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Parishioners stop gunman in deadly California church attack

Crime scene tape on Sunday at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, Calif., after a fatal shooting.
Damian Dovarganes
/
AP
Crime scene tape on Sunday at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, Calif., after a fatal shooting.

LAGUNA WOODS, Calif. — A man opened fire during a lunch reception at a Southern California church, killing one person and wounding five older people before a pastor hit the gunman on the head with a chair and parishioners hog-tied him with electrical cords.

Jerry Chen had just stepped into the kitchen of the church's fellowship hall around 1:30 p.m. Sunday when he heard the gunshots.

Chen, 72, a longtime member of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which worships at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, peeked around the corner and saw others screaming, running and ducking 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 one man and wounded five older people before worshippers hog-tied his legs with an electrical cord until deputies arrived. Four of the five people wounded suffered critical gunshot injuries; their conditions were not immediately available Monday morning.

David Chou, 68, of Las Vegas has been booked on 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's not immediately known whether he has a lawyer who can speak on his behalf.

The church was cordoned off Monday with yellow police tape and several bouquets of flowers were left outside the church grounds.

But on Sunday afternoon, Chen said he was in such a state of shock that he was unable to tell the operator his location when he called 911 from the church's parking lot.

"I had to ask someone else for the address," he said.

Chen said a group of about 40 congregants had gathered in the fellowship hall for a luncheon 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 moved back to Taiwan two years ago. This was his first time back stateside, Chen said.

"Everyone had just finished lunch," he said. "They were taking photos with Pastor Chang. I had just finished my lunch and went into the kitchen."

That was when he heard the gunshots and ran out.

Soon afterward, Chen said he heard the details of what happened inside from others who came out. Fellow congregants told Chen that when the gunman stopped to reload, Chang hit him on the head with a chair while others moved quickly to grab his gun. They then subdued him and tied him up, Chen said.

"It was amazing how brave (Chang) and the others were," he said. "This is just so sad. I never, ever thought something like this would happen in my church, in my community."

Most of the church's members are older, highly educated Taiwanese immigrants, Chen said.

"We're mostly retirees and the average age of our church is 80," he said.

Orange County Undersheriff Jeff Hallock praised the parishioners' quick work to detain the gunman.

"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. "I think it's safe to say that had people not intervened, it could have been much worse."

The shooting came a day after an 18-year-old man shot and killed 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.

As news of the shooting broke on the heels of the racist rampage in Buffalo — where the white gunman allegedly targeted a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood — fear spread that the Taiwanese congregation had also been targets of a hate crime.

But when the shooter was identified as an Asian man, other questions arose as the investigation into the violence and the gunman's motive continues.

The case is in its early stages, Hallock said. He said the many unanswered questions include whether the assailant attended the church service, if he was known to church members and how many shots were fired.

Laguna Woods was built as a senior living community and later became a city. More than 80% of residents in the city of 18,000 people about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles are at least 65. The shooting was in an area with a cluster of houses of worship, including Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist churches and a Jewish synagogue.

Those wounded by gunshots included 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 whether all of the victims were of Taiwanese descent, or if the gunman also has 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 where Christianity and other religions also thrive.

Taiwan's chief representative in the U.S., Bi-khim Hsiao, offered condolences to the families on Twitter.

"I join the families of the victims and Taiwanese American communities in grief and pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded survivors," Hsiao wrote on Sunday.

The deadliest shooting inside a U.S. church was 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 Charleston's Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina. Nine members of the Black congregation were killed in the racist violence and Roof became the first person in the U.S. sentenced to death for a federal hate crime. His appeal remains before the Supreme Court.

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Weber and Bharath reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press journalist Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles also contributed to this story.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press