Dramatic new details have emerged about the events that led up to the shooting Sunday at a church in Laguna Woods that left one person dead and five injured.
Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, whose members were the target of an attack authorities allege was a politically motivated hate incident, released a letter that offered new insights into the events of the hours before the shooting and its direct aftermath.
The suspect has been identified as David Wenwei Chou, 68, of Las Vegas. Authorities say papers found in his car from him offered clues about the attack and indicated that he did not believe Taiwan should be an independent state from China.
According to the church letter, Chou allegedly arrived at the church Sunday around 10 am, wearing a black shirt that some parishioners believed said “Security.” It was before the morning service.
“The receptionist welcomed him and asked him in Taiwanese to fill out a form providing his personal information. The man refused, claiming that he had attended services at this church twice in the past and had already filled out the form. The man also spoke to her in Taiwanese,” the letter said.
He apparently stayed in the church area until the early afternoon, when he emerged at a banquet hall where the church was honoring a longtime pastor who had just returned after two years in Taiwan. After the lunch, some churchgoers ran into Chou, the church said in the letter.
“As they walked through the doors, they saw Chou applying iron chains to start locking the doors shut. As Chou had not yet finished, I allowed them to exit. When they asked him about his actions, he refused to answer. They assumed he was a security guard,” the letter said.
Soon, other church members saw him hammering shut two other doors with nails, the letter said.
The church said Chou then fired a bullet 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.
Authorities hailed Cheng for trying to stop the gunman.
“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,” Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said at a news conference.
The church said a member managed to escape from the room and call authorities just before 1:30 pm As Chou allegedly reloaded his gun, the letter said, Pastor Billy Chang “struck him with a chair, and other church members confiscated Chou’s weapons and hogtied his limbs.”
Police arrived minutes later.
The account was also provided by another witness, churchgoer Jerry Chen, 72.
The church members who jumped into action have been praised by authorities for their bravery.
“That group of churchgoers displayed what we believe is exceptional heroism and bravery,” Undersheriff Jeff Hallock said, later adding, “It’s safe to say that had they not intervened, this situation could have been much worse.”
Chou was arrested Sunday and is being held in lieu of bail of $1 million at the Orange County Intake Release Center, jail records show. He is scheduled to appear in court Tuesday.
Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the sheriff, said Chou was booked on one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder. She said it appears Chou had an issue with Taiwanese people because of the way he was treated while living there.
“We believe, based on what we’ve discovered so far, that he specifically targeted the Taiwanese community, and this is one representation of that Taiwanese community,” Barnes added.
The FBI has opened a federal hate crime investigation into the shooting, according to Kristi Johnson, assistant director in charge of the bureau’s Los Angeles office, in addition to any charges filed in Orange County.