Dr. John Cheng was known for always putting others first.
The Orange County sports medicine physician answered text messages from patients on the weekends. He was a good listener who spent time during appointments learning about patients’ lives and families. And he gave his time and money to high school athletic programs, serving as a team doctor for teenage athletes.
To those who knew him, the doctor was kind — and he was humble. And now, they say, he is a hero.
Cheng, 52, was killed Sunday when a gunman opened fire at his mother’s church in Laguna Woods. When a man began shooting at the congregants — most of them elderly and Taiwanese — the doctor put himself in the line of fire, trying to prevent others from being shot, Orange County sheriff’s officials said Monday.
“He sacrificed himself so others could live,” said Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer.
Five others were injured in the shooting, which took place Sunday afternoon at Geneva Presbyterian Church. The parishioners were members of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which has been holding services in Geneva’s building for years.
The suspect, David Wenwei Chou, 68, of Las Vegas, appeared to be motivated by political hatred targeted at the Taiwanese community, Orange County sheriff’s officials said.
Among the evidence recovered were notes written in Chinese that Chou left in his car indicating he did not believe Taiwan should be a state independent from China, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said at a news conference.
Chou at some point lived in Taiwan before moving to the United States, according to Barnes. The sheriff said it appears Chou had an issue with Taiwanese people because of the way he said he was treated while living there.
The FBI has opened a federal hate crime investigation into the shooting, said Kristi Johnson, assistant director in charge of the bureau’s Los Angeles office. That would be in addition to any charges filed in Orange County.
Chou was arrested Sunday and is being held in lieu of $1 million bail at the Orange County Intake Release Center, jail records show. He was scheduled to appear in court Tuesday.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun said he was booked on one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder.
Officials alleged that Chou secured church doors with chains and tried to disable locks with Super Glue. He also attempted to nail at least one door shut, Barnes said. Bags containing magazines of ammunition, as well as four Molotov-cocktail-like incendiary devices, were found at the scene.
On Sunday, churchgoers had just finished an after-service lunch — a special bento with teriyaki chicken — in honor of a beloved longtime pastor who had just returned from two years in Taiwan when gunfire erupted.
“Dr. Cheng is a hero in this incident, based on statements from the witnesses and corroborated by other means. It is known that Dr. Cheng charged the individual — the suspect — [and] attempted to disarm him, which allowed other parishioners to then intercede,” Barnes said.
After Cheng was shot, the visiting pastor, Billy Chang, struck the suspect with a chair when his weapon jammed, according to police and witnesses.
Other members of the congregation tackled him and hogtied him with an extension cord, a move officials say probably saved many more lives.
Louis M. Huang, director general at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles, said five of the six victims, including Cheng, held Taiwanese citizenship. The remaining victim was born in the Philippines but spoke Taiwanese, Huang said.
The wounded were four men ages 66, 92, 82 and 75, and an 86-year-old woman. They have not yet been identified.
The 100 or so members of Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, most of whom are senior citizens, worship in their native language — not Mandarin but Taiwanese, a dialect that was once suppressed by the Kuomintang regime.
Before Sunday’s service, members greeted the suspect, whom they had never seen before, and welcomed him. He told them he had attended services several times, but the members were doubtful because no one recognized him, churchgoer Jerry Chen said.
Cheng, of Laguna Niguel, was not a regular at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, but the physician had brought his mother to the luncheon honoring the visiting pastor.
Chang — who served as pastor for 21 years before leaving in 2020 to head a church in Taiwan — said he was close to Cheng’s parents.
Cheng’s father recently died, the former pastor said, and his mother, who was still mourning the loss, had stopped coming to church.
“Because I was returning, many brothers and sisters invited her to come see us,” Chang said in a written statement in Chinese. “Dr. Cheng is a good son, so he went with his mother. Before the service, we hugged and encouraged each other.”
Cheng, who worked for South Coast Medical Group in Aliso Viejo, leaves behind a wife and two teenage children.
Cheng was raised in rural east Texas and said he was inspired by his father, a small-town physician who embraced his community and whose community embraced him. In a 2012 YouTube video for South Coast Medical Group, he said he treasured his one-on-one relationships with patients.
“We’re planting seeds in this person’s heart and in their mind on how to take care of themselves,” he said. “When they’re taking care of themselves, then they’re able to take care of their family, which creates a more positive family environment, which then translates into better communities.”
On Monday, Johnna Gherardini, executive director of South Coast Medical Group, greeted tearful patients at Cheng’s office.
“Many people will say he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, but I don’t believe so,” she said. “He was at the right place. He has always been giving.”
“He was a protector; he taught us how to protect ourselves,” Gherardini said, citing self-defense classes he provided to his staff. Cheng, she said, had reached “sifu” status, a top rank in martial arts.
Ira Angustain, Cheng’s pastor at Kingdom Covenant Church in Lake Forest, said the doctor was “always making things easier for others,” and he was “not surprised at all that he jumped to everyone’s rescue.”
Angustain said he texted Cheng about his daughter’s cold on Sunday, asking if they could swing by for a checkup on Monday.
“It was strange when we didn’t hear back,” he said. “I knew something was off.”
Sandra Leone of Aliso Viejo said Cheng had been her family’s primary care physician for 25 years. Leone met him when he was a young doctor. He had set up a booth at the local park, hoping to recruit patients.
“I started talking to him and he was so warm, such a good listener,” she said. “We fell in love with his style, and I thought, ‘That’s it. I found my doctor.’ We had moved to the area and we were looking.”
Leone’s daughter, then 3, had stomach issues through the years, and “he always carved out time for her, treated her with respect. You don’t meet many doctors like that.”
Lauren Mott, the athletic trainer at Aliso Niguel High School, said Cheng was the on-field physician for the school’s football team, the Wolverines, for the last two years.
She said he would bring his son, who was interested in sports medicine, to Friday night games. Cheng, she said, was unflappable in emergencies, including a player’s on-field neck injury.
“He was very calm in that situation,” she said. “He followed up with the team and with the family. He liked being on the sidelines to take care of the athletes.”
Andrew Mashburn, the athletic director at Aliso Niguel High School, said that just last week, Cheng and his team gave physicals to 400 student athletes from that school.
“He always had a smile on his face,” Mashburn said. “He was friends with everyone.”
After authorities announced it was Cheng who had been killed, a Bible verse was repeatedly shared on social media by those who knew him.
It was John 15:13: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
Times staff writers Cindy Chang, Jeong Park, Luke Money, Eric Sondheimer and Richard Winton contributed to this report.