David Wenwei Chou of Las Vegas was identified by authorities as the suspect in the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church shooting at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California. One person, Dr. John Cheng, was killed and five others were injured during a luncheon at the church, where the Taiwanese congregation held its services.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said officials believe the shooting was politically motivated during a press conference May 16. Chou was “upset about political tensions between China and Taiwan,” Barnes said. A federal hate crimes investigation was opened to determine federal charges that could be filed against Chou, FBI officials said during the press conference. He is facing one count of murder with use of a gun, with an added special circumstances of lying in wait, five counts of attempted murder against each person who suffered gunshot wounds and four counts of unlawful possession of explosives. If convicted on the charges, he could face life without the possibility of parole or the death penalty, according to Orange County District Atttorney Todd Spitzer.
Barnes described the shooting as a “rampage” and said it was “one of the most heinous hate crimes I’ve seen.” Chou was a United States citizen who lived in the country for “many years,” Barnes said.
Chou lawfully purchased the guns used in the shooting in Las Vegas in 2015 and 2017, a representative of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said in the press conference. The guns were two 9-mm handguns, the ATF spokesman said. The alleged gunman was a licensed security guard in Nevada, which authorized him to carry firearms in Nevada but not California, Barnes said. Additional magazines of ammunition were found in Chou’s vehicle, Barnes said, and he alleged Chou placed Molotov cocktails around the church. His mugshot was released Monday evening.
A neighbor who knew Chou said the suspected gunman had recently become homeless after he was evicted from his property, and said that he believed Chou was struggling with mental health issues and problems receiving government assistance, according to a video from Fox 5 Las Vegas.
The Orange County Sheriff identified Chou in a statement Monday morning, May 16, 2022, saying the 68-year-old Las Vegas man had been booked into jail on one felony count of murder and five felony counts of attempted murder. Officials allege Chou entered Geneva Presbyterian Church May 15 during a service for the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church. No one recognized him, but he claimed he had been there before, congregant Jerry Chen told the Los Angeles Times. A luncheon was being held for Pastor Billy Chang after the service, and police allege Chou opened fire as about 40 people in the fellowship hall were finishing their meals. The pastor hit Chou with a chair as he paused to reload, Jerry Chen told local newspapers, and the other congregants rushed in to tackle the gunman, disarm him and hogtie him with extension cords.
Barnes said Dr. John Chen charged the gunman before he was fatally wounded, buying time for other witnesses to subdue the shooter.
A GoFundMe was established by Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church members to support those impacted by the tragedy. It raised $30,000 in less than 24 hours.
The ITPC community is in shock and completely devastated by the loss and pain inflicted upon their church members.
This fundraiser is organized by members of ITPC who grew up attending this church and spent their childhoods with these families. We are heartbroken by the senseless violence and are reaching out to the internet for help. Our small Taiwanese congregation has put out love and kindness into the surrounding community for generations. During this time, our church, the victims, and their families need to focus on recovering from this tragedy. Please help us by giving to this campaign, of which 100% of the proceeds will go to ITPC and the families of the victims to aid in their journey of healing.
Undersheriff Jeff Hallock said in a press conference that churchgoers detained the suspect before police arrived, and hailed them for their “extreme heroism.” He identified Chou at the time as an Asian male in his 60s. Two handguns were recovered from the scene, Hallock said.
Four people suffered critical injuries and one suffered minor injuries, officials said. The injured victims were rushed to local hospitals, and the deceased victim was pronounced dead at the scene after officials rendered lifesaving efforts. The sheriff’s office identified the injured victims in a news release as a 66-year-old male, a 92-year-old male, an 82-year-old male, a 75-year-old male and an 86-year-old female, all of Asian decent.
The initial 911 call, which Chen told the Times he placed, sent officials rushing to the church where they found one victim dead, five injured and the suspect hogtied.
“Dispatch received call of a shooting inside Geneva Presbyterian Church at 1:26pm. Four victims have been critically wounded , one with minor injuries. All victims are adults and are enroute to the hospital. One victim is deceased at the scene,” the Orange County Sheriff wrote on Twitter shortly after the shooting.
Laguna Woods is a city in Orange County adjacent to Laguna Hills and Lake Forest. The city is located about 10 miles from University of California Irvine.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Chou Was a United States Citizen Who Previously Lived in Taiwan; He Was Ethnically Chinese
Chou was a United States citizen who lived in the United States for “many years,” Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said during a press conference. His nationality was Chinese, and authorities said he was politically motivated to target Taiwanese people because of tensions between China and Taiwan.
Chou lived in Taiwan in his youth, and was “not well received” there, Barnes said in the press conference. Authorities said they are gathering evidence to establish probable cause and file hate crimes charges against Chou. Barnes said they gathered “notes” from Chou’s vehicle that established a political motive. Barnes said the notes indicated Chou had “hatred” against the Taiwanese people.
Officials are also collecting electronic evidence, including from Chou’s cellphone, which they said establishes the motive to target Taiwanese people. Barnes said officials do not believe that Chou published a manifesto or any social media posts describing the motive.
Chou was detained by churchgoers, hogtied and disarmed in the moments after the alleged gunman opened fire, Undersheriff Jeff Hallock said in a press conference. He said the parishioners showed “exceptional heroism and bravery in intervening.”
“I think it’s safe to say if people had not intervened, it could have been much worse,” he said.
Authorities told the LA times the gunman sealed the doors of the church and attacked the congregants during a lunch banquet before congregants tackled him, tied him up with an extension cord and grabbed his two weapons, authorities said.
The congregants had just finished eating their lunch, which was a special bento with teriyaki chicken, the LA Times reported. When gunfire rang out, they were taking photos with Pastor Billy Chang, who had recently returned to the United States after living in Taiwan for two years.
Jerry Chen, 72, told the LA Times he was in a nearby kitchen when he heard gunfire.
“I heard the gun sounds,” he told the newspaper. “Then I heard two or three more gunshots. He was just randomly shooting. I saw some people fall down or go under the table. I knew something was wrong. I called 911.”
The visiting pastor hit the gunman with a chair as the suspect paused to reload his weapon, and congregants tackled him, Chen told the newspaper.
Authorities listed Chou’s race as Chinese in his booking information. He is 5-feet, 7-inches tall, weighing 175 pounds with gray hair and brown eyes. No occupation is listed for Chou. His bail was set at $1 million and his next court appearance is tentatively scheduled for May 17, 2022. Chou is housed in the intake release center as of 2:30 p.m. Pacific time, his booking information shows.
Here is his booking record:
A translation of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church website references Genesis 12, a Bible story in which God told Abraham to leave his home for the Promised Land. Pastor Li Furen compared the Bible story to the journey of the church congregants from their homeland to the United States.
“Just like Abraham, a group of Puritans in the seventeenth century set foot on the new continent of the United States in pursuit of freedom of belief and a better life. In pursuit of their dreams, we also became new immigrants to this country in the twentieth century, facing unfamiliar people. Environmental language and culture, we have experienced many challenges and difficulties, but because of this, we can better appreciate God’s wonderful leadership and abundant blessings,” the translation says.
The pastors are listed as Li Furen and Albany Lee.
“IRVINE Taiwan Presbyterian Church is a big family full of love. We welcome all our friends to join us with open arms. In the love of God and the grace of Jesus Christ, we hope that all brothers and sisters can have more knowledge, and also In the journey of life, we can walk stronger and happier because of each other’s support,” the translation of the website says.
Hallock told the OC Register that many of the people who were in the church at the time of the shooting were of Taiwanese descent. The Irvine Taiwanese Church website says they meet at Geneva Presbyterian Church. Hallock confirmed during a press conference a luncheon was being held at the church following services.
Hallock hailed the intervening churchgoers who detained and disarmed the suspect for their “extreme heroism and bravery.”
The Presbytery of Los Ranchos said in a statement to the Orange County Register that it is “deeply saddened by a fatal shooting that occurred at a lunch reception honoring a former pastor of the Taiwanese congregation that nests at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods … Please keep the leadership of the Taiwanese congregation and Geneva in your prayers as they care for the those traumatized by this shooting.”
The newspaper reported the church also hosts The Geneva School, a Christian middle school. The OC Register reported the school “appeared to have sent a message to parents informing them about the shooting on Sunday, saying the violence occurred during ‘the Taiwanese church’s lunch meeting.'”
2. Chou Has a Wife & Son Who Are Both Living in Taiwan
Authorities said during the news conference that Chou has a wife and son who were both living in Taiwan. Chou has one family member living in the United States, officials said.
Jerry Chen told the LA Times congregants did not recognize the gunman. The newspaper reported church members greeted and welcomed Chou into the church. Chou told them he had been there several times before, but doubted his words because none of them recognized him.
Authorities later determined Chou did not have any connections to the church. Barnes said Chou may have selected the church because it was the closest Taiwanese church in proximity to his home in Las Vegas. Chou drove to the Laguna Woods area on Saturday, the day before the shooting, Barnes said.
Geneva Presbyterian Church congregants gathered for a worship service shortly before a shooting inside the church, and were told in the message they should welcome everyone, even those who break religious traditions. Geneva Presbyterian Church held its services separately from the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which holds its sermons in their native language. The Rev. Ryan Romeburg spoke to congregants about tradition, and challenged them to ask themselves how they feel when they hear about something “new” in a video of the sermon posted on Facebook and later removed. He said that something “new” can create tension among Christians because the religion is rooted in thousands of years of tradition.
The sermon was based on Revelations 21:5, “See, I am making all things new.”
Romeburg said that the Bible verse referenced a passage from the book of Acts about welcoming those in the Church who broke traditional values, such as eating kosher foods.
“In other words, people didn’t need to jump through hoops to be accepted. They didn’t need to check off a list of rituals to be loved. They didn’t need to kiss the ring of the powerful before their voice was welcome. They didn’t need to pretend to be someone else,” Romeburg said in the sermon.
The Geneva Presbyterian Church website says their regular church services are held at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays. The event calendar says a “High School Hang” was scheduled for 7 p.m. Sunday, and did not list any events for the afternoon after the morning service. The church bulletin says the sermon for May 15, 2022, was “Celebrating The Calling,” delivered by The Rev. Ryan Romberg.
The sermon was livestreamed on the church Facebook page. The page was later removed.
3. A Las Vegas Resident Who Knew Chou Said the Alleged Gunman Seemed to Be Struggling With Mental Health Issues
A neighbor who told Fox 5 Las Vegas he knew Chou well gasped when he learned the man was accused as the gunman who opened fire at the southern California church.
“That’s so shocking,” he said in a video shared on Twitter.
The man said he had last seen Chou about two months earlier, and that the suspect had “just disappeared” after that.
“I think he was going through some mental issues, real bad, ’cause he was homeless and he just didn’t know where to go,” the neighbor said. “He was being rejected by the government for living issues, also when it came to EBT, when it came to health issues. So I don’t know. After, he just disappeared.”
He added that he did not know what happened to Chou within the time frame that he had last seen him, which was about 2 1/2 months ago. The man said Chou was being evicted from his property, and that the building where he lived was recently sold. The neighbor said he had seen Chou with friends and was under the impression someone in the area was “helping him out.”
Several people shared photos on social media of the active shooter scene in the moments after the shooting.
One photo from a social media user showed a row of firetrucks outside Geneva Presbyterian Church.
“On my way to Laguna beach and the street is blocked off,” Judy Perez wrote on Twitter. “So incredibly sad! I hope the victims are okay!”
A Twitter user shared a photo of deputies and other first responders converging on the area, with Geneva Presbyterian Church pictured in the background.
“Driving to Laguna Beach on El Toro and see this. So sad,” the Twitter user wrote.
“Deputies are responding to reports of a shooting at a church on the 24000 block of El Toro Road in Laguna Woods. Multiple victims have been shot. More details to follow, PIO en route,” the Orange County Sheriff wrote on Twitter shortly after the shooting. “We have detained one person and have recovered a weapon that may be involved. We are working to get information out as quickly as possible. We ask for patience as this event unfolds.”
Carrie Braun, the Orange County Sheriff’s spokeswoman, told the OC Register deputies and Orange County Fire Authority paramedics were responding to the scene Sunday, May 15, 2022.
Officials asked the public to avoid the area. El Toro Road is closed between Calle Sonora and Canyon Wren.
Federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were also responding to the scene, according to the Associated Press.
4. Chou Was a Former Security Guard & Authorities Said He Was Armed With 2 Legally Purchased Handguns That Were Recovered From the Scene
Chou worked as a security guard at several establishments in Las Vegas, officials said during a press conference May 16. His security guard license authorized him to carry firearms in Nevada, and he legally purchased the guns used in the shooting in 2015 and 2017, officials said.
Before Chou allegedly opened fire in the church, officials said he sealed the doors with chains and attempted to jam the locks with superglue. There were several magazines of additional ammunition found in his vehicle, officials said, and he placed Molotov cocktails around the Taiwanese church, officials said. Authorities are filing special circumstances in his case, including lying in wait.
Officials said Chou did not have ties to the Taiwanese church, and they did not find any evidence that he was affiliated with any religion.
A neighbor told News 3 in Las Vegas Chou may have been living in his car. The suspected gunman was described as “a nice man, but his life started to fall apart,” the news outlet reported.
The alleged shooter was disarmed before law enforcement arrived, Hallock said in a news conference. He said officials recovered the guns used in the shooting, which he described as two handguns.
California Governor Gavin Newsom released a statement on Twitter expressing sympathy for the victims and saying the office was monitoring the situation.
“We are actively monitoring the shooting at a church in Laguna Woods and working closely with local law enforcement,” the statement said. “No one should have to fear going to their place of worship. Our thoughts are with the victims, community, and all those impacted by this tragic event.”
5. Chou Had Recently Separated From His Wife & Became Homeless
Chou had once been a landlord at the property where he most recently lived, but he was evicted from the building in February, a neighbor told CBS Las Vegas.
“Just spoke to someone who says the suspect in the Laguna Woods shooting was his neighbor here in Las Vegas,” Reporter Joe Moeller wrote on Twitter. “He says David Chou was evicted in February. He tells me Chou was once the landlord, and his ex wife sold the building & moved.”
Fellow pastors, community members and others flooded social media with support for the church in the hours after the shooting.
“The Pastor preached on love and letting love penetrate over political differences. Very foreshadowing. May the Holy Spirit touch and comfort this church,” Court Heath wrote in a comment on the May 15, 2022 video of the Sunday sermon.
“I’m praying for all my #PCUSA siblings this evening, and for everyone at the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Hills. May Christ’s peace be with you now,” E. Carrington Heath wrote on Twitter.
“May our Lord Jesus, the Divine Physician, heal and comfort the people in your congregation who were injured. May God’s arms hold and soothe all of you. Amen,” Jae Sue wrote on Facebook.