SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — The man accused of opening fire on a Taiwanese congregation of mostly elderly people in Southern California wanted to “execute as many people in that room in cold blood as possible,” a prosecutor said Tuesday when announcing murder, attempted murder and other charges for the shooting that killed one person and injured five.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer described David Wenwei Chou, 68, as a monster whose rampage was thwarted by the heroic actions of a doctor who charged him, a pastor who hit Chou with a chair and several parishioners who tied him up until the police arrived. .
“This monster hatched a diabolical plan to lock the doors of the church with his victims inside in order to lead what he thought were innocent lambs to the slaughterhouse,” Spitzer said. “But what he didn’t realize was that the parishioners in the church that day were not lambs – they were lions and they fought back against the evil that tried to infiltrate their place of worship.”
Spitzer said Chou was motivated by hatred of Taiwan, where he was born after his family was forced from mainland China when communists prevailed in a civil war that ended in 1949. He apparently chose random church and knew no one there, the authorities mentioned.
He drove from his home in Las Vegas on Saturday and arrived at the church the next day. Chou spent about an hour mingling with dozens of congregants over lunch, which Spitzer says was Chou’s way of gaining their trust so they wouldn’t notice him as he began to carry out his plot – chaining the doors closed, supergluing the locks and placing incendiary devices in several places.
Chou’s method amounted to “waiting,” Spitzer said, a legal designation that can increase sentences if convicted.
“This case is about the person hiding in plain sight,” he said.
If Chou is found guilty and the jury finds the enhancements to be true, he faces life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty, Spitzer said.
Chou’s arraignment continued until June 10 and he pleaded not guilty in his first court appearance on Tuesday. He will continue to be held without bail. His public defender, Tania Vallejo, did not immediately return an email seeking comment.
Authorities said Chou — a US citizen who worked for years as a security guard — was motivated by hatred of the Taiwanese people documented in handwritten notes authorities found. Spitzer said he was considering hate crime charges but needed more time to investigate.
“Although there is currently very strong evidence that this was motivated by hate, we want to make sure that we have gathered all the evidence that supports this theory in the case,” he said. Federal authorities are conducting their own investigation into hate crimes.
Tensions between China and Taiwan are at their highest in decades, with Beijing stepping up its military harassment by flying fighter jets to the self-governing island. China has not ruled out the force to reunite with Taiwan.
Chou had ties to a Las Vegas organization opposed to Taiwan independence from China, according to Taiwanese media.
Balmore Orellana, a former Las Vegas neighbor, said Chou had been a friendly landlord, but his life fell apart after his wife left him last year and moved back to Taiwan. Spitzer said the suspect’s wife was terminally ill.
Chou moved into a four-bedroom house in February. His roommate, Jordin Davis, said he was a kind, quiet man who often shared his food. Chou identified as a Christian and made a black duct tape cross on the roof of his car but never spoke about religion, Davis said.
The two had few conversations beyond small talk or talk about Davis’ dog, Zeus. Chou would “come home, go to sleep, take a shower, go to work, and just repeat that routine all over again,” Davis said.
Chou has spoken about Taiwan only once, in a conversation less than two weeks ago, Davis said. Chou said he felt the Taiwanese government was corrupt and did not like the islanders’ sympathy for the rulers.
“He posed as a political refugee,” Davis said.
Authorities searched the house on Monday, Davis said, and took a laptop computer. Officials said they are investigating the electronic records as part of the investigation.
Chou is accused of shooting parishioners at a Sunday luncheon for members of the Irvine Taiwan Presbyterian Church, which worships at Geneva Presbyterian Church in the Laguna Woods community.
He had two 9mm handguns — purchased legally years ago in Las Vegas — and three bags containing four Molotov cocktail-style incendiary devices and additional ammunition, authorities said. He opened fire and in the ensuing chaos Dr. John Cheng, 52, tackled him, allowing other parishioners to subdue him and tie him down with an extension cord, authorities said.
Cheng died and five people were injured, including an 86-year-old woman and four men between the ages of 66 and 92, the sheriff’s department said. Some have already been released from hospital and others were in stable condition, according to former church pastor Billy Chang.
Lunch came after a morning service to welcome Chang, who had served the church for 20 years. Chang returned to Taiwan two years ago and this was his first time back.
Chou entered the church sanctuary during services, giving the receptionist his name as “Da-Wei Chou”, and sat in the back reading one of the Chinese newspapers provided. by the church, according to a church statement released Tuesday.
He wore a black shirt with a word written on it in white that some said read “Security,” the statement said.
The service was followed by an adult Sunday School session which Chou apparently did not attend, but did show up later at lunch, the church said.
Towards the end of lunch, some parishioners took photos with Chang and started to leave. They saw Chou begin to lock the doors with iron chains but he allowed them out, according to the church statement.
“When they questioned him about his actions, he refused to answer. They assumed he was a security guard,” the statement read.
A man forgot some things inside the church and wanted to come back, but Chou wouldn’t let him into the hall and another church member who was inside said he saw Chou nailing two exit doors shut, according to the statement.
In a statement Tuesday recounting the shooting, Chang said he initially thought Chou was using a toy gun as a prank when Chou opened fire. When Chang realized it was real gunfire, he grabbed a chair and threw it at Chou, who fell to the ground. Chang rushed Chou and three other members of the congregation held Chou down and tied him up.
“It was only then that I noticed that Dr Cheng was lying face down in front of me with three bloody bullet wounds in his back, not moving,” Chang said.
Authorities said Cheng charged at Chou and cut off the gunfire. Sheriff Don Barnes on Monday called Cheng’s heroism a “combination of good versus evil” that likely saved the lives “of more than dozens of people.”
Cheng, who practiced sports medicine, had recently lost his father and took his mother to lunch. He was well known in the community and well liked by his patients.
Associated Press reporters John Antczak in Los Angeles and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas contributed to this report.