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Sheriff: Vegas suspect in church shooting fueled by ‘political tensions’

Updated May 16, 2022 - 8:54 pm

A Las Vegas man accused of a fatal mass shooting Sunday in a Southern California church was fueled by “political tensions” between China and Taiwan and an alleged “hatred” of the Taiwanese community, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said Monday during a press conference.

David Wenwei Chou, a 68-year-old Chinese national and U.S. citizen, is facing numerous charges, including one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder, authorities said.

Chou’s bail was set at $1 million, and he was expected to be arraigned Tuesday, jail logs show.

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.

Investigators believe Chou drove from Las Vegas to Orange County on Saturday, a day before the shooting during a luncheon at the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which shares a space with the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, Barnes said.

The Southern California community is about 275 driving miles south of Las Vegas.

Chou chained the church doors, used “super glue” to disable the locks, and tried to nail shut at least one of the entrances, Barnes said.

Sometime before the attack, Chou also placed two bags behind a curtain in the church’s banquet hall, where congregants had gathered to celebrate the return of a pastor from a mission in Taiwan. One bag contained loaded gun magazines and the other held incendiary devices that resembled Molotov cocktails, said Barnes and Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer.

Chou, who had no known connections to the church and who was thought to have acted alone, tried to blend in with the roughly 50 mostly elderly attendees, Barnes said. But at least one of them, who became suspicious because they did not recognize him, asked if he needed anything, the sheriff added.

Investigators believe that Chou, who had no ties to any religious organizations, chose that church due to its proximity to Las Vegas, Barnes said.

After the gunman opened fire, sports medicine Dr. John Cheng sprung into action and tackled him while other congregants rushed the shooter, including a pastor who threw a chair on him, Barnes said.

The group tied Chou’s feet with electric cords before officers arrived to arrest him, Barnes said.

But Chou had already shot six people, including Cheng who died at the scene, Barnes said. Four of the other victims had been stabilized at hospitals, and the medical prognosis on the fifth was not immediately available, said Mike Contreras, division chief of the Orange County Fire Authority.

The age range of the surviving victims is 66 to 92 years old, including a couple in their mid-80s, said Barnes, who described the six victims as Taiwanese Americans.

In Chou’s car found in the church’s parking lot, investigators recovered Mandarin-written notes that expressed disdain for the Taiwanese, Barnes said. Investigators learned that he had spent time in Taiwan in earlier years and that the alleged gunman thought he had not been “well-received,” the sheriff added.

Chinese government officials claim that the Taiwanese territory belongs to the mainland and contest its sovereignty.

The attack was “methodical” and “well thought out,” Barnes said, noting that had it not been for the actions of the group who stopped Chou, dozens more could have been killed.

“Without the actions of Dr. Cheng, there is no doubt that there would be numerous additional victims in this crime,” Barnes said.

After his arrest, Chou made “brief comments” before requesting an attorney, according to Barnes, who did not share what the suspect had said.

Las Vegas ties

Authorities said Chou had lived in the U.S. for several years, including residences in multiple states, such as Texas and Nevada.

Clark County property records show that Chou and a woman bought a four-plex near Twain Avenue and Decatur Boulevard in 2011. The woman was listed as the sole owner in 2018 before selling the property in October.

A neighbor, who did not want to share her name, said that a vacant unit adjacent to the dilapidated four-plex served as a laundromat before the property was sold to its current owner. On Monday, an American flag was draped against the door.

It had fading messages written in black marker, including, “God Bless the American Citizens” and “God Bless Conrad Lee Chou!” Another portion of the flag had his name next to a 2016 date.

The neighbor, who described Chou as a “grumpy” man who would quarrel over a parking spot, said that his wife had lived with him until months ago. The Orange County sheriff said the woman had moved to Taiwan, and that Chou was not living with any family.

Nevada records show that Chou was a licensed armed security guard, who renewed his permit a little over a year ago. It lists five security firms who employed him dating back to 2014. No one with those companies could be reached for comment Monday.

Barnes said that during a search of his Las Vegas home, the Metropolitan Police Department recovered electronic devices investigators would be combing through.

Metro declined to comment.

A former neighbor, Balmore Orellana, said Monday night that he had lived next to Chou for about five years. Chou was evicted in February, Orellana said, and may have been living in his car.

When new tenants moved in to what had been Chou’s apartment, they found pictures of Chou holding guns as well as a small handgun, Orellana said.

“They never would’ve thought this was going to happen with David,” he said.

Orellana said he’d been friendly with Chou, who was previously the landlord of the property. Orellana remembered Chou bringing fruit, vegetables and other food to the tenants of the building.

Chou’s wife moved back to Taiwan after she was diagnosed with lung cancer, and his son is a dentist living in Texas, according to Orellana.

“It took me off balance with my emotions, because to hear what he did compared to what he did on a daily basis, he treated us good, is … ” Orellana said, his voice trailing off as he recalled Monday’s news. “For what he did, I can’t call him my friend anymore. Because that’s not right.”

Stephen Galloway, assistant agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Los Angeles, said in the press conference that Chou had bought the two 9 mm guns recovered at the church in Las Vegas, in 2015 and 2017. The purchases were conducted legally, he added.

Spitzer, the district attorney, told reporters that he and the prosecutor assigned to the case conducted a walk through of the crime scene after the shooting.

“We could tell that havoc had been created in that space,” he said, describing 10 cloth-covered tables that had been set up for the celebration and the red Solo cups and popcorn that littered the chaotic scene.

“I will tell you that evil was in that church yesterday,” said Spitzer, who noted that Chou had again tried shooting a gravely wounded Cheng, but that his gun had “jammed.”

Spitzer said his office would weigh filing additional charges, and he would decide at a later date if prosecutors would seek the death penalty.

“The suspect had an absolute bias against the Taiwanese people and its country as a Chinese or mainland national,” Spitzer said.

Contact Ricardo Torres-Cortez at rtorres@reviewjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @rickytwrites. Review-Journal reporter Jonah Dylan contributed to this story.

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