California church attack suspect charged with first-degree murder

Prosecutors in the United States have charged the suspect in a deadly weekend shooting at a California church with one count of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said on Tuesday that David Chou, 68, of Las Vegas faces an added charge for “lying in wait”, as well as four counts of possessing destructive devices with intent to kill or harm.

“We typically think of the person who hides in the bushes,” Spitzer said. “This case is about the person concealing themselves in plain view.”

Authorities have said Chou, a US citizen who grew up in Taiwan, was motivated by hatred of Taiwanese people when he opened fire during a Sunday luncheon for members of Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in the community of Laguna Woods.

The FBI has opened a federal hate crimes investigation.

If convicted by a jury, Chou would face either life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty, Spitzer said.

“While there’s very strong evidence right now that this was motivated by hate, we want to make sure we have put together all the evidence that confirms that theory in the case,” Spitzer said, when asked whether he would be filing a charge for a hate crime.

Authorities say Chou drove to Orange County on Saturday and the next day attended the lunch at Geneva Presbyterian Church, which the Taiwanese-American congregation used for events.

A photo of Dr. John Cheng, a 52-year-old victim who was killed in Sunday's shooting at Geneva Presbyterian Church, is displayed outside his office in Aliso Viejo, California.
Dr John Cheng, 52, was killed in Sunday’s shooting at Geneva Presbyterian Church [Jae C. Hong/AP Photo]

Though he knew no one there, he spent about an hour mingling with about 40 attendees and then executed his plot, authorities have said.

Chou had chained the doors and put superglue in the keyholes, authorities said. He had two 9mm handguns – legally purchased years ago in Las Vegas – and bags that contained four Molotov-cocktail-type incendiary devices and extra ammunition, among other things.

He began shooting, and in the ensuing chaos, a local physician, Dr John Cheng, 52, tackled Chou, allowing other parishioners to subdue him and tie him up with extension cords, authorities said.

Cheng died, and five other people were wounded – an 86-year-old woman as well as four men, ages 66, 75, 82 and 92 – the sheriff’s department said.

Authorities on Monday said two of the wounded were in good condition, two were in stable condition and the status of the fifth patient was undetermined.

Laguna Woods, where the shooting occurred, is a scenic coastal area whose population mainly consists of retirees and is near a gated community.

“That population in general created a vulnerable environment for him to carry out what I think was his ultimate goal, which was to execute in cold blood as many people in that room as possible,” Spitzer said.

ason Aguilar, left, a senior pastor at Arise Church, comforts Billy Chang, a 67-year-old Taiwanese pastor who survived Sunday's shooting at Geneva Presbyterian Church, during a prayer vigil in Irvine, California.
Jason Aguilar, left, a senior pastor at Arise Church, comforts Billy Chang, a 67-year-old Taiwanese pastor who survived Sunday’s shooting at a church, during a prayer vigil in Irvine, California [Jae C Hong/AP Photo]

Taiwan’s Central News Agency says it interviewed Louis M Huang, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles, who confirmed that Chou was born in Taiwan in 1953.

Chou’s family apparently was among many forcibly removed from mainland China to Taiwan sometime after 1948, according to Spitzer.

Tensions between China and Taiwan are at the highest in decades, with Beijing stepping up its military manoeuvers by flying fighter jets near the self-governing island. China claims the island as its own.

Taiwan’s chief representative in the US, Bi-khim Hsiao, offered condolences on Twitter.

Chinese Embassy Spokesperson Liu Pengyu told The Associated Press news agency via email that the Chinese government has “consistently condemned incidents of violence. We express our condolences to the victims and sincere sympathy to the bereaved families and the injured”.

Chou had ties to an organisation opposed to Taiwan’s independence from China, according to Taiwanese media. Evidence of Chou’s hatred towards Taiwan was found in handwritten notes in his car, law enforcement officials have said.