Suspected gunman in California church shooting could face death penalty, prosecutors say
Written by Julia Jacobo ABC News on May 17, 2022
(LAGUNA WOODS, Calif.) — The suspected gunman in a shooting at a California church that police believe was politically motivated could face the death penalty in a murder charge announced by prosecutors on Tuesday.
David Chou, 68, is accused of killing one person and wounding five others when he targeted the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California, on Sunday afternoon. He is expected to be arraigned Tuesday on 10 counts, including murder for the death of 52-year-old Dr. John Cheng, who charged him during the attack, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said at a press conference before the court appearance.
The murder charge includes a special circumstance allegation of lying in wait, which opens Chou to a possible death sentence or, in the alternative, life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Spitzer said Chou “did everything he could to fit in” as he mingled with parishioners before he pulled out a semi-automatic handgun and began firing into the crowd during a luncheon to honor a pastor returning from Taiwan. This included lying to greeters at the small church, saying he had been there before.
“This case is about a person concealing themselves in plain view,” Spitzer said.
Chou allegedly attempted to secure doors with chains and superglue locks in an attempt to disable them to prevent parishioners from escaping, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said on Monday.
The Rev. Billy Chang was on the podium taking photos when he witnessed the gunman firing at congregants, he said in a statement Monday. After Chou allegedly stopped to reload, Cheng, a prominent sports physician, sprang into action, tackling the shooter.
Chang then slammed a chair into the gunman, pushing him to the floor and allowing other congregants to subdue him, Barnes said.
Cheng was fatally shot during the struggle.
The murder charge also includes a sentencing enhancement of personal use of a firearm. Chou was additionally charged with five counts of attempted murder for the other parishioners who were injured in the shooting as well as four counts of possession of an explosive device after sheriff’s officials said Chou was carrying incendiary devices similar to Molotov cocktails, Spitzer said.
Investigators found more ammo and incendiary devices that Chou had allegedly placed around the church, Barnes said.
Chou was allegedly motivated by the political tension between China and Taiwan, investigators said.
Chou, who is Chinese but an American citizen, lived alone in Las Vegas, where he worked in security, Barnes said. Investigators believe Chou’s anger began when he lived in Taiwan, where he felt he was an outsider and that his anti-Taiwan views were not accepted, Barnes said.
Chou’s wife and son still live in Taiwan, but Chou has lived alone in the U.S. for many years, Barnes said, adding that Chou’s views became more radical as tensions between China and Taiwan have escalated. He is being held on $1 million bond, jail records show.
Authorities believe Chou may have targeted the Taiwanese congregation because it was the closest, Barnes said.
It is unclear whether any specific recent events in China or Taiwan sparked the attack, Spitzer said.
The FBI said it opened a federal hate crimes investigation after it discovered evidence that the shooting was motivated by hate.
ABC News could not immediately reach an attorney for Chou for comment.
When asked why Chou was not charged with a hate crime, Spitzer explained while there appears to be “political and, or, nationalistic tensions,” prosecutors need to gather all of the evidence before filing that charge.
“While there’s very strong evidence right now that this was motivated by hate, we want to make sure that we have put together all the evidence that confirms that theory of the case,” Spitzer said.
A mass in honor of Cheng will be held Tuesday afternoon, Spitzer said.
ABC News’ Alex Stone and Jennifer Watts contributed to this report.
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