The Orange County district attorney filed a murder charge Tuesday that could carry the death penalty against a man accused of fatally shooting one man and wounding five other people at a Taiwanese church in what authorities have characterized as an apparent political hate crime.
David Wenwei Chou, 68, of Las Vegas, is accused of shooting six people at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which rents space at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods.
One of the victims — John Cheng, a 52-year-old doctor — died from his wounds. Five others, ranging in age from 66 to 92, were taken to hospitals.
In addition to the murder charge, Chou faces five counts of attempted murder, as well as murder with the special circumstance of the use of a gun and lying in wait, Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer said. The special circumstances enhancement means that if convicted, Chou would face life in prison without parole, or the death penalty.
However, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order in 2019 that halted executions in California.
Chou was also charged with four counts of possession of destructive devices with intention to kill or harm.
Chou appeared in Orange County Superior court by audio only on Tuesday. He could not appear on video based on his location in the jail, officials said.
His arraignment was postponed until June 10. A Mandarin interpreter was used to translate the proceedings.
Judge Cynthia Herrera ordered that Chou be held without bail.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes on Monday characterized the shooting as a “politically motivated hate incident,” and said authorities think Chou “specifically targeted the Taiwanese community.”
The FBI has also opened a federal hate crime investigation into the shooting.
Prosecutors have not yet filed a hate crime sentencing enhancement in the case, but Spitzer said his team is working with the FBI to explore that evidence.
“While there’s very strong evidence right now that this was motivated by hate, we want to make sure that we have put together all the evidence that confirms that theory,” Spitzer told reporters during a briefing Tuesday.
Spitzer said he wants to “continue to work with our law enforcement partners and the FBI to get all the additional evidence, so that if we file a hate crime enhancement, we’ve done it knowing full well what the evidence is.”
Spitzer met with the FBI on Monday and said the agency has interpreters and other specialists reviewing evidence. He said there also are statutes under federal law that those authorities could consider filing in this case.
“They have statutes that we don’t have. For example, they have a statute under federal law of engaging in terrorist acts or injury to others or murder in a house of worship,” he said.
Barnes said Chou left notes in Chinese in his car stating he did not believe Taiwan should be independent from China, and apparently had an issue with Taiwanese people because of the way he was treated while living there.
Originally, Barnes said Chou was born in mainland China and relocated to Taiwan at some point before moving to the United States. However, the Sheriff’s Department said Tuesday evening that additional information had come to light that this wasn’t the case.
“The information regarding his nationality was provided to us during interviews with people familiar with the suspect, while communicating through interpreters,” department spokeswoman Carrie Braun said in a statement. “While later speaking with the suspect, he indicated that he was born and raised in Taiwan.”
An official from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles — Taiwan’s de facto embassy, since the island is not officially recognized by the U.S. and most other countries — also said Chou was born in Taiwan.
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.
“According to the suspect’s writings that have been interpreted, he fostered a grievance against the Taiwanese community and he was upset about the political tensions between China and Taiwan,” Braun said.
In the months leading up to the shooting, Chou dealt with upheaval in his personal life. His wife had returned to Taiwan in December, to seek treatment for cancer but also to leave him in the midst of a divorce — according to Balmore Orellana, their former neighbor in Las Vegas.
Chou and his wife owned the building they lived in, but sold it around the time she left for Taiwan, Orellana said, and Chou later complained to him that the new owners raised the rent to an unaffordable level.
Orellana said Chou was evicted in February.
According to Orellana, Chou said he was born in Taiwan but considered himself Chinese and believed China and Taiwan were one country.
In a letter released Monday, the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church alleged Chou arrived at the church around 10 a.m. Sunday, before the morning service. He was wearing a black shirt that some parishioners believed said “Security,” the church said. Chou worked intermittently as a security guard in Las Vegas, according to Orellana.
He apparently stayed in the church area until the early afternoon, when he emerged at a banquet hall where the church was honoring longtime Pastor Billy Chang, who had just returned after two years in Taiwan.
Spitzer said Chou set up a scenario in which he made people inside the church feel comfortable.
“This case is about the person concealing themselves in plain view,” he said, adding that the suspect led everyone to believe he was there “to celebrate the life of Jesus and the pastor coming back from Taiwan.”
It is not clear why Chou chose to carry out the attack specifically on Sunday. Spitzer said there has been evidence collected that “could indicate that this church was just random and it could have been any other Taiwanese church.” He stressed that officials are still working through that evidence.
After the lunch, some churchgoers ran into Chou, whom they saw “applying iron chains to start locking the doors shut,” the church said in the letter.
Other church members saw him hammering shut two other doors with nails, the letter said. Authorities also allege the suspect tried to disable locks with superglue.
The church said Chou then fired a shot into the air; some in the room assumed the sound was balloons popping.
“Dr. John Cheng saw Chou with the gun and immediately took action to try to stop him. Chou shot Dr. Cheng dead with three bullets. Some church members then fell to the floor,” the church said.
Cheng’s actions have widely been praised as heroic — with officials saying his intervention gave other parishioners the opportunity to subdue the suspect.
“Without the actions of Dr. Cheng, it is no doubt that there would be numerous additional victims in this crime,” Barnes said.
After Cheng attempted to stop the gunman, Chang, the former pastor, ran up to him with a chair as his weapon.
“He got scared. I don’t think he expected someone to attack him,” Chang said in an interview with The Times.
Chang said he pushed the gunman to the floor, after which he and other parishioners hogtied him with an electric cord, according to officials and eyewitness accounts.
Bags containing additional ammunition, as well as four Molotov cocktail-like incendiary devices, were found at the scene, authorities said.
The Laguna Woods Christian Women’s Connection was planning a prayer walk Tuesday evening.
“I can’t believe how big this has gotten,” member Leslie Wilson said of news of the shooting — and of public concern. “Out in the community, people are talking about what else they can do to show that they care.”
Wilson, a nurse who runs a side business trimming cat nails, said her fellow Laguna Woods residents appreciate the cultural diversity in the city set up to serve retirees and she, especially, does not want the tragedy to deter seniors from moving to the area.
“It’s a beautiful thing to have those of different faith and different ethnicities choose this place to be a new home next to their native homes. We’re all connected, and when someone hurts some of us, we rise up to help,” Wilson said.
As she spoke, some senior citizens whizzed by on their golf carts, bag and clubs in tow, on their way to another 18-hole round. A few stopped at the church parking lot, asking where they could drop off money and food donations.
No one inside the congregation could come outside to answer their queries. Two women with packages stuffed with blankets said they would mail them, along with checks, to the church.
“We all are praying,” Wilson said. “Praying for answers as well as for everyone’s safety.”
Times staff writers Matthew Ormseth, Cindy Carcamo, Gregory Yee, Jeong Park, Hailey Branson-Potts and Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.