LAGUNA WOODS, Calif. – A man opened fire at a church luncheon in Southern California, killing one person and injuring five elderly people before a pastor hit the shooter in the head with a chair and parishioners do not tie him up with electrical cords.
Jerry Chen had just walked into the church common room kitchen around 1:30 p.m. Sunday when he heard the gunshots.
Chen, 72, a longtime member of the Taiwan Presbyterian Church in Irvine, who worships at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, peeked around the corner and saw other scream, run and hide under tables.
“I knew someone was shooting,” he said. “I was very, very scared. I ran out the kitchen door to call 911.”
Officials said the shooting ended after the gunman killed a man and injured five elderly people before worshipers tied his legs with an electric cord until deputies arrived. Four of the five people injured suffered serious gunshot wounds; their terms were not immediately available Monday morning.
David Chou, 68, of Las Vegas, was convicted of one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department tweeted. Jail records show Chou is being held on $1 million bail. It is not immediately clear whether he has an attorney who can speak on his behalf.
The church was cordoned off on Monday with yellow tape and several bouquets of flowers were left outside the church grounds.
But on Sunday afternoon, Chen said he was in such shock he was unable to tell the operator where he was when he called 911 from the church parking lot.
“I had to ask someone else for the address,” he said.
Chen said a group of about 40 congregants gathered in the communion hall for lunch after a morning service to welcome their former pastor Billy Chang, a beloved and respected community member who had served. the church for 20 years. Chang returned to Taiwan two years ago. It was his first time returning to the United States, Chen said.
“Everyone had just finished having lunch,” he said. “They were taking pictures with Pastor Chang. I had just finished my lunch and went into the kitchen.”
It was then that he heard the shots and fled.
Soon after, Chen said he heard details of what happened inside from other people who came out. Companions from the congregation told Chen that when the shooter stopped to reload, Chang hit him in the head with a chair while others moved quickly to grab his gun. They then overpowered and tied him up, Chen said.
“It was amazing to see how brave (Chang) and the others were,” he said. “It’s so sad. I never thought something like this would happen in my church, in my community.”
Most church members are older, highly educated Taiwanese immigrants, Chen said.
“We are mostly retirees and the average age of our church is 80,” he said.
Orange County Deputy Sheriff Jeff Hallock praised the quick work of parishioners in stopping the shooter.
“This group of worshipers displayed exceptional heroism and bravery in intervening to arrest the suspect. They undoubtedly averted further injury and death,” Hallock said. “I think it’s safe to say that if people hadn’t intervened, it could have been a lot worse.”
The shooting came a day after an 18-year-old man shot and killed 10 people in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.
As news of the shooting broke on the heels of the racist rampage in Buffalo – where the white shooter allegedly targeted a supermarket in a predominantly black neighborhood – fears spread that the Taiwanese congregation had also been targeted by a hate crime.
But when the shooter was identified as an Asian man, further questions arose as the investigation into the violence and the shooter’s motive continues.
The case is in its early stages, Hallock said. He said the many unanswered questions include whether the attacker attended the church service, whether he was known to church members and how many shots were fired.
Laguna Woods was built as a senior citizens’ community and later became a town. More than 80% of residents in the city of 18,000 about 80 miles southeast of Los Angeles are at least 65 years old. The shooting took place in an area with a cluster of places of worship, including Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist churches and a Jewish synagogue.
Among the gunshot wounds are four Asian men, ages 66, 75, 82 and 92, and an 86-year-old Asian woman, the sheriff’s department said.
It was not immediately clear if all of the victims were of Taiwanese descent or if the shooter also had ties to Taiwan.
Taiwan’s democratically elected government has long taken a hands-off approach to religion on the island, where most follow Buddhism and traditional Chinese beliefs, but Christianity and other religions also thrive.
Taiwan’s Chief Representative to the United States, Bi-khim Hsiao, offered his condolences to the families on Twitter.
“I join the families of the victims and the grieving Taiwanese American communities and pray for the speedy recovery of the injured survivors,” Hsiao wrote on Sunday.
The deadliest US church shooting took place in 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A gunman opened fire during a Sunday service at First Baptist Church and killed more than two dozen people.
In 2015, Dylann Roof fired dozens of bullets during the closing prayer of a 2015 Bible study session at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine members of the black congregation were killed in the racist violence and Roof became the first person in the United States sentenced to death for a federal hate crime. His appeal remains before the Supreme Court.
Weber and Bharath reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press reporter Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles also contributed to this story.