified the injured victims Sunday night as Asian Americans ages 66 to 92. Four are men.
Four of the wounded victims suffered critical injuries, authorities said. 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.
Spitzer, the district attorney, said Monday 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.
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.
Police Chief Eddie Garcia said the department’s inquiry was a hate crime investigation. Attacks against Asian Americans have skyrocketed recently.