The man accused of shooting six people in a Laguna Woods church on Sunday, killing one and injuring five, made his first court appearance on Tuesday.
Officials say the gunman, 68-year-old David Wenwei Chou, drove from his home in Las Vegas to Geneva Presbyterian Church in Orange County, with the plan to kill all of the members of the congregation.
The shooting was a “politically motivated hate incident,” OC Sheriff Don Barnes said at a news conference on Monday. “It is believed the suspect was upset about political tensions between China and Taiwan.”
The church is a Taiwanese congregation.
The suspected gunman was charged by the Orange County District Attorney for:
- one felony count of murder in the first degree, enhanced with special circumstances of “lying in wait” and personal use of a firearm;
- five counts of attempted murder, one for each injured victim, enhanced with premeditation and deliberation;
- and four counts of unlawful possession of destructive devices with intent to kill or to harm.
Arraignment was continued until June 10, and he was being held without bail.
“We typically think of the person who hides in the bushes,” Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said. “This case is about the person concealing themselves in plain view.”
The man allegedly placed extra weapons, ammunition and “molotov cocktail-like incendiary devices” in the church, leading investigators to believe the incident would have been far more deadly without the brave and heroic actions of parishioners, and 52-year-old Dr. John Cheng, who was killed while charging the gunman.
The single count of murder in the first degree is due to Cheng’s death, Spitzer said during a news conference ahead of the suspected gunman’s arraignment.
The enhancement of “lying in wait” is because the suspected shooter allegedly hid that extra ammunition and the explosives in the room for use later, and because he took the time to arrive at the church and make the congregants feel comfortable with his presence before the shooting took place, Spitzer said.
The murder count, along with the special circumstance enhancements on the charge, is enough for the suspected gunman to face life in prison without the possibility of parole, or to face a death sentence, Spitzer said.
The OC DA has not yet ruled out seeking death as punishment in the case, he said. If convicted as charged and the jury finds the enhancements to be true, the suspected gunman would face a sentence of either life in prison without possibility of parole or the death penalty, Spitzer said.
“While there’s very strong evidence right now that this was motivated by hate, we want to make sure we have put together all the evidence that confirms that theory in the case,” Spitzer said, when asked whether he would be filing charge of a hate crime.
He is being held in lieu of $1 million bail and is set to be arraigned Tuesday afternoon.
The gunman will not appear in court in person, due to COVID restrictions.
The OC DA is working with the FBI and US attorney on the case. Federal authorities were involved early in the case, when it was suspected that the shooting was an act of terrorism.
The suspect immigrated to the U.S. from China, according to officials, and investigators say he was carrying notes about his hatred towards Taiwanese people.
The president of Taiwan on Tuesday expressed her condolences to the victims of the shooting.
“I want to convey my sincere condolences on the death of Dr. John Cheng & my hopes for a prompt recovery of those injured in the shooting at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in California,” Tsai Ing-wen said in a statement on Twitter. “Violence is never the answer.”
Investigators are still attempting to determine why the suspected gunman chose this particular Taiwanese congregation above any other, why he chose Sunday to attack, and whether there is enough evidence to officially pursue the shooting as a hate crime or hate incident, Spitzer said Tuesday.