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Orange County church shooting suspect to be charged with murder and 9 other counts

<i>County News</i><br/>First responders are seen at Laguna Woods
County News
County News
First responders are seen at Laguna Woods

By Elizabeth Joseph, Eric Levenson and Theresa Waldrop, CNN

The man accused of fatally shooting one man and wounding five others at a Taiwanese church service in Orange County, California, on Sunday will be charged with murder, attempted murder and possession of an explosive device, District Attorney Todd Spitzer said Tuesday.

The murder count against David Chou, 68, comes with a “lying in wait” enhancement because the suspect allegedly pretended to be a parishioner and falsely said he had been to a service beforehand in order to get inside the church.

“He did everything he could to fit in, to make himself one of them,” Spitzer said. “He used that ruse to get in there and then make that entire room feel comfortable.”

Chou was denied bail Tuesday, and his arraignment was postponed until June 10.

If convicted of the charges, Chou could face the death penalty, though Spitzer said he has not decided whether he will pursue the punishment. Chou will be held without bail because of the special circumstance murder charge, the district attorney’s office said.

Authorities initially believed Chou, a US citizen living in Las Vegas, emigrated from China years ago. But in an interview Tuesday, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said Chou indicated he was born and raised in Taiwan.

“According to the suspect’s writings that have been interpreted, he fostered a grievance against the Taiwanese community and he was upset about the political tensions between China and Taiwan,” the sheriff’s department said Tuesday.

CNN has not been able to identify an attorney for Chou and has reached out to the county public defender’s office.

During a church lunch banquet, Chou attempted to lock the doors from the inside with chains and super glue and then opened fire at the elderly churchgoers, officials said. Chou also had a bag of Molotov cocktails and a bag of extra ammunition, according to authorities.

Dr. John Cheng, a family and sports medicine physician there with his recently widowed mother, charged at the man and was fatally shot in the attempt. His efforts caused the gun to jam.

The pastor, Billy Chang, struck the gunman with a chair, and others hogtied the man and took at least two handguns from him, officials said.

In a letter provided to CNN from a parishioner, Chang says: “We were standing on the podium, taking photos with friends, witnessing the shooter aiming and firing. At first I thought it was toy gun, playing a trick, no need to take cover. Then realize it was no joke at all. The shooter was about 10-15 steps from me.”

Chang says he rushed from the podium and picked up a chair. He writes the shooter turned “to resist my attack” and fell with the gun dropping by his side.

“To prevent him from picking up the gun, I pressed him and his hand with my body, and calling loudly for help,” he writes. Four people came to assist and used electrical cords as they couldn’t find any rope.

To his “heart-breaking sorrow,” Chang saw Cheng lying still on the floor with bullet wounds in his back.

Cheng, 52, was pronounced dead at the church, and authorities praised him as a hero for preventing further bloodshed.

“Dr. John Cheng is the embodiment of everything good and he laid down his life to protect dozens of others, including his own mother,” Spitzer said in a statement. “That act of pure selflessness and heroism will not be forgotten.”

Four men aged 66, 75, 82 and 92 and an 86-year-old woman were injured. All are expected to survive, the district attorney’s office said.

The suspect is not believed to have any direct connection to the church or any member of the church, the sheriff said. Officials said they believe he acted alone.

How the shooting unfolded

The shooting happened during a lunch reception of largely elderly congregants to celebrate a pastor of the Taiwanese congregation who was returning from a mission trip in Taiwan, Orange County Sheriff Donald Barnes said. About 50 people were at the reception, he said.

Dr. Cheng’s heroism prevented more bloodshed, Barnes said. “Dr. Cheng is a hero in this incident, based on statements from the witnesses and corroborated by other means,” he said.

Officials praised the pastor and the others who tied up the suspect.

“That group of churchgoers displayed what we believe is exceptional heroism in interfering or intervening to stop the suspect,” Undersheriff Jeff Hallock said.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Los Angeles determined that Chou was the original purchaser of the two firearms recovered at the scene, ATF agent Stephen Galloway said.

The Taiwanese Presbyterian Church shared space with Geneva Presbyterian since 2009, according to the sheriff. It always holds a lunch after its Sunday morning service, Laguna Woods Mayor Pro Tem Cynthia Conners told CNN.

“We’ll see what we can do to meet with the members of the congregation, we’ll bring in someone from the Orange County Human Rights Commission … and try to make sure that the Asian members of our community feel as safe as all the other members of our community, although I would have to say I think we all feel a little less safe today,” Conners said.

Taiwan’s government said its economic and cultural office in Los Angeles has activated emergency response plans.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sends our deepest condolences to the victims and their families,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Joanne Ou said. “We will keep in touch with the family members of the victims to understand their needs, and provide all necessary help,” she added.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen posted on social media Tuesday, “I want to convey my sincere condolences on the death of Dr. John Cheng & my hopes for a prompt recovery for those injured in the shooting at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in California. Violence is never the answer.”

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CNN’s Taylor Romine. Dawn Tamir, Vivian Kuo and Joe Sutton contributed to this report.

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