The place revealed the terror and chaos that had been experienced on Sunday afternoon in Laguna Woods. In the event hall of the Geneva Presbyterian Church, 80 kilometers south of Los Angeles, there were a dozen tables decorated with long tablecloths. In these were red plastic cups. On the floor, plates and leftover food, such as popcorn. The large space, decorated with a huge black curtain and biblical phrases, was the scene of the clash of good and evil. A fight of a group of parishioners of Taiwanese origin against David Chou, a 68-year-old subject of Asian origin who had planned the penultimate racist massacre in the United States. One man was there to stop it, John Cheng, a 52-year-old doctor who charged the attacker and prevented further bleeding. That heroically charged gesture was the last action of his life. Dr. Cheng has so far been the only victim of the latest incident 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 Monday.
The congregation was gathered Sunday afternoon to welcome Billy Chang, a beloved pastor who had been in charge of the church before leaving for a mission in Taiwan. About fifty people, mostly elderly, attended the banquet in his honor. Among these was a stranger. A face that did not sound familiar to any of the believers. He hadn’t been there for the 10:30 mass, but he was trying to mix and mingle with the churchgoers. He was a wolf among the sheep. The subject, David Chou, 68, pulled out two nine-millimeter weapons and began shooting at worshipers.
“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, the family doctor, a resident of Laguna Niguel who had taken his mother to mass, charged Chou. In this attempt he was shot. The shooter’s pistol jammed as he tried to finish him off. Cheng, one of the youngest among those present, died shortly after as a result of the gunshot wound, but his gesture was enough to buy time for the congregation to break the assailant. The pastor hit him on the head with a chair and a group of people tied his extremities with an extension of cable. Police arrived minutes after the struggle.
“The doctor sacrificed himself so that others might live. That irony, in a church, cannot go unnoticed by me”, added Spietzer, who toured the crime scene on Sunday night to prepare the indictment against Cheng, who faces one charge of murder and five others for attempted murder, in addition to others for possession of explosives. The room, he has described, is decorated with legends from the New Testament about how we should treat our neighbor and how we should love each other. Walkers and canes were left behind, abandoned by attendees in a panicked flight. The age of the five injured has not been specified, but they range from 66 to 92 years. Among these is a married couple in their 80s. Patients continue to be treated at local hospitals. His health condition is stable.
It was hate that 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 on Saturday to this peaceful community full of retirement homes and retirees over 65. His goal was to do as much damage as possible. Police recovered two bags from the church. One was loaded with ammunition for the pistols. 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 site. Only one revolving door was working when the police arrived.
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“This was an isolated incident where the subject acted alone, but it is an act of hate against the Taiwanese community,” Sheriff Barnes said Monday. “The suspect was upset about the political tensions between China and Taiwan,” he said. Among the evidence that has been recovered and is being studied by the authorities is Chou’s mobile phone, which the FBI is analyzing, and notes found in the assailant’s vehicle. Barnes has said that this is not a manifesto. These reveal the political positions of the attacker, who was born in China, but emigrated “several years ago” to the United States, a country that has given him citizenship.
The sheriff has reported that it is believed that Chou, who lived in Taiwan, was not “well received” there and that this may have developed his hatred of the community. Federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Weapons have assured this Monday that the guard legally bought the two semi-automatic pistols used in the shooting. The first in 2015 and the second in 2017. Due to the nature of his work, it is believed that Chou had a carrying permit, 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, prepared by the California State University in San Bernardino, indicates that these types of attacks grew by 339% between 2020 and 2021. Asians are the second most affected, behind African-Americans, in a context where racist incidents have grown by 11% nationally. The cities where this discrimination is most recorded are New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, which last year registered the historical maximum of these episodes.
Sunday’s incident has momentarily ended the tranquility of this oasis halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Bonnie, 67, was taking pictures of her this morning with her mobile phone at the intersection of Sonora and El Toro streets, where the church is. “This has been a great change for our boring community”, she assured her in front of the swarm of journalists that she was waiting for the latest news on the case. Bonnie, a white neighbor, says she has several friends who come to this temple, where important congregations of Taiwanese and Korean origin meet. “Although one life has been lost, I think this is good news. Everyone who was in there is a hero to me,” she adds.
Dr. Cheng’s two sons were not at the temple to witness the heroic act. “Literally, there was a fight of good against evil,” said Sheriff Barnes. This Monday afternoon, an old neighbor of the doctor left a flower arrangement outside her office. “He was a very thoughtful and kind man,” Deborah Piper said through tears. “He is very sad, but he does not surprise me what he did. He always gave a lot to the community. At the end of the day, he was in the business of saving lives,” the 64-year-old added.
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