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Physician John Cheng killed, 5 others wounded in shooting at Laguna Woods church; suspect in custody

Investigation into deadly church shooting in Laguna Woods
Investigation into deadly church shooting in Laguna Woods 03:14

One man was killed and five others wounded when a gunman opened fire in a church in Laguna Woods Sunday afternoon. 

The shooting occurred at Geneva Presbyterian Church, located in the 24000 block of El Toro Road, at around 1:25 p.m.

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David Wenwei Chou Orange County Sheriff's Department

By the time Orange County Sheriff's deputies arrived on scene, the suspect, later identified as 68-year-old David Chou of Las Vegas, was hogtied by an extension cord by churchgoers. The churchgoers had also confiscated at least two weapons, the sheriff's department said. 

The shooting was a "politically-motivated hate incident," Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes revealed Monday. 

"We do know that based on information we've collected, and I'm not going to go into the details of that evidence, was a politically-motivated hate incident. A grievance that this individual had between himself and the Taiwanese community at large," Barnes said. 

Barnes also said the suspect placed four incendiary devices inside the church, similar to Molotov cocktails. Investigators also found bags that Chou brought to the church containing additional ammunition.

"The individual involved was able to secure the doors within the church with chains and tried to disable locks within the church with super glue," Barnes continued.

Between 30 and 40 members of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which holds a 10 a.m. service at the location every Sunday, were inside of the church at the time of the shooting. Orange County Undersheriff Jeff Hallock disclosed that the shooting occurred at a lunch banquet following a morning service at the church.   

Laguna Woods church shooting
An Orange County Sheriff's deputy with a bomb-sniffing dog checks the exterior of the church on May 15, 2022.  (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

"We believe a group of churchgoers detained him and hogtied his legs with an extension cord and confiscated at least two weapons from him," Hallock said. "He was detained when deputies arrived. That group of churchgoers displayed what we believe is exceptional heroism and bravery in intervening to stop the suspect. They undoubtedly prevented additional injuries and fatalities."  

Hallock said a large number of the people gathered at the church were believed to be of Taiwanese descent.     

One shooting victim died at the scene. He was identified Monday as 52-year-old John Cheng, a physician with South Bay Medical Group in Aliso Viejo. Cheng leaves behind a wife and two children.  

"Dr. Cheng is a hero in this incident," Barnes said, adding that the doctor's actions bought time for other parishioners to subdue the suspect and eventually hogtie him.

"Without the actions of Dr. Cheng, there is no doubt there would be additional victims in this crime," Barnes said.

Aliso Niguel High School released a statement Monday saying, "Doctor Cheng served as our volunteer team physician for our football program as well as providing physical clearances for hundreds of our student-athletes each year, where he would donate half of the money back to our athletic programs. Dr. Cheng was a great man, a proud father, husband and always genuine. He always had a smile on his face. Hearing the news of his death is devastating as he just performed our annual athletic physicals last week. He is gone too soon and we will miss him dearly.

Other colleagues of Cheng's remembered him fondly. 

"The person that was there, was there to kill everybody, and there was no way that Dr. Cheng would allow that to happen," said Johnna Gherardini, the Executive Director of South Coast Medical Group, Cheng's practice.

"He was a hero here at SCMG," said Amy Downling, a patient of his. "And he's a hero in real life."

The five wounded victims, four men and a women ranging in age from 66 to 92, were rushed to local hospitals, four in critical condition and one with minor injuries. None of their names have been released.

Two of the victims were transported to Orange County Global Medical Center, two to Providence Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo and one was taken to University of California, Irvine Medical Center in Orange. 

Laguna Woods is a community comprised primarily of senior citizens, with 82% of residents reportedly over the age of 65, according to numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.

It was unclear if the suspect was attending the service prior to the start of the shooting. He was booked on one count of suspicion of murder and five counts of suspicion of attempted murder, the sheriff's department reported Monday. 

"I do predict that he was there to kill everybody in that room," said Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer.

Laguna Woods church shooting
Investigators gather outside the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, Calif., on May 15, 2022. Paul Bersebach/Orange County Register/Getty Images

Footage from Sky9 showed authorities taping off a single vehicle with Nevada license plates in the parking lot of the church.

Stephen Galloway, assistant special agent in charge for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, noted that both firearms contained serial numbers and were not considered "ghost guns."

The ATF was conducting an "emergency trace on the recovered firearms," Galloway said. 

Kristi Johnson, assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles branch of the FBI, said that investigators were working "very hard to determine the motive." 

She added that linguists were brought in to work with the congregates throughout the investigation. 

Bomb-sniffing K9s swept the church premises and found no explosive devices. 

El Toro Road was shut down between Calle Sonora and Canyon Wren for several hours, but has since reopened. 

As community members began to gather late Sunday evening to pay their respects to the victims of the tragic incident, local law enforcement and politicians offered additional support to residents, including mental health resources.

"Today is a very dark day for the people of Laguna Woods and Orange County," Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said. "Our thoughts and prayers go to all those affected by this senseless tragedy - just a day after the tragic and hate-filled actions that led to the senseless deaths of Americans at the Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo, New York. We too are now dealing with people shot in their place of worship."

"To the church congregants impacted by the violence that took place here today: We are here for you, and we will seek justice for you," Bartlett added. "To the perpetrator of such heinous acts, our county will work to ensure justice for the victims."

Laguna Woods Mayor Carol Moore thanked the "impressive" members of the church who "were wise enough to take action and endanger themselves to save others."

California Governor Gavin Newsom took to Twitter following the shooting. 

"We are actively monitoring the shooting at a church in Laguna Woods and working closely with local law enforcement," Newsom wrote. "No one should have to fear going to their place of worship. Our thoughts are with the victims, community, and all those impacted by this tragic event."

U.S. Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) also released a statement which read:

"A shooting at a church in Laguna Woods has left multiple people injured and one deceased. This is upsetting and disturbing news, especially less than a day after a mass shooting in Buffalo. This should not be our new normal. I will work hard to support the victims and their families."

A "Call to Prayer" statement was issued by Presbytery Co-Executive for Vision Tom Cramer: 

"The Presbytery of Los Ranchos is deeply saddened by a fatal shooting that occurred at a lunch reception honoring a former pastor of the Taiwanese congregation that nests at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods. Initial reports indicate that one person was killed, and several others were severely injured. Please keep the leadership of the Taiwanese congregation and Geneva in your prayers as they care for the those traumatized by this shooting. In your mercy, O Lord, we pray."

State Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine) also released a statement Sunday evening via a Twitter thread

"I'd like to extend my thoughts and prayers to the victims, their families, and the entire City of Laguna Woods. Home to a close-knit community mostly of retirees, it is almost unthinkable that one of the safest places in the country would be hit by the specter of gun violence," he said in part. "We should refuse to accept these tragedies as the new normal in our schools, our houses of worship, or anywhere."

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who commented on gun control following a fatal shooting at Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, released another statement Sunday:

"It is horrifying to be grieving yet another tragic shooting in just 72 hours -- another weekend in America defined by senseless violence," Schiff wrote. "I will never accept this bloodshed as unavoidable. It can be stopped. But as we've seen over the past few days, months and years, unless we take immediate action on gun safety measures, history will repeat itself. Again and again. Enough is enough. We must act."

Christ Our Redeemer Church in Irvine was scheduled to hold a prayer vigil at 5:50 p.m. Monday for the victims of the mass shootings in Buffalo and Laguna Woods. 

Sheriff Don Barnes, Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan, Rabbi Peter Levi of the Anti-Defamation League of Orange County-Long Beach and other religious leaders were expected to participate. 

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