Police in the US state of California, where a man opened fire on Sunday at a church, killing one person and wounding five others, have said the suspected gunman was motivated by a hatred of Taiwanese people.
David Chou, 68, of Las Vegas was booked on one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder in relation to the attack at the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department tweeted on Monday.
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Local authorities said Chou, a United States citizen of Chinese descent, had travelled from Las Vegas and targeted the Taiwanese community out of animosity towards Taiwan and recent tensions between the island and mainland China.
Based on evidence recovered by investigators, the shooting “was a politically motivated, hate incident – a grievance that this individual had between himself and the Taiwanese community at large”, said Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes.
“It is believed the suspect was upset about political tensions between China and Taiwan,” he said.
China claims self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and has not ruled out the use of force to take control of the island.
Sunday’s incident was at least the second mass shooting of the weekend in the US, which has been plagued with gun violence in recent years.
In Buffalo, New York, on Saturday, an 18-year-old white man opened fire at a supermarket in a mostly Black neighbourhood, killing 10 and wounding three in what authorities described as a purely racist attack.
Chou brought two bags – one with four Molotov cocktails and one with loaded ammunition magazines – and likely would have killed many more people had it not been for heroic actions of parishioners, Barnes said at a media briefing.
During the shooting, parishioner Dr John Cheng tackled the gunman, allowing others to disarm the man. Dr Cheng, 52, was shot in the process and died, Barnes said.
“The way that this individual set up that environment to kill many more people, there would have been many, many more lives lost, if not for the concerted effort of the members of that church,” Barnes said.
Barnes added that Cheng, who is survived by a wife and two children, probably saved the lives “of upwards of dozens of people”.
Chou had been arrested by deputies at the scene of the shooting after witnesses said the church pastor hit the alleged gunman on the head with a chair and parishioners hog-tied his legs with electrical cords.
Five people were critically wounded. Two 9mm handguns owned by Chou were found at the scene, authorities said. Chou tried to disable the locks on doors of the church with superglue.
Kristi Johnson, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, said the US law enforcement agency had opened a federal hate crimes investigation in the case.
Jail records show Chou was being held on $1m bail, according to The Associated Press news agency. It was not immediately known whether he has a lawyer.
The accused shooter would be arraigned on murder and attempted murder charges before a state court on Tuesday and potentially faces life in prison or the death penalty, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said.
“Havoc had been created in that space. There was turned over containers of popcorn. A person left their walker, their cane on the table because it was obvious from the scene that they had to get out of there as quickly as possible in an utmost panic,” Spitzer said.
When the shooting began, a group of about 40 congregants had gathered in the fellowship hall for a luncheon held by Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which worships at Geneva Presbyterian.
They were there to welcome former Pastor Billy Chang, who had served the church for 20 years and was a beloved and respected community member.
“Everyone had just finished lunch,” said longtime congregation member Jerry Chen, who had just stepped into the kitchen of the church’s fellowship hall at about 1:30pm on Sunday [20:30 GMT] when he heard the gunshots.
“I was very, very scared. I ran out the kitchen door to call 9-1-1.”
Chen, 72, peeked around the corner and saw others screaming, running, and ducking under tables.
Fellow congregants told Chen that when the gunman stopped to reload, Pastor Chang hit him on the head with a chair while others moved quickly to grab his gun. They then subdued him and tied him up, Chen said.
“It was amazing how brave [Chang] and the others were,” he said. “This is just so sad. I never, ever thought something like this would happen in my church, in my community.”
Most of the church’s members are older Taiwanese immigrants, Chen said. “We’re mostly retirees and the average age of our church is 80.”
Those wounded by gunshots included four Asian men, ages 66, 75, 82 and 92, and an 86-year-old Asian woman, the sheriff’s department said.
We are actively monitoring the shooting at a church in Laguna Woods and working closely with local law enforcement.
No one should have to fear going to their place of worship. Our thoughts are with the victims, community, and all those impacted by this tragic event.
— Office of the Governor of California (@CAgovernor) May 15, 2022
On its website, Geneva Presbyterian Church says its mission is “to remember, tell, and live the way of Jesus by being just, kind, and humble”.
“All are welcome here. Really, we mean that! … Geneva aspires to be an inclusive congregation worshipping, learning, connecting, giving, and serving together.”