Updated May 17, 2022 - 9:34 pm
The Orange County district attorney’s office on Tuesday filed a murder charge that could carry the death penalty in the case of a Las Vegas man accused of a fatal mass shooting at a Southern California church.
On Monday, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said the shooting a day earlier was fueled by “political tensions” between China and Taiwan, and the suspect’s “hatred” of the Taiwanese community. Authorities initially said 68-year-old David Wenwei Chou was a Chinese national and U.S. citizen.
But the sheriff’s office wrote in a statement Tuesday night that officials had misspoken about his nationality based on interviews with “people familiar with the suspect,” and that Chou had later told investigators he was born and raised in Taiwan.
“According to the suspect’s writings that have been interpreted,” the statement read, “he fostered a grievance against the Taiwanese community and he was upset about the political tensions between China and Taiwan.”
Prosecutors in California filed 10 charges against Chou, including murder with enhancements of discharging a firearm resulting in death and lying in wait, according to a statement from the Orange County district attorney’s office.
Chou also faces five counts of attempted premeditated murder and four felony counts of possession of an explosive device. If convicted of the charges, Chou could face the death penalty, the statement said.
He remained in jail on Tuesday with a $1 million bail, according to jail records.
Federal hate crimes probe
The FBI on Monday launched a separate “federal hate crimes” probe, Assistant Director in Charge for the Los Angeles division Kristi Johnson told reporters in California. The district attorney’s office said the complaint filed Tuesday can be amended to add additional charges.
Investigators believe that a day before the shooting, Chou drove from Las Vegas to Laguna Woods, a community about 275 miles south. Before the shooting at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church’s banquet hall, Chou chained the doors, used “super glue” to disable the locks and tried to nail shut at least one entrance, Barnes said.
But parishioners, including 52-year-old sports medicine Dr. John Cheng, who was killed in the shooting, fought back and hogtied Chou before police arrived, the district attorney’s office said. A church pastor threw a chair on the gunman, who had tried to again shoot the doctor, but his gun “jammed,” Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said Monday.
Investigators discovered bags, with additional loaded magazines and incendiary devices that resembled Molotov cocktails, that they alleged Chou hid in the church, Barnes said.
The two semi-automatic 9 mm guns investigators recovered from the scene were tracked as legal purchases in Las Vegas in 2015 and 2017, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Cheng, who officials hailed as a hero whose actions averted a deadlier tragedy, was survived by his wife and two children, Barnes said.
Four of the other five hospitalized shooting victims had been stabilized, officials said Monday.
Spitzer said that while Chou thought he was leading “lambs to slaughter,” the parishioners acted like “lions” who “fought back against the evil that tried to infiltrate their house of worship.”
“Good will always win over evil and hate will not be tolerated anywhere in Orange County,” Spitzer said in the statement. “Dr. John Cheng is the embodiment of everything good and he laid down his life to protect dozens of others, including his own mother. That act of pure selflessness and heroism will not be forgotten.”
‘No place for hatred and racism’
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., took to Twitter on Tuesday to address the attack.
“There is no place for hatred and racism in this country, and I condemn these horrific attacks in the strongest possible terms,” she wrote. “Today, I’m honoring Dr. John Cheng’s heroic actions, and my thoughts are with his loved ones during this terrible time.”
Authorities said Monday that they were investigating why the gunman chose the Southern California congregation, to which he had no known ties. But Barnes said that it was likely due to its proximity to Las Vegas, adding that Chou had no ties to any organized religion.
Chou immigrated to the U.S. years ago, having had residences in states such as Texas, Barnes said. His Las Vegas roots date to at least 2011 when he and a woman purchased a four-plex near Flamingo Road and Decatur Boulevard, which was sold in October.
One former neighbor described him as a “grumpy” man who quarreled over a parking spot, while another said Chou was friendly.
Balmore Orellana said he lived next to Chou for five years until the suspect was purportedly evicted earlier this year. When new tenants moved into the apartment, they found a small gun and photos of Chou holding firearms, Orellana added.
Authorities said Monday that Chou’s wife had moved to Taiwan.
Orellana said the woman left after a cancer diagnoses, and that Chou had a dentist son in Texas. Barnes said Las Vegas police served a search warrant at Chou’s home, although it was not clear where that was.
Chou was licensed as an armed security guard with a permit that listed five employers, according to Nevada’s Private Investigators Licensing Board, which noted he took a two-day firearm training class when the permit was issued in 2015. The security guard firearm permit was set to expire at the end of October.
The congregation Chou is accused of targeting, the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, was founded in 1994, and has shared the facility with the Geneva Presbyterian Church since 2009, according to the religious organizations’ websites. The building sits between residential neighborhoods on one side and commercial buildings on the other.
“We use our own language and culture to worship God,” the Rev. Albany Lee wrote on the website. “Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church is a family of love. I hope that all brothers and sisters can become acquainted with each other on a deeper level.”
Lee could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Rev. Steven Marsh, who oversees the Geneva Presbyterian congregation, wrote Sunday on his organization’s website that he was “deeply saddened” about the attack, noting that the Taiwanese church was celebrating its former pastor, the Rev. Billy Chang, when chaos broke out. Roughly 50 mostly elderly attendees were present during the attack, officials said.
“On this sorrowful day and confident in the resurrection’s victory over death, I remain faithfully yours,” Marsh wrote.
The building remained closed to the public.