LAGUNA WOODS, Calif. (AP) — A Chinese-American gunman, born out of hatred for Taiwan, chained the door of a church in California and hid Molotov cocktails before attacking mostly elderly Taiwanese parishioners. The rally opened fire, killing a man who captured him. Authorities said Monday that dozens of lives could be saved.
David Chou, 68, from Las Vegas, drove to Orange County Saturday to attend a luncheon the next day hosted by the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which worships at Geneva Presbyterian Church in the Laguna Woods neighborhood. Although he didn’t know anyone there, he spent about an hour mingling with about 40 attendees and executing his conspiracy, authorities said at a news conference.
He chained the door and used superglue on the lock. He has two 9mm pistols and two bags – one with four Molotov cocktail-type incendiaries and the other with extra ammo. He opened fire, and in the ensuing chaos, Dr. John Cheng, 52, grabbed him before other parishioners subdued him and tied him up with extension cords.
Cheng died with five injured, the oldest at 92. Sheriff Don Barnes called Cheng’s heroism a “meeting of good and evil” that may have saved “dozens of lives”.
Zhou was jailed on suspicion of murder and attempted murder, with bail set at $1 million. He is expected to appear in state court on Tuesday. It is unclear whether he has a lawyer who can speak on his behalf. A federal hate crime investigation is also underway.
There’s no word yet on why Chou chose to target the church in Laguna Woods, a scenic coastal area with a largely retiree population near a large gated community.
Barnes said the motive for the shooting was dissatisfaction between the shooter, who he said was born in China and a U.S. citizen, and the Taiwanese community. China claims Taiwan is part of its national territory and has not ruled out using force to bring the island under its rule.
Barnes said Zhou acted alone and was not a regular visitor to the church.
“He is not believed to be affiliated with any particular church or any religion and has no direct affiliation with the church or any member of the church that we know of,” Barnes said.
A former neighbor said Zhou’s life was shattered after his wife left him. Balmore Orellana told The Associated Press that Chou has been a delightful man who once owned the Las Vegas apartment building where he lived until February. The four-unit property sold for just over $500,000 last October, records show.
Chou’s wife used the money from the sale to move to Taiwan, Orellana said.
Neighbors said Zhou suffered head injuries and other serious injuries in an attack on a tenant before Orellana moved in about five years ago. More recently, his mental health has declined, and last summer someone shot at Chou’s apartment and bullets entered Orellana’s apartment, though no one was injured, Orellana said.
There were no immediate police reports of the assault and shooting on Monday.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said Zhou’s family was apparently one of those who were forcibly relocated from China to Taiwan sometime after 1948. Handwritten notes found by authorities document Zhou’s hatred of the island, which appears to have started when he felt he was being treated poorly while living there.
Tensions between China and Taiwan have reached their highest level in decades, with Beijing stepping up military harassment by flying fighter jets to the self-governing island. China has not ruled out using force to unify Taiwan, which was divided from the mainland during the 1949 civil war.
Taiwan’s chief representative to the United States, Xiao Biqian, expressed condolences to the families of the victims on Twitter.
“I grieve with the families of the victims and the Taiwanese-American community and pray for the speedy recovery of the injured survivors,” Xiao wrote on Sunday.
Chinese embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu told The Associated Press by email that the Chinese government “has consistently condemned the violence. We express our condolences to the victims and our sincere sympathy to the families of the deceased and the injured.”
At the California church, the shooting happened around 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, and Jerry Chen had just walked into the kitchen of the church fellowship hall.
Chen, 72, a longtime member of the Owen Taiwan Presbyterian Church, peeked around the corner and saw others screaming, running and ducking under the table.
“I knew someone was shooting,” he said. “I was very, very scared. I ran out of the kitchen door and called 911.”
Samuel Nganga, a member of Geneva and a caretaker of the church, said he was starting to clean the kitchen when he heard gunshots. He and the others crawled out on hands and feet to escape.
The sheriff’s department said the shooting wounded included four men, ages 66, 75, 82 and 92, and an 86-year-old woman. Four people were shot and wounded. Two of the injured are in good condition, two are in stable condition, and the condition of the fifth patient has not been determined, authorities said on Monday.
Chen said about 40 members of the congregation gathered at the fellowship hall for lunch after the morning service to welcome their former pastor, Billy Zhang, a much-loved and respected community member who served the church for 20 years. Chang moved back to Taiwan two years ago. Chen said it was his first time back in the United States.
When Chen walked into the kitchen, everyone had just finished lunch and was taking pictures with Zhang, he said. Just then, he heard gunshots.
Barnes said Cheng, a surviving sports medicine doctor with a wife and two children, charged the shooter and tried to disarm him and let others intervene. Zhang hit the gunman in the head with a chair before other parishioners could subdue him.
“I’ll tell you there’s evil in that church,” Spitzer said, adding that Zhou had “absolute prejudice” against Taiwan and its people.
The shooting comes a day after an 18-year-old man shot and killed 10 at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York In a racist outrage, white gunmen allegedly targeted a supermarket in a predominantly black neighborhood.
This story has been corrected to show that Reverend Billy Chang is not retired.
Ritter reported from Las Vegas. Bharat reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press reporters Stefanie Dazio and John Antczak in Los Angeles and Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this story. Journalism researcher Rhonda Shafner is from New York.
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