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California Church Shooting Was ‘Hate Incident,’ Sheriff Says – The New York Times

The gunman who opened fire on a Taiwanese congregation in Laguna Woods, Calif., killing one and injuring five, was motivated by political hatred, the Orange County Sheriff said.

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Don Barnes, the Orange County sheriff, described the shooting as a “politically motivated hate incident” against the Taiwanese community by the suspect, a U.S. citizen who emigrated from China.Mark Abramson for The New York Times

LAGUNA WOODS, Calif. — Gathered to celebrate a beloved former pastor, snapping photographs of their always anticipated Sunday church luncheon, the members of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church did not notice, at first, the 68-year-old stranger in their midst.

He had been here before, the man assured a receptionist. But it was not until later, when he opened fire with one of his two semiautomatic pistols, that the churchgoers, most of them retirees, took notice. Only then, scattering in terror, did they realize that the doors to the multipurpose room on the suburban Southern California church campus where they were meeting had been chained, nailed and super-glued shut.

On Monday, a day after the attack that killed one person and wounded five others, the authorities announced murder and attempted murder charges against David Chou, 68, a Las Vegas man who had traveled to Orange County with a grievance against Taiwanese people. At a news conference, the Orange County sheriff, Don Barnes, called the mass shooting a “politically motivated hate incident.”

The shooting, the nation’s second in two days considered a hate crime, came as authorities in Buffalo were investigating a supermarket massacre that claimed 10 lives; the suspect in New York, a white teenager who livestreamed the assault, is accused of having driven across the state to kill people who are Black.

Sheriff Barnes said that Mr. Chou had apparently acted alone, setting an elaborate trap, although it was not clear why he had chosen this out-of-the-way church as a target. A small congregation that never had its own building, the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church is mostly a congregation of older Christian immigrants who worship weekly in Taiwanese, their first language. They meet on Sundays on the campus of the larger Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, a suburb dominated by a gated community for residents 55 and older.

The sheriff said Mr. Chou had been living alone in a rented room, without his wife and child, who were living in Taiwan. The church, the sheriff said, “may have just been the closest in proximity based on his hatred of Taiwan.”

The authorities said the shooting erupted at about 1:26 p.m. local time on Sunday. Congregants said they had been celebrating the return from Taiwan of a former pastor, the Rev. Billy Chang, with a luncheon and had gathered in the church’s multipurpose room.

Most of the victims were of Taiwanese descent and ranged in age from 66 to 92, Sheriff Barnes said. Four were critically wounded, but their conditions improved on Monday, the authorities said. The F.B.I. said it had opened a federal hate crime investigation into the shooting.

By Scott Reinhard

John Cheng, 52, of Laguna Niguel, a sports physician and co-founder of the nearby South Coast Medical Group, was shot and killed after he tackled the gunman and tried to disarm him, Sheriff Barnes said. Mr. Cheng’s intervention allowed the pastor at the church to throw a chair at the gunman while others restrained him, he said.

“Without the actions of Dr. Cheng, it is no doubt that there would be numerous additional victims in this crime,” Sheriff Barnes said.

Johnna Gherardini, the medical center’s executive director, said that Dr. Cheng, who was not a church member, had picked up his mother from her home at Laguna Woods Village and taken her to church on Sunday. She said that Dr. Cheng, who grew up in Texas, was not religious and did not have strong political views about China, but was there in solidarity with his mother, who was mourning the recent death of his father.

The physician, who is survived by his wife and two teenage children, was also an accomplished master martial arts instructor.

“He was there for a reason,” Ms. Gherardini said.

The shooter had secured the church doors with chains and had attempted to disable the locks with glue, the sheriff said, adding that he also tried to nail one of the building’s doors shut. Bags filled with magazines of ammunition, as well as several incendiary devices, were found inside the church, Sheriff Barnes said.

“The majority of the people in attendance were elderly, and they acted spontaneously and heroically,” Sheriff Barnes said. “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.”

The authorities said the suspect fired inside the church while the members ate lunch after a morning service. The churchgoers hogtied the gunman with an extension cord and confiscated two weapons before deputies arrived and took him into custody, Sheriff Barnes said.

Sheriff Barnes said that investigators had found notes in Mr. Chou’s car, which was parked outside the church, that were proof of his “hatred of the Taiwanese people.”

The congregants “displayed what we believe is exceptional heroism and bravery in interfering, in intervening, to stop the suspect,” Undersheriff Jeff Hallock of Orange County, Calif., said on Sunday.
Mark Abramson for The New York Times

Mr. Chou was described as an immigrant from China who has lived in the United States for many years but also resided in Taiwan at some point. “I believe his hatred of Taiwan manifested when he was residing there in previous years, possibly in his youth,” Sheriff Barnes said. “He was not well received while living there, according to what we believe we’ve collected so far.”

It is not clear when Chou lived in Taiwan. About 70 years ago, one million or so Chinese retreated there with the nationalists during China’s civil war with the communists. They encountered residents on the island who had been there for centuries and who spoke a different dialect.

The sheriff also referred to “China and Taiwan tensions that are current,” a nod to decades-long demands from China’s communist rulers for reunification.

The authorities said they were interviewing more than 30 people who were inside the church during the shooting. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said on Twitter that it was helping with the investigation.

In a series of text messages on Sunday, the Rev. Albany Lee, who presides over the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, said congregants told him that the gunman “was a new face.”

Mr. Lee said the person who subdued the gunman was a pastor who led the services on Sunday. That pastor, who was not injured, had “subdued the shooter before he loaded another round of bullets,” he said. “Thank God,” he added.

The shooting served as another reminder that religious sanctuaries are not immune from the gun violence that has occurred in virtually every public space, from grocery stores to schools. Just 70 miles southeast of Laguna Woods, a gunman in 2019 killed one woman and injured three people at a synagogue in Poway.

Mark Abramson for The New York Times

Christopher Mele, Vimal Patel and Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.

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