California Church Shooting Was ‘Hate Incident,’ Sheriff Says

A Las Vegas man who the authorities say opened fire on a Taiwanese congregation at a Southern California church on Sunday — killing one person and injuring five others before the pastor and congregants overpowered and hogtied him — was motivated by hatred, the Orange County sheriff said on Monday.

The suspect, David Chou, 68, a U.S. citizen who emigrated from China, was charged with murder and five felony counts of attempted murder for what Don Barnes, the sheriff, described at a news conference on Monday as a “politically motivated hate incident” prompted by grievances against the Taiwanese community.

The shooting occurred at about 1:26 p.m. local time on Sunday inside the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, Calif., about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles in a diverse community largely made up of retirees. It has a well-established Asian population.

Most of the victims were of Taiwanese descent and ranged in age from 66 to 92, Sheriff Barnes said. Four of the victims 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 on Monday.

John Cheng, 52, 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.

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. Credit…Mark Abramson for The New York Times

Bags filled with magazines of ammunition, as well as several incendiary devices, were found inside the church, Sheriff Barnes said.

The gunman 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.

“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.

“That group of churchgoers displayed what we believe is exceptional heroism and bravery in interfering, in intervening, to stop the suspect,” Undersheriff Jeff Hallock said at a news conference on Sunday. “They undoubtedly prevented additional injuries and fatalities.”

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 shooting happened at a dangerous moment in the decades-long impasse between China and Taiwan. China has laid claim to Taiwan since the island split off from the mainland in 1949, and it has threatened to forcibly reunite the two. Beijing has signaled its intentions toward Taiwan in menacing ways, sending military jets to buzz the island on a near-daily basis last fall.

More recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has convinced officials in Washington and Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the coming years is a potential danger.

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, which is housed on the campus of the Geneva Presbyterian Church, said that congregants told him that the gunman “was a new face.”

“No one recognizes the shooter,” Mr. Lee said, adding that when a receptionist asked the gunman who he was, “he said he was here before.”

Mr. Lee said that 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.

Sandria Chou, whose parents were inside the church at the time of the shooting, speaking with law enforcement on Sunday afternoon.Credit…Mark Abramson for The New York Times

Cynthia Conners, the mayor pro tem of Laguna Woods, said that she had been a member of the church since 2006 and had attended services on Sunday morning. Ms. Conners, who left the church at about noon, said that the Taiwanese congregation shares the church space.

The church is in a peaceful retirement community in a safe neighborhood, said Charlotte Hsieh, the organist for the church. “I could not even imagine something like this could happen here,” she said. “I’m just as shocked as anybody.”

Lisa Bartlett, an Orange County supervisor, said at the news conference on Sunday that “today is a very dark day.”

She noted that the church shooting had come just a day after “the tragic and hate-filled actions that led to the senseless deaths” in Buffalo, where almost all of the 10 people who were shot and killed were Black.

Representative Katie Porter, the Democratic member of Congress who represents Orange County, described the news as disturbing, especially given the shooting in Buffalo. “This should not be our new normal,” she said.

Reporting was contributed by Jill Cowan, Shawn Hubler, Christopher Mele, Vimal Patel, Amy Chang Chien and Livia Albeck-Ripka.

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