A 68-year-old Las Vegas man accused of carrying out a shooting rampage at a Laguna Woods church allegedly driven by his life-long hatred of Taiwanese people was charged Tuesday morning with capital murder.
David Wenwei Chou was charged with special circumstances murder for allegedly lying in wait before killing Dr. John Cheng, along with five counts of attempted murder for other parishioners who were shot and injured and four counts of unlawful possession of explosives for bringing what authorities described as “Molotov cocktail-like devices” to the Geneva Presbyterian Church.
The special circumstances murder charge against Chou – who authorities allege was driven by deep-seated, politically motivated hate – makes him eligible for the death penalty. Prosecutors at a later date will decide whether to pursue capital punishment or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Explaining the lying in wait allegation that elevates it to a potential death penalty case, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said Chou falsely told parishioners he had been to the church before, using a “ruse” to mingle with them and make them feel comfortable leading up the attack.
“We typically think of a person who hides in the bushes to commit a murder or hides out in a closet, that they are lying there in wait until the target comes into view,” Spitzer said during a news conference on Tuesday morning. “This case is about a person concealing themselves in plain view.”
Local prosecutors are working with their federal counterparts at the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to determine whether Chou should be charged with a hate crime, either in Orange County Superior Court or in federal court alongside the state charges.
If proven, a hate crime allegation in state court would not necessarily result in a longer sentence – since Chou is already facing life behind bars – but Orange County authorities have said they intend to prosecute instances of hate to the fullest extent of the law. Spitzer on Tuesday noted that federal prosecutors have statutes they could potentially charge someone under regarding suspected terrorist attacks on houses of worship.
“While we feel very strongly that this was motivated by hate, we want to continue to work with our law enforcement partners in the FBI to get all the additional evidence so that if we file the hate crime enhancement we would do it knowing full well what the evidence is,” Spitzer said.
Chou is accused of bringing a 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol to the church – along with bags filled with additional magazines of ammunition and the suspected incendiary devices – and using padlocks, Super Glue and nails to seal most of the doors to a dining hall that was being used by the congregation of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian.
A guest sermon had been held earlier that day by Pastor Billy Chang, a former leader of the congregation who spent two years in Taiwan. That service, which parishioners say Chou attended, was followed by a lunch in Chang’s honor.
After spending hours among the parishioners, Chou allegedly pulled out a gun and began firing.
“I think his ultimate goal was to execute, in cold blood, as many people as possible,” Spitzer said. “He had the ammunition to do it, he had the weaponry to do it, and he clearly had the opportunity and motive.”
As parishioners either fell to the floor or tried to escape, Cheng apparently rushed Chou, who shot the doctor before his gun reportedly jammed. Cheng’s actions gave the pastor time to hit Chou with a chair, and for others to grab Chou’s gun, pin him to the ground and hogtie him until deputies arrived.
During a news conference on Monday, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes described Cheng – a Laguna Hills resident who had a family care and sports medicine practice in Aliso Viejo – as a hero, who likely saved the lives of up to dozens of elderly parishioners.
The other shooting victims – who range in age from 66 to 92 – are expected to survive.
Spitzer previously described visiting the church in the aftermath of the shootings and seeing the havoc that occurred before Cheng “sacrificed himself so that others could live.”
“I will tell you that evil was in that church yesterday,” Spitzer said during a news conference on Monday. “But I will tell you that congregants and Dr. Cheng engaged in the most heroic activity one could ever imagine.”
Chou was described by authorities as a Chinese National who spent some of his childhood in Taiwan before eventually moving to the United States and becoming an American citizen. He recently worked as a security guard in Nevada and on Saturday drove from Las Vegas to Orange County. Authorities say he did not have direct ties to the Orange County congregation, but may have chosen that church since it was the closest concentration of Taiwanese victims.
Notes found by investigators in Chou’s car after the shootings indicated he felt hatred for the Taiwanese people and rage over ongoing tension between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, the sheriff said on Monday.
Chou is expected to make his first appearance in court on Tuesday afternoon. As a result of the special circumstances murder charge, he is expected to be held without bail.