California shooting: Good and evil meet face to face in Laguna Woods

By tackling the Orange County shooter, Dr. John Cheng, 52, foiled a massacre of elderly Taiwanese. His heroic act cost him his life

The sheriff of Orange County, Scott Steinle, with a photograph of John Cheng.
The sheriff of Orange County, Scott Steinle, with a photograph of John Cheng.Jae C. Hong (AP)

The crime scene revealed the terror and chaos experienced on Sunday afternoon in Laguna Woods. Inside the multipurpose room of the Geneva Presbyterian Church, 80 kilometers south of Los Angeles, there were a dozen tables decorated with long tablecloths. On these were red plastic cups. On the floor, plates and leftover popcorn. The large space, decorated with a huge black curtain and biblical phrases, was this past weekend the scene of a clash between good and evil. A group of parishioners who immigrated to the US from Taiwan were targeted by David Chou, a 68-year-old naturalized American of Chinese origin. One man was there to stop it, John Cheng, a 52-year-old doctor who took on the attacker and prevented further tragedy. That heroic act was his last: Dr. Cheng has so far been the only victim of the latest case of gun violence in the country. “He is a hero in this incident... he saved dozens of people’s lives,” Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said on Monday.

The congregation was gathered Sunday afternoon to welcome back Billy Chang, a beloved pastor who had been in charge of the church before leaving for a mission in Taiwan. About 50 people, mostly older parishioners, were attending the banquet in his honor. Among these was a stranger who did not look familiar to any of the worshipers. He hadn’t been there for the 10.30am Mass, but now he was trying to mix and mingle with the churchgoers. He was a wolf among the sheep. David Chou, 68, pulled out two semiautomatic weapons and began shooting.

“Dr. Cheng, knowing that the room was full of elderly people, crossed the room to try to disarm the shooter,” explained Todd Spitzer, the district attorney for Orange County, where Laguna Woods is located, on Monday. After the first shot was fired, Cheng, a sports medicine doctor who was not a regular member of the congregation but had taken his mother to the special event, tackled the gunman and was shot. The shooter’s pistol jammed as he tried to finish him off. Cheng, one of the youngest people in the room, died shortly from his injury, but his gesture was enough to buy time for other members of the congregation to subdue the attacker. The pastor hit him on the head with a chair and a group of people hogtied him with extension cords. Police officers arrived on the scene minutes later.

“[Cheng] sacrificed himself so that others might live. That irony, in a church, is not lost on me,” added Spitzer, who toured the crime scene on Sunday night to prepare the indictment against Chou, who faces one count of murder and five more counts of attempted murder, in addition to unlawful possession of explosives. The room, as Spitzer described it, was decorated with phrases from the New Testament about how we should treat others. Walkers and canes had been left behind, abandoned by the congregants in their panicked flight. The five injured individuals, who are being treated at local hospitals, range in age from 66 to 92, according to authorities. Among these is a married couple in their 80s.

An image of David Chou, the assailant of Laguna Woods, in a photo provided by the Orange County sheriff.
An image of David Chou, the assailant of Laguna Woods, in a photo provided by the Orange County sheriff.AFP

It was hate that allegedly motivated Chou to carry out the crime. The man, a security guard based in Las Vegas, drove four and a half hours from the Nevada city to this peaceful community full of retirement homes in California. His goal was to do as much damage as possible. Police recovered two bags from the church. One was loaded with ammunition for the semiautomatic weapons, and the other had four Molotov-type bombs. Chou chained the doors from the inside and glued the locks to render them useless and thus prevent the elderly from leaving the premises. Only one revolving door was working when the police arrived.

“This was a politically motivated hate incident, a grievance that this individual had between himself and the Taiwanese community,” said Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes at a news conference. “It is believed the suspect was upset about political tensions between China and Taiwan.” Among the evidence that has been recovered is Chou’s cellphone, which the FBI is analyzing, and notes found in the assailant’s vehicle. These reveal the political positions of the attacker, who was born in China but emigrated “several years ago” to the United States, where he acquired citizenship.

The sheriff said it is believed that Chou, who lived in Taiwan at one point, was not “well received” there and that this may have developed his hatred of the community. Federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives stated on Monday that the security guard had legally bought the two semiautomatic weapons used in the shooting, one in 2015 and the second in 2017. Due to the nature of his work, it is believed that Chou had a permit to carry guns, valid exclusively in the state of Nevada.

Hate crimes against Asians in the United States have risen sharply in recent years in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. A report published at the beginning of 2022 by California State University in San Bernardino indicates that these types of attacks grew by 339% between 2020 and 2021. Racist incidents have grown by 11% nationally, with Asians the second most affected behind African-Americans.


More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS