The Orange County prosecutor on Tuesday filed a murder charge that could carry the death penalty against a man accused of fatally shooting a man and injuring five others at a Taiwanese church in what authorities said was a felony apparent political hatred.
David Wenwei Chou, 68, of Las Vegas, is accused of shooting six people at the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Irvine, which leases space from the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods.
One of the victims, John Cheng, a 52-year-old doctor, died of his injuries. Five others, aged 66 to 92, were taken to hospital.
In addition to the murder charge, Chou faces five counts of attempted murder as well as murder with the special circumstance of using a firearm and waiting, Dist. Atti. said Todd Spitzer. The improved special circumstances mean that if convicted, Chou faces life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.
Chou was also charged with four counts of possession of a destructive device with intent to kill or injure.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes on Monday called the shooting a “politically motivated hate incident,” and said authorities believe Chou “specifically targeted the Taiwanese community.”
The FBI has also opened a federal hate crime investigation into the shooting.
Prosecutors have yet to file a hate crime sentencing enhancement request in the case, but Spitzer said his team is working with the FBI to investigate the evidence.
“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,” Spitzer told reporters during a Tuesday briefing.
Barnes said Chou left notes in Chinese in his car saying he didn’t believe Taiwan should be independent from China and that he apparently had a problem with Taiwanese because of the way he was treated during that he lived there.
China views Taiwan as a breakaway province and has become increasingly aggressive in reclaiming the democratic and self-governing island. In Taiwan, a majority of people favor maintaining the status quo, with some wanting to openly declare independence and a small minority wanting to one day unite with China.
Accounts of Chou’s background differ. Barnes said he was born in mainland China and moved to Taiwan at some point before moving to the United States. But an official from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles – Taiwan’s de facto embassy, since the island is not officially recognized by the United States and most other countries – said Chou was born in Taiwan.
In the months leading up to the shooting, Chou also faced upheaval in his personal life. His wife had returned to Taiwan in December, to be treated for cancer but also to leave him in the middle of a divorce – according to Balmore Orellana, their former neighbor in Las Vegas.
Chou and his wife owned the building they lived in, one of a dozen shabby stucco fourplexes that line a cul-de-sac about a mile west of the Las Vegas Strip. The couple sold the building around the time she left for Taiwan, Orellana said, and Chou later complained to him that the new owners had raised the rent to an unaffordable level.
Orellana said Chou was kicked out of the building in February. The last time Orellana saw Chou was when he helped him carry his unit’s trash to the dumpster.
“He was just an old homeless man,” recalls Orellana. While Chou didn’t explicitly express his suicidal thoughts, Orellana said, “He said to me, ‘I don’t care about my life anymore. ”
According to Orellana, Chou said he was born in Taiwan but considered himself Chinese and believed that China and Taiwan were one country.
In a letter released Monday, the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Irvine said Chou arrived at the church around 10 a.m. Sunday, before the morning service. He wore a black shirt that some parishioners said read “Security,” the church said. Chou worked intermittently as a security guard in Las Vegas, according to Orellana.
He apparently remained in the church area until early afternoon, when he emerged into a banquet hall where the church was honoring longtime pastor Billy Chang, who had just returned after two years in Taiwan. After lunch, some worshipers met Chou, whom they saw “applying iron chains to begin locking the doors,” the church said in the letter.
Other church members saw him pounding two more doors with nails, the letter said. Authorities also allege the suspect attempted to disable the locks with superglue.
The church said Chou then fired a shot into the air; some in the room assumed the noise was balloons popping.
“Dr. John Cheng saw Chou with the gun and immediately took action to try to stop him. Chou shot Dr. Cheng with three bullets. Some church members then fell to the ground,” said the ‘church.
Cheng’s actions were widely hailed as heroic – with officials saying his intervention gave other parishioners an opportunity to subdue the suspect.
“Without Dr. Cheng’s actions, there is no doubt that there would be many more victims in this crime,” Barnes said.
After Cheng tried to stop the shooter, Chang, the former pastor, ran towards him with a chair as his weapon.
” He was afraid. I don’t think he expected anyone to attack him,” Chang said in an interview with The Times.
Chang said he pushed the shooter to the ground, after which he and other parishioners tied him up with an electrical cord, according to officials and eyewitnesses.
Bags containing additional ammunition, as well as four Molotov cocktail-type incendiary devices, were found at the scene, authorities said.
Times writers Gregory Yee, Jeong Park, Anh Do, Hailey Branson-Potts and Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.
Los Angeles Times