|Inside the Laguna Woods church shooting: A stranger lurking, 'evil' and heroes rising|
Hailey Branson-Potts, Hannah Fry, Matthew Ormseth
Thu, May 19, 2022, 5:00 AM·
Laguna Woods, CA - May 15: An Orange County Sheriff's Officer with a bomb-sniffing dog checks the exterior of the church after a person opened fire during a church service attended by a Taiwanese congregation, killing one person and critically injuring four others at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods Sunday, May 15, 2022. Authorities are interviewing more than 30 people who were inside the church at the time. The victims were described as mostly Asian and mostly of Taiwanese descent, authorities said. A law enforcement source said officials believe the suspect was a 68-year-old Asian man who is originally from Las Vegas. The source said after the suspect opened fire he was "subdued" by parishioners. No other details were available. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
An Orange County sheriff's deputy with a bomb-sniffing dog checks the exterior of Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods after Sunday's deadly shooting. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Behind the pulpit of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, Pastor Billy Chang was in his element.
He had spent two decades pastoring the Laguna Woods congregation before moving to Taiwan two years ago. And on Sunday morning, he was back — joyfully so — as a guest preacher reading the word of God once again in a place that felt like home.
Chang, 67, knew almost all the faces in the pews. They were mostly elderly, mostly Taiwanese. They were like family.
In the crowd was one stranger, but no one gave him much thought. He was an older Asian man with gray hair. He wore a black T-shirt and sat in the back of the sanctuary, reading a newspaper throughout the sermon.
Up front, Chang read from the Book of Isaiah: Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall. But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.
They were prescient words.
About three hours later the parishioners would have to find that strength to save their own lives when the stranger locked them in the auditorium and pulled out a gun.
The Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church never had a permanent home. It was started in 1994, with about 30 worshipers using borrowed space in another church in Irvine.
The church moved a few times, always nesting within other houses of worship. In 2012, it settled at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods to accommodate its aging members, many of whom lived in the nearby Laguna Woods Village retirement community.
Geneva Presbyterian is a gray, 1960s-era building, with thick walls and few windows, designed to tolerate frequent flyovers from the former El Toro Marine Base.
"The church is a place you go to for comfort. You go there for spiritual renewal," said Yorba Linda City Councilwoman Peggy Huang, whose parents are members of the Taiwanese Presbyterian congregation. "Church is all about love, peace and everything in the Bible."
Although it was itinerant, Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian had about 100 members and a dedicated leader in Chang, who pastored the church for 21 years before moving to Taiwan in 2020 to head a congregation there.
The Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian attendees worship in their native language — not Mandarin but Taiwanese, a dialect that was once suppressed by the Kuomintang regime, which ruled under martial law from 1949 to 1987.
"Our church is very kind," said Jerry Chen, a 72-year-old ordained church elder. "We are all very kind to other people."
On Sunday — the morning after a white gunman targeting Black shoppers at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., killed 10 people in what's being investigated as a racist hate crime — around 150 people showed up to the Laguna Woods church to hear Chang preach. Although attacks on Asian Americans have risen dramatically during the pandemic, they felt safe in their church.
Just after 10 a.m., a receptionist greeted the man in the black T-shirt. The receptionist, speaking Taiwanese, asked him to fill out a form with his personal information, a standard request for visitors to Presbyterian churches.
The man, who also spoke Taiwanese, refused. He said he had attended two services there in the past and had already filled out the form, according to a statement from the church.
He told the receptionist his name was "Da-Wei Chou," took a church-provided Chinese-language newspaper focused on Taiwanese news, and sat in the back of the sanctuary.
His full name was David Wenwei Chou.
He was a 68-year-old security guard from Las Vegas whose life was falling apart. His wife left for Taiwan in December to seek treatment for lung cancer and to leave him for good, in the midst of a divorce, according to a former next-door neighbor in Las Vegas. In March, Chou was evicted from the stucco fourplex he once owned.
“He was just a homeless old man,” the neighbor, Balmore Orellana, would recall. “He told me, ‘I just don’t care about my life anymore.’”
The tenants who moved into his vacated unit, Orellana said, found photos of him posing with a gun, including one that appeared to have been taken at a memorial to a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas. He looked like he was laughing.
Orellana didn't know if Chou had any radical ideology. But Chou did tell Orellana that he was born in Taiwan but considered himself Chinese, and strongly believed China and Taiwan were one country.
The churchgoers sang a hymn: Though old and poor, Jesus belongs to me. The Lord will support me all the way.
After the service, they gathered in the separate Simpson Hall for a luncheon — a special bento with teriyaki chicken — in Chang's honor.
They took turns taking photos with Chang, and some left. As they walked out, they saw the stranger trying to lock the doors with iron chains.
When some asked what he was doing, he didn't answer. They assumed he was a security guard for Geneva Presbyterian.
He tried to disable locks with Super Glue, and he tried to nail at least one door shut, authorities would say later.
When he fired a bullet at the ceiling, people thought it was a balloon popping.
Flowers surround a photo of a doctor
A photo of Dr. John Cheng, a 52-year-old physician killed in Sunday's shooting at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Chen, the church elder, was in the kitchen when he heard shots ring out.
"I heard the gun sounds," he would recount later, his voice shaking. "Then I heard two or three more gunshots. He was just randomly shooting."
He saw people falling and crawling under tables. He called 911, and was so distraught that he couldn't remember the church's address or what the shooter looked like.
In the reception hall, there was pandemonium. Pastor Chang didn't know what was happening. He thought someone was playing a joke.
The gunman kept firing, striking people one by one.
Dr. John Cheng — an Orange County sports medicine physician and father of two teenagers — had brought his mother to the luncheon. She was mourning the recent death of her husband and hadn't been to services in a while. But because she was close to Chang, her former pastor, she came for the luncheon honoring him.
Cheng, 52, of Laguna Niguel, was not a regular attendee, but he was a dutiful son.
When Cheng saw the man shooting elders, he jumped into the line of fire. Churchgoers said he was shot three times.
As the gunman paused and fidgeted with his gun — it was unclear whether he was reloading or if the weapon jammed — Chang struck him with a chair.
He pushed the gunman to the floor and asked others for help. He called out to his wife to find something so they could tie the man up.
She brought him some electrical cord, and he and the congregants hogtied the suspect.
"He got scared," Chang would say later. "I don't think he expected someone to attack him."
Soon, police officers burst through doors the suspect had nailed shut. Sirens blared. Ambulances arrived.
Cheng died at the scene. Five more parishioners had been shot and were taken to hospitals: an 86-year-old woman and four men, ages 66, 92, 82 and 75.
Chou was arrested, and the church was roped off with yellow crime scene tape.
Investigators found additional magazines of ammunition and four Molotov cocktail-like incendiary devices at the scene. They also recovered two 9-millimeter semiautomatic handguns purchased lawfully in Las Vegas, according to an official with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Authorities have characterized the attack as a political hate crime targeting the Taiwanese community.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said investigators found notes written in Chinese that Chou left in his car, in which he indicated he did not believe Taiwan should be independent from China.
The Orange County district attorney on Tuesday charged Chou with murder, and the FBI has opened a federal hate crime investigation into the shooting.
Chou appeared in Orange County Superior Court by audio connection on Tuesday.
Officials pray around Billy Chang
Officials pray around Billy Chang, center, who helped subdue a gunman at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods on Sunday. Chang, the congregation's former pastor, tried to hold back his emotions after speaking during a vigil at Christ Our Redeemer A.M.E. Church in Irvine on Monday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
His arraignment was postponed until June 10. Judge Cynthia Herrera ordered that Chou be held without bail.
Chou mailed seven volumes titled "Diary of an Independence-Destroying Angel" to the Los Angeles offices of the World Journal, the Chinese-language newspaper reported Wednesday. A photo included with the article showed eight stacks of paper that appeared to be handwritten in Chinese and secured with binder clips.
The newspaper said it had sent the documents to law enforcement and would not be printing their contents.
Why Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church was chosen for the attack remains a mystery, Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer said. The evidence collected, he said, “could indicate that this church was just random and it could have been any other Taiwanese church.”
Spitzer said he walked through the church Sunday night.
"I will tell you evil was in that church yesterday," he said during a press conference the next day.
In Simpson Hall, he said, the walls were decorated with Bible verses about how we should love our neighbors.
They were a poignant counterpoint to such cruelty visited upon a group of elderly people.
He saw containers of popcorn left overturned. Someone left a cane on a table as they fled. Another person left a walker.
Times staff writers Anh Do, Cindy Carcamo, Richard Winton, Luke Money, Jeong Park and Cindy Chang contributed to this report.
For the record:
4:03 p.m. May 19, 2022: An earlier version of this article included an extra word in a quote from the Bible’s Book of Isaiah, saying that those who hope in the Lord “will not run and not grow weary.” It should have said, “will run and not grow weary.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.