A 68-year-old man accused of fatally shooting one person and injuring five others at a Taiwanese Presbyterian church in Laguna Woods pleaded not guilty Friday to multiple felonies stemming from the attack, which authorities have characterized as a hate crime.
The charges against David Wenwei Chou of Las Vegas include murder and attempted murder.
Prosecutors also added hate crime enhancements, alleging that Chou’s killing of Dr. John Cheng, 52, and wounding of other parishioners on May 15 was motivated by race, color, religion, nationality or country of origin.
Chou could face the death penalty if convicted of all charges.
Chou, who is being held at the Theo Lacy jail facility in Orange without bail, wore a bright yellow jumpsuit and surgical mask when he appeared Friday in a Santa Ana courtroom to enter his plea.
A Mandarin interpreter translated the proceedings to him through a headset, but Chou appeared to have difficulty understanding. At one point he asked Judge Cynthia Herrera what he was supposed to do.
“I am not clear,” he said in English.
Prosecutors turned over evidence that they said appeared to be medical records obtained during a search of Chou’s home in Las Vegas. The content of those records was not immediately clear.
Chou’s attorney, Jennifer Ryan, declined to comment to reporters outside the courtroom.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes in May characterized the shootings as a “politically motivated hate incident” and said authorities think Chou “specifically targeted the Taiwanese community.”
Barnes said Chou left notes in Chinese in his car stating that he did not believe Taiwan should be independent from China. He apparently had an issue with Taiwanese people because of the way he was treated while living in Taiwan, Barnes said. Chou grew up in Taiwan as a waishengren — someone with recent roots in China.
China considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has grown increasingly aggressive about reclaiming the democratic, self-ruled island. Within Taiwan, a majority of people favor maintaining the status quo, with some wanting to openly declare independence and a small minority wanting to someday unify with China.
The Presbyterian church in Taiwan is known for its support of pro-independence causes, and the Laguna Woods congregation conducts services in the Taiwanese dialect, rather than Mandarin.
Prosecutors allege that Chou entered Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, where the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church rents space, with two 9-millimeter handguns, several backpacks that contained extra magazines and four Molotov cocktail devices.
He allegedly hid the backpacks in a church banquet hall and chained several doors shut, then mingled with parishioners. The group was there for a luncheon honoring longtime Pastor Billy Chang, who was visiting after two years in Taiwan.
For the record:
6:13 p.m. Aug. 20, 2022A previous version of this article said that “Chang fought back and was fatally shot.” It was Dr. John Cheng, not Pastor Billy Chang, who was killed.
When the gunman opened fire, Cheng fought back and was fatally shot. Five others, ranging in age from 66 to 92, were hospitalized and survived.