The suspect in the deadly Laguna Woods church shooting was identified Monday as a 68-year-old Las Vegas man who was allegedly targeting the Taiwanese community, Orange County officials said.
Authorities identified David Chou as the gunman behind the Sunday afternoon shooting that killed one and wounded five others at Geneva Presbyterian Church on the 24000 block of El Toro Road, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.
“Based on preliminary information in the investigation, it is believed the suspect involved was upset about political tensions between China and Taiwan,” the sheriff said in a Monday news conference. Chou was described as being a Chinese immigrant and U.S. citizen.
The attack happened during a lunch banquet after the morning service at Geneva Presbyterian, where around 50 people were gathered. They were members of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which has been using the church for its services.
As the festivities went on, the gunman entered the church, “methodically” placed bags of Molotov cocktails and ammunition around the hall, secured the doors with chains and tried to disable locks with superglue, the sheriff said.
He then opened fire, striking multiple people.
One man, 52-year-old “hero” Dr. John Cheng, tackled the gunman and was shot and killed in the process, the sheriff said.
“He took it upon himself to charge across the room and to do everything he could to disable the assailant… He sacrificed himself so that others could live,” O.C. District Attorney Todd Spitzer said.
Five other people were also struck by gunfire, including an 86-year-old woman and four men aged 66, 92, 82 and 75, officials said.
The victims include a married couple, according to Barnes.
The shooting came to an end when, after the doctor tackled the gunman, the church’s congregants overpowered the suspect and hog-tied him with an extension cord until first responders arrived, authorities said.
During the struggle, a pastor hit the gunman with a chair, enabling the congregants to subdue him, the sheriff said.
“Without the actions of Dr. Cheng, there is no doubt that there’d be numerous additional victims in this crime,” Barnes said. Cheng, who was a sports medicine doctor from Laguna Niguel, leaves behind a wife and two children. He was at the banquet with his mother, authorities said.
Deputies were able to find a door they could breach and forced entry into the church to take the suspect into custody.
Chou, who was not affiliated with the church, had driven to Orange County from Nevada on Saturday, officials said. He is a U.S. citizen who immigrated from China and worked as a security guard in the Las Vegas area.
Authorities said they found notes written in Mandarin in Chou’s car that showed “hatred of the Taiwanese people.”
It’s still unclear why that specific church was targeted, though the sheriff said it may have just been the closest Taiwanese congregation to Vegas.
“I believe his hatred of Taiwan manifested when he was residing there in previous years, possibly in his youth,” Barnes said of Chou, adding that the suspect’s wife currently lives in Taiwan.
After the deadly shooting, investigators found two 9 millimeter semi-automatic pistols at the scene.
The suspect had legally bought the firearms in Las Vegas, according to officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Deputies also found several bags at the church that contained magazines with additional ammo and four Molotov cocktail-like incendiary devices that were placed around the church, according to Barnes.
“The way that this individual set up that environment to kill many more people, there would have been many, many more lives lost, if not for the concerted effort of the members of that church,” Barnes said.
Chou was arrested sometime Sunday.
Sheriff’s officials worked with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department to search the suspect’s home and are processing additional evidence, including electronic devices. Evidence was also recovered from
Chou’s vehicle, which was found in the church parking lot.
Spitzer described a chaotic scene following Sunday’s shooting at the church, where congregants were trapped as the shots rang out.
“Evil was in that church yesterday,” Spitzer said.
Chou was booked on one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder in connection with the shooting, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
The District Attorney is also adding special circumstances of lying in wait, as well as four counts of unlawful possession of explosives.
Chou is eligible for a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, or death, Spitzer said.
“There’s a lot of evidence that absolutely at this point in time indicates that the suspect had an absolute bias against the Taiwanese people,” Spitzer said.
The sheriff said Sunday’s shooting was “one of the most horrific hate crimes I’ve seen.”
The shooting in Orange County came just one day after a gunman opened fire at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 people.
“It is horrifying to be grieving yet another tragic shooting in just 72 hours – another weekend in America defined by senseless violence,” Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff said in a statement.