A gunman who opened fire at worshippers, killing one person and injuring five others at Geneva Presbyterian Church Sunday in Laguna Woods, California, was motived by political hatred against Taiwan, authorities said Monday.
The shooter planned the violent attack, packed explosives, and locked the exits with chains, but authorities said congregants and a former pastor who was being honored that day subdued the gunman, likely saving dozens of lives.
One of the congregants, Dr. John Cheng, was shot after charging the shooter and was killed in the attack.
"Dr. (John) Cheng is a hero in this incident," Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said a at a news conference.
Cheng charged the suspect from across the room, and was shot as he tried to disarm the suspect.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said the gunman then attempted to shoot Cheng once more, but the gun jammed, allowing the other parishioners to tackle the shooter and restrain him.
"Without the actions of Dr. Cheng, there's no doubt there be other victims in this crime," Barnes said.
On Tuesday, Spitzer announced the Orange County District Attorney's Office charged the suspect, David Wenwei Chou, with one count of first-degree murder, five counts of attempted murder, and four counts of possessing destructive devices.
Although investigators have found "strong evidence" that the attack was motivated by hate, Spitzer said prosecutors were not yet filing hate crime charges until they "put together all the evidence that confirms that theory."
Kristi Johnson, assistant director in charge of the FBI in Los Angeles, said Monday federal officials have also opened a federal hate crime investigation and working with the Department of Justice on possible federal charges.
Worshippers had gathered at the church to honor a former pastor, Billy Chang, who had served there for 21 years and left in 2020 to Taiwan.
A longtime member of the church, Jerry Chen, told the LA Times that when the shooter paused to reload his weapon, the pastor hit him over the head with a chair and members of the congregation tackled him.
The suspect, identified as David Wenwei Chou, a 68-year-old resident of Las Vegas, opened fire during a lunch banquet attended by around 30 to 40 people following the morning service.
Members of the church tackled the shooter, hogtied his legs with extension cords, and confiscated at least two weapons from him, Jeff Hallock, an Orange County undersheriff, said during a news conference Sunday.
Officials said Chou drove from Las Vegas on Saturday, and likely targeted the Laguna Woods church and its Taiwanese congregants because of its proximity.
Police did not release the names of the victims, but said that those injured included four Asian men who were 66, 75, 82, and 92 years old, and an 86-year-old Asian woman.
Authorities have served multiple search warrants at Chou's home, as well as a vehicle that was found in the parking lot of the church. Based on some of the evidence, including "notes" that were found in the vehicle, Barnes said Chou appeared to have been motivated by the political tensions between Taiwan and China.
The congregants in the building at the time of the shooting were members of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which has been holding services at the site for 10 years, the LA Times reported.
Chou, a US Citizen, worked as a security guard in Las Vegas and searched the church's location the day before the attack. Barnes said his family is believed to be residing in Taiwan.
Investigators believe Chou had expressed his hatred of Taiwan there in the past and that it had "not been well received."
Authorities did not say how long ago the attack was planned, but believed Chou had thought out the attack to maximize casualties.
In addition to two semi-automatic handguns, authorities also retrieved four molotov cocktail-like explosives that had been placed around the hall where the attack took place.
"We know he had a very intentional plan," Barnes said. "We know he formulated a strategy that he employed. It was well-thought out."
The attack came a day after a mass shooting in Buffalo where a white teenager traveled to a predominantly Black neighborhood and opened fire in a grocery store, killing 10 people.
The American Public Health Association says gun violence in the US is a public health crisis. It is a leading cause of premature death in the country, responsible for more than 38,000 deaths annually. As of May 16, at least 16,065 people have died from gun violence this year, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive.